“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you”
Lewes B Smedes
If you’ve been badly hurt by someone, the idea of forgiving them may seem utterly absurd. Why on earth would you want to forgive them after all they’ve done?
But before you dismiss the suggestion outright, stay open to the possibility that you might benefit from being willing to forgive.
If you’re reluctant to forgive, it may be because of a misunderstanding about what it means. This is hardly surprising because there’s a lot of misinformation about forgiveness in folklore and on the web.
So, let’s be clear about what’s involved.
What Forgiveness Isn’t
You’ve probably heard the expression forgive and forget, which is really one of the most unhelpful suggestions going. How can you possibly forget something terrible that has happened to you? In fact there are many situations where it would be very unwise to forget. If you’ve been subjected to physical, mental or verbal abuse, forgetting is definitely not in your best interests.
If you get caught up in this idea of forgive and forget, there can be a tendency to dumb down what happened. Perhaps even thinking it wasn’t that big a deal. But whatever happened to you happened, causing you hurt or anger, perhaps both.
Denying how you were affected is not going to help you come to terms with the incident or move on from it. As the Mayo Clinic notes, forgiveness doesn’t mean denying the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, nor does it minimize the wrong.
Psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky also points out that forgiveness is not condoning or excusing the hurtful act. If you choose to forgive someone that doesn’t infer that you’re giving in or excusing the wrongdoing.
Importantly, Lyubomirsky draws a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Simply because you choose to forgive someone doesn’t necessarily mean you have to continue or re-establish the relationship. Depending on what happened, it may not in your best interests to pick up where you left off before, particularly if you feel there’s a risk of being hurt or harmed again.
What’s more, forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, in fact it’s the complete opposite. It actually reflects great generosity of spirit. And a willingness to put the hurtful act behind you so that you can move on.
So What Is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is something you do for yourself not the other person.
First and foremost, it’s about letting go of grudges and resentments. It’s a refusal to keep using up valuable energy nursing old wounds and replaying past hurts over and over again in your mind.
Secondly, it’s about giving up any thoughts of revenge. It’s turning your back on any desire to inflict harm on the person who hurt you.
Why Should I Forgive Someone Who’s Hurt Me?
According to Psychology Today, many research studies have shown that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who don’t. They’re not so anxious, angry, hateful and hostile. They’re easier to be around and can empathize with others more readily.
One of the problems with ruminating over the hurt caused by someone else is that every time you go over the problem in your mind, your body gets a burst of stress hormones. So, the more you ruminate, the more stressed you become.
Another downside with constant rumination is that you get stuck emotionally and can’t move on in your life.
Psychotherapist Frank Luskin (Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project) notes that if you’ve been badly treated, and you don’t really get over it, you’re less trusting of others, more defensive and more quarrelsome.
Finally, Therese J Borchard cites several research studies where forgiveness has been found to enhance heart health and emotional wellbeing.
The great thing about forgiveness is that it can open the door to happiness and peace of mind rather than leaving you trapped in a life that is swamped by anger and resentment.
I’m reminded of the question: do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? In an ideal world, we’d probably answer both. But being realistic, is it worth hanging on to old grudges and resentments out of righteous indignation? What happened to you may have been awful. But is it worth spending much of your life consumed with hurt and anger, when you have the chance to find a happier alternative?
How to Forgive: A 5-Step Process
Remember, forgiveness is something you do for yourself, not anyone else.
The overriding aim is to release you from those agonizing thoughts and feelings and help you find peace of mind. It’s not about forgetting what happened, condoning it or denying the other person’s responsibility. Nor does it necessarily imply reconciliation.
The first step is to be absolutely clear about what happened, why it upset you and how it made you feel. It can often help to write down your thoughts and feelings in as much detail as possible.
The second step is to tell someone you trust about your experience and how it makes you feel, because this can help relieve all the pent-up emotion.
Recognize that once the incident has passed, it’s your thoughts and feelings that are causing you distress not the wrongdoing itself. So the third step is to stop replaying the same old record over and over again in your mind. And at the same time, let go of the associated anger or anxiety.
There’s no denying it, the third step can be a challenge. But you need to replace your negative thoughts with positive ones. So if you find yourself ruminating over a wrongdoing, say stop! Then switch your thoughts to something good in your life.
Next, if you find yourself getting very upset, concentrate on relieving the stress by taking a few slow, deep breaths. The advantage with this technique is that it can be used almost anywhere.
The final step is to try and empathize with the perpetrator. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about excusing the wrongdoing. It’s simply a case of trying to fathom out what prompted the action. The more you can understand what caused the other person to act in the way they did and why, as well as how they might have been feeling, the more likely you’ll be able to release those grudges and resentments trapped inside your mind.
And if you can let those resentments go, you can ease the torment.
In a Nutshell
These steps don’t necessarily have to be carried out in the order shown, although you do need to be clear at the start about what happened, why it upset you and how it made you feel. You may also find you have to re-visit these five steps several times in the coming weeks or months, because forgiveness is a process, not a quick fix.
But with a bit of persistence, you can gradually release all the hurt and anger until there comes a point when you realize you’re free from those old grievances. And when this happens, you experience more emotional wellbeing, greater self-esteem, happier relationships and even better health.