Unfortunately, many of us have been deeply hurt by others. Perhaps your spouse or partner has betrayed you, a good friend has hurt you, or someone has caused a tragedy in your life. When someone hurts us or causes us great pain, it’s normal and understandable to be angry at that person, and to want justice – or even revenge. But at some level, we know that nursing our resentment, pain and anger eats away at us, but we remain stuck – unable to move on from all the past hurt and wrongs. You may have heard or read that it’s helpful to “forgive” the person who hurt you. But how are we supposed to do that, when what they did was so horrible and wrong – and the last thing we feel like doing is forgiving them? A lot has been written about forgiveness – and the importance of it for our own mental emotional and spiritual health – but it might be helpful to quickly clarify what forgiveness is and isn’t. Let’s start with what it isn’t: What forgiveness isn’t:
- Forgiveness is NOT forgetting what happened to you: You are not imagining that something very destructive was done to you, and/or you were deeply betrayed. Some hurts are so deep and damaging that it would be naïve to think that you will ever forget what happened to you. It would be hard, for example, for people to forget the experience of being in a concentration camp. However, forgiveness is still possible, and in many cases, it is important not to forget what happened, so it does not happen to you or others again.
- Forgiveness is NOT condoning what happened to you, or downplaying it: Again, if you had a partner cheat on you, or someone sexually assaulted you, forgiving them does not mean you have to condone, downplay (or even accept) cheating or sexual assault. Once again, it may be important not to downplay or condone what happened, to ensure it does not happen again. You aren’t imaging or exaggerating things: what happened to you was destructive and painful.
- Forgiveness is NOT dependent on the person being alive or offering an apology: Forgiveness can still happen, even if the person who wronged you is no longer alive, or if they refuse (or are unable) to offer you an apology. In fact, forgiveness is completely possible – regardless of what the other person does or does not do – and the process is completely independent of the person who hurt you.
- Forgiveness does NOT mean you ever have to see the person again, like them, or otherwise ‘reconcile’ with them. Rather, you can still completely forgive a person, but still have nothing to do with them in the future.
So if we understand what forgiveness is not, what is forgiveness?
- Forgiveness is really the only way to let go of past pain, and have peace in your life. Without forgiveness, resentment and anger can take over your life, and without forgiveness, you are not only a victim in the past tense, but continue to be a victim in the present and future. Without forgiveness, the hurt and pain really has no end.
- Forgiveness is a process that takes time, and has common stages. While forgiving someone isn’t easy, and while we rarely forgive someone overnight, forgiveness is entirely possible, and tends to occur in common patterns and stages.
- Forgiveness is a conscious decision to accept responsibility for our emotional reactions towards someone who has hurt us. Forgiveness is a choice we make; it is a deliberate decision to start healing and to move on with our lives, rather than remaining stuck in thoughts of revenge, hate, bitterness, resentment, anger and pain.
- Forgiveness is easiest when we have help and support, and don’t have to heal alone. While it is possible to forgive and heal on our own, it is far less difficult if we have the love, support, guidance and encouragement of others.
- Forgiveness is a process that makes us better and more spiritual persons. While forgiveness is difficult, and takes time, ultimately it not only frees us from past hurts and pain, but forgiveness allows us to become more compassionate and spiritual persons, who are better able to make meaning out of our own suffering and the suffering of others.
So how do we forgive? While forgiveness is different for everyone, Eileen Borris-Dunchunstang has written a very powerful and helpful book called “Finding Forgiveness,” that helps guide people through the process of forgiving those who have hurt us. The book is highly recommended, and helps us to understand what forgiveness is and isn’t, how to feel and work through common emotions like anger, guilt and pain, how to reframe situations through the eyes of compassion, and how to ultimately find peace on the other side of forgiveness. Here is a link for the book, in case you would like to read it: http://www.amazon.ca/Finding-Forgiveness-Program-Letting-Bitterness/dp/0071713751
When working through forgiveness, it can also be very helpful to find a skilled and compassionate counsellor/psychologist – who is familiar with the forgiveness process, and other related issues such as trauma, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and/or suicidal thoughts. This person can help support and encourage you, help you understand and navigate the process of forgiveness, assist you in working through the difficult and painful emotions involved in forgiving someone, and ultimately being able to choose peace over pain.
I hope this information is helpful, and I wish you courage and peace on your individual journeys of forgiveness.