By Dr. Jo Wolthusen, Psy.D.
“Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die” (Anonymous)
Enduring some degree of pain and adversity is part of the human experience. We have all experienced disappointment over dashed expectations or grieved some sort of loss. After all, no one said that life would be easy or fair. Things that happen are often out of our control; our company lay us off, our dog dies, our car breaks down in the middle of winter. But when someone we trust hurts or betrays us, the pain can feel that much more unbearable. We may get stuck in a place of hurt or anger, where the thought of forgiveness feels impossible.
Why Is Forgiveness So Hard?
Here are just a few possible reasons why forgiveness can seem impossible to achieve:
- We are consumed with thoughts of retribution or revenge
- We are unsure how to resolve the situation
- We feel a sense of strength through our anger
- We have grown accustom to the “victim role”
- The other person doesn’t deserve or even want our forgiveness
- We feel stuck in the pain and don’t know how to move past it
Forgiveness is about letting go of that which no longer serves us. Think of the Serenity Prayer-Identify what’s in my control, Acknowledge what’s not in my control and wisdom to know the difference. Whatever happened to us, however painful, is in the past. No matter how hurt or angry I am or how much energy I expend on ruminating over it, I won’t be able to change what has happened. But I do have this day forward. I can CHOOSE- choose to stay stuck in the past that no longer serves me, holding me a prisoner to the pain and anger. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross says that “holding on to grudges forces us to live in unhappiness. People who are reluctant to forgive need to remember they are not punishing anyone but themselves.” Or, I can choose to let go and move on- that’s wisdom! Freedom allows us to move from a victim stance to being more empowered.
Holding on to emotions like hate, anger or bitterness can also negatively impact not only our psychological but also our physical health, It can cause somatic symptoms like headaches or stomach distress, and can even lead to depression and anxiety over time. Harboring feelings of resentment, anger and hatred are like a cancer that festers within us, rendering us dis-empowered. Forgiveness ultimately frees your body and your mind.
Misconceptions of Forgiveness
People often misunderstand what forgiveness is or what it entails. Here are some common myths surrounding the process of forgiveness:
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean you are condoning the other person’s actions
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean you need to tell the other person that they are forgiven
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to have feelings about the situation
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what has happened
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to continue a relationship with the other person
- Forgiveness isn’t something you do for the other person
Forgiveness is a Process
Forgiveness is a choice. We don’t have to forgive anyone. If we decide to forgive, it’s done of our own volition and on our own timeline. It doesn’t have to be rushed into or done out of a feeling of obligation because we feel we “should” or “must” do it. Allow yourself to experience the full range of your emotions and really think about what has happened.
While it is important to wait to forgive until we are honestly ready to work on it, we shouldn’t wait forever either. There will never be a perfect time to start to forgive. We shouldn’t look for excuses to not forgive (see “Why is forgiveness so hard?”). Otherwise, as stated earlier, our emotional and physical health can eventually suffer. we begin to realize that in many ways we only punish ourselves, not the offender, by refusing to forgive. Remind yourself, it is you alone that is carrying the burden of anger and re-experiencing the pain again and again.
Forgiveness, then, is really an act of kindness to ourselves. It is acknowledging the hurt and allowing yourself to heal from the hurt.
Once you have acknowledged the hurt, experienced your pain and anger, and eventually made the decision to move forward, you now begin the process of forgiveness. The journey toward forgiveness is a unique experience for each of us. There is no one perfect formula that magically works for everyone. Like working through grief, there isn’t a prescribed timeline to know exactly when we will arrive at a place of acceptance and letting go. Also like the stages of grief, the act of forgiveness isn’t necessarily a linear process. We might get stuck in places. We may feel ambivalent at times, where we feel pulled between anger and healing. So once we make the decision to forgive, we need to be patient with ourselves and the process. Healing can take time and sometimes feel a little messy.
Steps to Forgiveness
While there’s no set formula to achieving forgiveness, here are some suggestions to help begin your journey:
- Acceptance- Accept that the incident happened. Accept your subsequent reaction and feelings. Acknowledge the reality of it and how it affected you.
- Move on to the next act- Whatever has hurt you in the past is no longer here in the present. Don’t allow them to be alive in the here and now in your mind, which only serves to negatively taint our present moments ( see Dr. Wayne Dyer’s “15 Steps”). Think of your life as a play with several acts. Some of the actors have only short roles to play, others much larger. Like all plays, there will be the heroes and there will be the villains. Good or bad, all of those roles are necessary in each of our “plays”. So embrace all of them, and move on to the next act.
- Don’t live in the past, be present- When we struggle to forgive, it is because we tend to assign more importance to the past instead of living in the present. Think of your family dog. He isn’t stuck on the fact that you came home late last night delaying his dinner, or that you bought him the wrong treats. Dogs, like animals in general, live in the here and now.
- Lessons learned- Acknowledge the lessons learned as a result of what happened. How did you grow as a person? What did you learn about yourself as a result? Remember that you survived and probably even grew from the experience.
- Acknowledge the dark times- life is a school where the bigger the adversity, the greater potential lesson for us to learn. It may be tough to acknowledge that we needed to go through the darkness in order to get exactly where we are today. You are here and you survived. Through those difficult times you have evolved. You were given the opportunity for growth enabling you to move to the next “classroom” in the school of life.
- Empathic Perspective- Turn your attention toward the other person. They are not perfect because that’s part of being human, just like you. It may be difficult, but try to look at the situation from their perspective. They were probably looking at things from a skewed or flawed perspective in an attempt to get their needs met. What do you think their need was? Why do you think they went about getting their needs met in such a hurtful manner?
- Write a letter- Decide if you want to tell the other person you forgive them in person. You can even write them a letter explaining your feelings. But it’s ok if you don’t ever send it or speak to them in person. It’s completely your choice.
- Completion- How will letting go change your life for the better? Outline positive changes you can anticipate happening. How do you see your circumstances differently now that you have gone through this process?
While this process can seem difficult and somewhat overwhelming, the potential reward is worth the effort. It is In forgiveness that we transcend the hurt to being more empowered and fully present in our lives.