All of these thoughts and more can run through our minds and torment us after we’ve suffered an injustice by someone.
We are beset by anger, resentment, anxiety, despair, and thoughts of revenge. It can feel almost impossible to move beyond our pain and to even contemplate the possibility of forgiving our offender.
Yet, the alternative to forgiveness is not viable.
Continuing to stew about the hurt we’ve suffered can deplete us physically and emotionally, harm our current and future relationships, and interfere with our work.
The Greek root of the word forgiveness means “to set free,” as in freeing a slave. Imagine freeing yourself from the bonds of your vengeful thoughts, seething rage, debilitating depression, smoldering resentment, and frenzied anxiety. Forgiveness can enable you to do so. You hold the key to walking out of your own prison cell. But doing so is not easy, nor does it happen overnight.
So, let’s get clear on what forgiveness is and is not.
- A vital component of forgiveness is acknowledging that something unjust happened and should not happen again. Otherwise, there’s nothing to forgive. The horrible thing did occur.
- Usually we need to acknowledge our feelings such as anger and hurt – without judging ourselves for our emotions – before we’re ready to consider forgiveness.
- Making a decision to forgive can be helped by weighing the pros and cons of our current coping strategies. Have our methods been effective? If so, how? If not, how have they stood in our way? We may recognize that brooding about the event, feeling vengeful, broiling over in anger, abusing alcohol or other substances, or binge eating have interfered with our health, relationships, work performance, or destroyed our peace of mind, all of which just add to the pain from the offensive act. Upsetting though it may be to recognize how we’ve been compounding the problem, this may motivate us to pursue a new perspective, one that involves forgiveness and relieves us of the burdens of resentment and anger.
- We can make the choice to forgive even if we’re still feeling angry and hurt. In other words, we can make this choice even if we don’t feel like it. Often the mental intent to forgive comes before feelings of forgiveness. Our rational mind makes the decision before our heart can bear to do so. Compassion for our offender generally comes later.
- Forgiving an offense doesn’t mean that the act wasn’t significant, that we weren’t hurt, that we somehow deserved it, or that we think the offender didn’t mean to hurt us.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we’ll allow ourselves to be mistreated again. It wouldn’t be wise or safe to trust someone who doesn’t express remorse for his or her actions and who doesn’t change his or her behavior. We are not obligated to reconcile and reestablish a relationship with the person who hurt us.
- We can forgive someone and still hold them accountable for their actions.
- Forgiveness involves letting go of our right to resent our offender and developing a compassionate stance, whether or not our offender deserves empathy. This is not about the character or intentions of our offender, but about our wish and willingness to not let the experience damage our character.
- Forgiveness does not usually happen in one fell swoop. Instead, we tend to forgive in stages and incrementally. Do not expect a lightning bolt to hit you, in which you suddenly are freed of your pain and are enabled to act magnanimously toward your offender. Instead, the process is more akin to peeling off layers of an onion. Forgiveness exists on a continuum. Understanding this may make it easier for you to see your progress, reduce the chances of your berating yourself for not being further down the path of forgiveness, or being so discouraged that you give up on the process.
- Forgiveness does not imply that we “forget” the offense. We are not erasing what happened when we forgive. However, when we forgive, we do give up our obsessing about the injustice. Thoughts are bound to crop up from time to time, but once we’ve made the decision to forgive, we remind ourselves of this, and we let our obsessive thoughts go, as best we can. This takes practice and tends to get easier over time.
- Forgiveness still applies to situations where our offender doesn’t offer an apology or request forgiveness.
- It’s common to feel more negative about the world as a whole soon after the incident, but this needn’t be a permanent outlook. Often when we move through the steps of forgiveness, our view of the world will change in positive ways.
- It can help the forgiveness process if we try to think of our offender as a person with an identity that’s bigger than just the offense they committed against us. What might they have been feeling at the time? Possibly fear or desperation? Could they have some mental health challenges? Might they have experienced some childhood trauma? Again, this is not to excuse their behavior, but to try to see how their past and current circumstances may have led them to act in the way they did.
- Consider how at times you’ve behaved in ways that didn’t reflect your best self. You probably wouldn’t want to repeat these actions, but do you hang on to these memories and thereby cause yourself misery? Have you made amends where necessary and possible? If so, did you offer yourself forgiveness and the grace to move forward, unfettered by your past? Can you see how forgiving your offender could provide you a similar freedom? If the person you offended forgave you, how did that feel
- Remember that you are not alone as you try to forgive. Most, if not all people have faced situations in which they either forgive their perpetrator or suffer the pains of not doing so. You might check out support groups for people who’ve been through similar situations. Sometimes a spiritual or religious group, or strengthening your relationship to a Higher Power, can give you strength as well as examples of spiritual figures who were grievously and unjustly hurt and yet chose to forgive.
- It can be possible to find meaning in what you’ve suffered. Not to say that you were fated to have your experience as some sort of punishment. However, once you acknowledge that the injustice did occur, is there a way that your experience can help other people? Could you somehow support or advocate for others?
As the forgiveness process usually entails experiencing a lot of uncomfortable feelings before things begin to improve, make sure to develop a repertoire of healthy self-care activities.
This may mean replacing some habits that haven’t served you well (such as excessive alcohol intake, social isolation, sleeping too much, binge watching TV, and compulsive spending) with constructive and restorative activities. Examples include making (and keeping) plans with trusted friends, taking time to laugh and play, meditating, yoga, aerobic exercise, or reading uplifting literature. Ask yourself what you tend to look forward to (or used to look forward to, if you’ve fallen into despondency).
What activities bolster your spirits? What do you look forward to when you wake up in the morning? Try to include such activities in your life on a regular basis, both for your overall well-being and also to refocus your attention away from preoccupation from the past injustice you experienced and instead toward a positive present and future.