Lessons in Forgiveness

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | November 23, 2015

People often ask me: “Do I have to forgive in order to heal?” This is a very powerful question. Whether we have been wronged by a spouse who is unfaithful, a parent who let us down as a child, or a friend who betrayed our confidence, the question of whether and how to forgive often arises. Forgiveness is a very important concept on the path to healing. Often what holds us back from healing and moving forward with our lives is built-up resentments that have not been dealt with. The act of forgiveness can free us from the bonds of anger, guilt, frustration and sadness and allow ourselves the opportunity to truly heal.

We are all familiar with the expression, “forgive and forget.” A common misconception about forgiveness is that we must accept and condone the actions of others. In fact, this is not essential to forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you are pardoning or excusing the other person’s actions. It doesn’t mean that you should forget the incident ever happened or that you have to continue to include the person in your life. Rather, forgiveness comes from a place of understanding and compassion – not approval or agreement. Forgiveness is accepting the reality of what happened and finding a way to live in a state of resolution with it. This is a gradual process and it doesn’t necessarily have to include the person you are forgiving. Forgiveness isn’t something you do for the person who wronged you; it’s something you do for you.

Perhaps you are learning the importance of forgiveness or realizing that this is something that is missing in your life. You may be asking yourself, “Where do I begin?” Although there is no one “right” way to forgive, there are some principles that, if followed, will help you feel unburdened and closer to giving yourself permission to “move on.”

Principles of Forgiveness:

1. Assess your readiness to forgive. Sometimes we want to hold onto resentments. Maybe it makes us feel superior or we are more familiar in the “victim” role. In other cases, the adrenaline that anger provides is fueling us. The first question that needs to be answered before we forgive is: Do I want to forgive?

2. Identify and fully express your anger and pain. Find an environment where you can fully express the anger, hurt, frustration, hatred, resentment or whatever other emotions were produced by the actions of another.

3. Acknowledge the reality of what happened. In order to forgive, one must acknowledge the reality of what occurred – from all parties involved. Consider your role in the situation and how you reacted. If appropriate, incorporate a genuine apology by acknowledging your role in the hurtful situation.

4. Consider your growth. Chances are, growth may have occurred as a result of what you went through. You may have learned something about the other person, about yourself or about things in your life – like the importance of setting boundaries or being assertive.

5. Think about the other person. Just like you, the other person is human and thus flawed in one way or another. Perhaps they were operating with limited beliefs or knowledge, or had a skewed frame of reference because of personal issues or traumas that they have experienced. Ask yourself where the other person might be coming from. This will help you find some level of compassion and understanding behind  his or her actions.

6. Make a statement. A statement can be made either privately or publicly. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to tell the person that he or she is forgiven. Some ideas to make a statement may be to tell someone close to you that you have chosen to forgive, write a letter (whether or not you mail it or not) or find something symbolic like casting crumbs into the water or writing it in the sand and letting the waves wash it away.

Once you have forgiven, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing further to work out in the relationship or that everything is okay now. In fact, it is likely that you will still have difficult feelings about the situation and you can decide how much – if at all – you would like to continue to include the person in your life. However, forgiveness puts the final seal on what happened to hurt you. Even though you will still remember what happened, you will no longer be bound by it.

Some acts are so cruel and have inflicted so much pain that forgiveness seems impossible. In such cases, the most that we can ask of ourselves is to acknowledge what happened, express the hurt feelings that resulted and learn from the experience itself. After having done this, the next step is to make a conscious choice not to let those feelings hurt you anymore. Doing this in an effective way often requires the support and guidance of a therapist to help you navigate through the painful emotions of anger, hurt, frustration, hatred or resentment.

Having worked through the difficult emotions and learning what you can do differently next time, you will be better able to take care of yourself in the future. Forgiving the other person is a wonderful way to honor yourself. It affirms to you and to others that you deserve to be happy.

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