If you have read Part I and Part II in this series, you may be asking how you can begin working towards forgiveness. In this final post, we will look at how to forgive. The effectiveness of these ideas is supported by clinical research on a wide variety of populations, including men, women, seniors, college students, veterans, survivors of incest and abuse, and more.
It is also important to remember that forgiveness is a process. It starts with a decision, but it takes work over time to achieve. Often times, working through this process with someone else you trust is helpful. In fact, just talking about forgiveness seems to have a positive impact. You may talk about this with a family member or friend. A therapist can also be helpful for seeing different perspectives to help you through the process.
Here are some of the major characteristics that I talk about quite a bit in my own work.
Make a Decision to Forgive
Seems simple, right? This is actually one of the hardest steps. We often struggle with misunderstandings about forgiveness. Part I addresses these misconceptions. It is easy to see how they hinder our desire to forgive. Deciding to forgive also means having to know exactly what we are forgiving. This involves answering a few important questions, such as:
- What exactly is the offense?
- What did the other person’s actions mean to me?
- What thoughts and emotions does it continue to conjure up?
- How does it continue to impact me today?
- How have I been dealing with it to this point?
- How have those strategies been helpful or harmful?
Answering these questions helps us understand the impact of the other’s actions and the depth of our hurt. Forgiveness is a personal decision and process, it does not require that we talk to the offender about it. These types of conversations are beneficial for reconciliation, but not required to forgive.
Release the Desire for Revenge or Retribution
We often want to see others suffer for the suffering they have caused us. The problem is, we have little control over this. If someone’s actions are illegal, seeking legal means of justice can be important to healing and regaining a sense of safety and empowerment. But even in those cases, we are limited in our control over the outcome.
We have no control over one’s emotional or relational suffering. This can lead us to feel disappointed and frustrated, if we are binding our own sense of healing to this. What if that person doesn’t suffer enough for us? Are we then powerless to move forward in our own life?
In addition, as long as we are invested in seeing the offender suffer, we are emotionally tied to them. We can move forward in our life without being burdened by the hurt we continue to carry. Give yourself permission to carry on regardless of what the perpetrator experiences. Remember – forgiveness and reconciliation are different. If you have been hurt, you do not have to reconcile if it undercuts your emotional and physical safety.
Uncover Feelings of Empathy
As we are liberated from vengeful thinking, space is created for more positive feelings. This is an opportunity to create new perspectives that have been obscured by hurt, anger, and bitterness. Don’t get me wrong, for a time those feelings are important and necessary. Their presence are a sign of self-respect and a belief in our self-worth. They help us declare the offenses were wrong. However, when we hang on to those feelings too long, they can lead to some of the negative outcomes identified in Part II.
Looking at someone from other viewpoints helps to replace bitterness and anger with more personally beneficial emotions, such as compassion and empathy. Some questions may help you to develop some new perspectives:
- What was going on in their life at the time?
- Were they dealing with their own pain?
- What about their background might limit their coping skills?
- Were there any other limitations that may have influenced their actions?
Exploring these questions is not the same thing as excusing the offender’s actions. If we were wronged, the behavior will always be wrong. We do not have to agree with it. Answers to these questions are explanations, not exonerations. Exploring these issues also does not mean we are obligated to reconcile the relationship. You can see the offender as human and worthy of compassion, but not trustworthy of entering into a reconciled relationship.
Thinking differently about the offender leads us to think differently about the offense itself. We are able to see “silver linings” related to the transgression. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Jewish author and psychiatrist Victor Frankl described surviving the concentration camp in Auschwitz. His willingness to find meaning and purpose in the face of such unimaginable and inhumane treatment provided the hope needed to endure each day. We are all capable of this. Even in the face of challenging circumstances, how can you grow? How can you use the experience to help others?
Applying forgiveness is more likely when we acknowledge our own need for other’s forgiveness. Have you ever wronged someone intentionally or purposely? Did you hope for their forgiveness? Did you forgive yourself? What did that feel like? Our own shortcomings do not mean we are deserving of being hurt by others, but they are reminders that forgiveness is an act of undeserved, but selfless mercy. We might even recall how good it felt to feel forgiven.
In applying forgiveness, we may need reminders of our intentions. Even after working through some of the processes mentioned above, you may feel some strong negative emotions at times. Remind yourself of the steps you have taken to this point and why you are taking them. Remember, forgiveness is not about forgetting, it is about absorbing the negative emotions and making room for other ones. It helps us disconnect from the pain that keeps us connected to the past hurt.
For some, journaling about your desire and efforts to forgive can be helpful. Others may benefit from writing a personal letter to the offender about their forgiveness. This letter does not have to be sent, the impact is in the writing. Sharing your journey with others can also make it more enduring.
Forgiveness is a powerful experience. It is a gift we give to ourselves first in order to eliminate the costs of holding on to anger, bitterness, and feelings of retribution. Although we are not obligated to reconcile, it is a necessary precursor. It is also a difficult process. I encourage you to examine areas of unforgiveness in your life. Consider the benefits and the steps you can take. Talk to a friend. If necessary, find an experienced therapist to help you through the steps. I wish you much success and healing in your journey through forgiveness and celebrate the benefits that await.