Forgiveness – what does it mean and how to forgive

The ability to forgive is a vital skill for your wellbeing. The greatest benefit of forgiveness accrues to the person doing the forgiving. This process of forgiveness is for you.

When we are unable to forgive, we constantly relive (rather than simply remember) the wrong that was done to us. Each time this happens the body goes into survival mode. In other words we suffer an acute stress reaction. The cumulative effect of this reaction can be very dangerous.  Studies carried out in Northern Ireland showed that those people who could not forgive and move on, were much more likely to suffer addiction, depression, anxiety and suicide, and were less able to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships. An inability to forgive will eventually poison all aspects of your life.

The hurt you experience occurs when someone behaves in a way that does not meet your expectation of how you believe they should have behaved. You make the mistake of taking it personally, which quite naturally makes you feel bad. You now make another mistake which is to blame the person for your feelings. In other words, you make them responsible for how you feel (often without them knowing). From this you develop a story in which your role is that of a victim. You ruminate on this story. This provokes the stress reaction, often accompanied by anger (about the horrible injustice done to you), humiliation and shame (perhaps because you were not strong enough to resist). The upshot is that you suffer mentally, physically and emotionally. The victim mindset is the most stressful mindset you can adopt.  It makes you feel powerless over your life. It makes you feel crazy.  Forgiving a past wrong is one of the healthiest things that you can do for yourself.

Forgiveness is one of the very best things you can do to reduce suffering. Let go and move on with your life.

Forgiveness has largely been the domain of religions for many years. However, forgiveness as we define it here, is not about being a good person or bad person; going to heaven or hell. There are no religious or mystical connotations.  Forgiveness in the context we use it here means to be able to recall, think about or talk about a situation in which harm was done to you, without experiencing renewed suffering.

Below is a brief four-step guide about how to forgive:

  1. Set your parameters −  Remember that this process is for you and no one else. You set the parameters. The first parameter is to be clear about exactly what it is you want to forgive. Be as specific as you can. The second parameter is to be clear what it means to you.  For example, you can forgive without ever seeing the person again. (This may be necessary if the person you want to forgive is dead). You may want to express your forgiveness to the other person so that you can continue with a relationship. It really is up to you. You decide the parameters. Forgiveness does not mean relieving a person of the consequences of their action. For example, I forgave someone for sexual abuse but also was available to appear as a witness in court in order that they were tried and punished under the law, mostly to protect others. Forgiveness does not mean you condone the other person’s behaviour.
  2. There are always two perspectives to a situation: personal and impersonal − Get the impersonal perspective of the situation. Clearly, there is a personal aspect to whatever happened to you. There is also an impersonal perspective. For example, throughout my childhood and adolescence I was placed in many different abusive situations: my own parents, staff at children´s homes, teachers and indifferent foster parents. (My experience is in no way unusual). Each of these people betrayed the trust put in them; they did really bad things to me and others, but in a sense it was not personal. They didn’t do these things to me because of who I was; it was because that is who they were. I just had the bad luck of being in that person’s circle of influence/control. If it wasn’t me it would have been someone else. It wasn’t personal to me. In a sense, it was quite impersonal. I am not denying the effects that it might have had on me as a person, but the cause was impersonal not personal. 
  3. Take responsibility for your feelings − The only person that could possibly have responsibility for your feelings is you. It would be crazy if it were any other way. We might not have power over some events in our lives, but we do have a choice about how we respond to those events. Taking full responsibility for your feelings is difficult and uncomfortable. After all, there is a certain false comfort in blame: “he/she/they made me feel like this”. How can we ever really find happiness if it is always the responsibility of another? We even feel that the person that did us harm “deserves” this feeling of anger that we carry. But that is like you drinking poison with the hope of killing someone else. It’s nonsense. My father was my principal abuser. For years I felt anger and hurt. I blamed him for how I felt. I felt that things would improve, that I would feel better when he died. He died but things didn’t improve and I didn’t feel better. I realised that unless I did something about this then things would never change; I would be stuck in this swamp of hurt and anger for the rest of my life. I realised that although I felt I was “right” in blaming him it was an utterly useless position. Whilst I made someone else responsible for my feelings,  I was powerless. The situation was even more hopeless as that person was dead. If I wanted to get out of this black hole then I had to take responsibility for how I felt. Rather than focus on right vs wrong, my focus changed to what works vs what doesn’t work. My happiness and wellbeing is more important to me than any other person. It is my responsibility. I still don’t have the control over my feelings that I would like, but by taking responsibility for them I do not generate unnecessary suffering.
  4. Change your story − We incorrectly think of our memories as a sort of accurate mental recording of past events.  Science has shown that memories have as much to do with imagination as recording. Also, that memories become re-written and distorted over time.  Our memories are really stories that we tell ourselves about our lives and the events in our lives. When we are unable to forgive, it is always connected to a story about how unfair, how cruel they were to you, how you were betrayed etc, with the other person cast as the bad guy and you cast as the often blameless victim. This story goes round and round in your head, making you feel angry, hurt and powerless time and again, repeatedly provoking the stress reaction and crushing the joy in your life. The irony of this is that the person who did you harm has probably forgotten all about it and is probably being horrible to some other unfortunate who finds themselves in his/her circle of influence. So change your story. You made up a story about being a victim which is both pointless and harmful. Now change it. Make yourself the hero of your story.  For example, my story which had me as a victim and kept the suffering alive changed. Now I am the hero of my story as, in spite of these dark beginnings, I have become strong. These experiences, as cruel and dark as they were, have been integrated, and made me wiser, more compassionate. These events in my life are no longer a source of suffering but rather, a source of strength. I truly feel blessed.

Putting it together (How to)

This process can feel uncomfortable so we need a way of working through any uncomfortable or strong feelings that may arise. As you work through this accept that you most probably will feel strong feelings arising.

Your attitude so far as you can, should be one of open curiosity, without judgement; without believing that you should feel or think differently. Your job is simply to notice. Show kindness to yourself. This is not easy. Treat yourself as you would treat a good friend with kindness, and if at all possible with a touch of humour.

Take a deep abdominal breath. Bring your attention first to your thoughts. Simply notice your thoughts; then notice your feelings. Now allow your attention to expand, scanning your body. If you notice a particularly strong feeling, bring your attention fully to the sensation and breathe into it, filling the sensation with your breath. Now exhale, imagine that as you breathe out you are breathing out the sensation.  You can repeat this several times until you feel stable once again.

The process

Setting the parameters: It is best to do this in writing. Make your commitment to the process, however difficult it might feel. “Whatever it takes I will see this through until the end”.  Remember that it is likely that you will not be successful at the first try. For example, I forgave my father three times before I really felt free.  It is important to write down in as much detail as possible exactly what you are forgiving what it means to you.

See the impersonal aspect:  The person behaved as they did not because of who you are but because of who they are. The person did not behave as you thought they ought to and you felt hurt. It is quite likely that the person that you want to forgive has already forgotten about it and whilst you have tortured yourself, reliving the hurt that person is quite probably off doing the same thing to someone else and will probably keep right on doing it. Anyway, no one has the obligation to conform to your expectations. For example, angry people can have a toxic effect on the people around them. I can think of no greater curse than “may you be angry forever”. Having suffered from chronic anger I know that anger is a living hell. My attitude to such a person is one of compassion. Arrogance is a way of masking fear and insecurity. When we look at people through the eyes of compassion we stop making it about us (personal) and see that the person’s behaviour is because of his/her internal world.  We are all the result of our circumstances; none of us lives in isolation. Be clear this is not making excuses for the person’s behaviour; irrespective of any personal history, we are all responsible for our behaviour.

Take responsibility for your feelings: Your happiness and wellbeing is more important to you than any other person. There are two important aspects to the feelings generated when we feel wronged. We make the mistake of blaming the other person for how we feel, which leaves us feeling anxious, angry and powerless.  Strangely we can also feel that they “deserve” these terrible feelings we have in our bodies: anger, a desire for vengeance, perhaps even hatred. This is like drinking poison yourself in the hope of killing the other person. Blaming is easier, but you condemn yourself to be a victim all of your life. You are the only person that can have responsibility for your feelings.

Now take the letter that you have written; burn it whilst saying “I forgive you”.  Use the breathing technique described above to ventilate any feelings that arise. If, during the day memories of your hurt intrude into your thoughts, say I forgive you and repeat the breathing practice; ventilate the feeling.

Change your story: The hurt you feel when you have a grievance − blaming the other, feeling angry, helpless are all the result of the attitude of a victim. Change you story and become the hero.  Not “look at what that a**hole did to me; he/she ruined my life, it was so unfair!” How about, instead: I had the bad fortune of finding myself in the power or influence of bad people; this hurt me; this was tough. For a while I thought I could never be happy.   However, I got up and I took responsibility for myself. I decided to live my life well. I have work. I love, I have a marvellous wife and family. I have an incredible range of experiences in my life. I have triumphed over adversity. It has made me a wiser more compassionate person. I have love connection and kindness in my life. I feel blessed.

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