Over the past few years, people have been making a lot of noise about forgiveness. The other day, I overheard a conversation between two women. One woman was complaining about not being invited to a mutual friend’s party. “I’m so mad” she said, as she clenched her fist, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive them.” So what exactly is forgiveness and what is it not?

Neil Farber
Source: Neil Farber

Forgiveness is…

1.  Forgiveness is a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of vengeance and resentment. Forgiveness is more about the forgiver than the forgivee. It is about you getting rid of negative, self-limiting feelings. Typically, forgiveness does not happen spontaneously; it is a conscious choice to forgive.

2.  Forgiveness is a process that takes time, effort and energy to achieve. Forgiveness is not easy and it is not fast. It does not happen in an instant. It is often a painstaking process, which is difficult because it is worth it.

3.  Forgiveness involves seeking peace, not justice. Forgiveness is irrespective of whether or not the person or group of people are deserving of your forgiveness. As forgiveness expert Robert Enright explains, forgiveness is separate and distinct from justice. The person or people who hurt you may never get punished or incur any consequences for their action. This fact should not prevent you from moving on with your life.

4.  Forgiveness is an empowering technique to recognize pain and begin the healing process. Forgiveness involves acknowledging that you have incurred pain and heartache and then moving beyond this to eliminate your suffering. Forgiveness is a necessary step along the path towards pain relief and healing.

5.  Forgiveness is a way to functionally cultivate empathy. Put yourself in the person’s shoes that hurt you. Try to feel, sense or imagine the remorse and distress felt by that person. This is often difficult as it might be hard to picture yourself performing a similar act. However, one you are able to imagine yourself in that position, you are more likely to feel empathy. Once you are empathetic, forgiveness is a much easier and more meaningful task.

6.  Forgiveness is an effective means of achieving peace of mind and happiness. Not harboring ill will and letting go of negative feelings leads to a refreshing peace of mind. It is true that happy people are more likely to forgive. It is also true that the act of forgiveness increases happiness.

7.  Forgiveness is stress reducing. Forgiveness improves health. Ruminating about grudges increases blood pressure, heart rate, and stress. Stress injures us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. When we forgive, our stress levels drop. Embodying the quality of forgiveness gives you an added protection against some of the negative health effects of stress, including boosting immunity and being more resistant to illnesses.

8.  Forgiveness is a way to connect. Forgiveness boosts connectedness and kindness. When you forgive, you feel more positive toward someone who hurt you. You are also more likely to want to help and be more altruistic in general. It is not just bad people who hurt us. At some point we will all be hurt or disappointed in some way by friends and family. Holding grudges makes you less likely to develop or maintain strong relationships. Forgiveness can help repair relationships, resolve conflicts and maintain stronger, more satisfying relationships, including marriage.

Graphicstock
Source: Graphicstock

Forgiveness is not…

1. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is impossible to wipe your memory clean and completely forget the negative things that have happened to you. You can forgive and not forget.

2. Forgiveness is not ignoring.    When you interpret someone’s actions as being detrimental to you, it is not reasonable or healthy to assume that you can ignore what happened. Looking the other way or turning the other cheek is great in theory, but in reality, this is impractical and nearly impossible. You can transiently pretend to ignore the offense and the hurt it caused, but trying to ignore feelings for a longer period of time, is impossible. These negative, ruminating emotions will slowly take their toll on you.

3. Forgiveness is not being naïve or denying. What happened, happened. Denying the past is difficult, dishonest, and unhealthy. Changing emotions is nearly impossible without first altering your thoughts. This is the basis for cognitive behavioral therapy. We must be honest about the reality of the offense and the hurt if we want the forgiveness to be equally earnest. To forgive, we need to acknowledge the occurrence and the hurt…and then move on. Forgiveness is a great step along the path to healing. To forgive doesn’t mean that you should deny pain, but rather feel the appropriate depth of pain and not let it run or ruin your life.

4. Forgiveness is not condoning, accepting, excusing, enabling, enforcing, or encouraging bad behavior. In forgiving, we are, in fact, saying the offender is wrong. We do not condone or approve of their action. Forgiveness does not imply that what they did to us was alright or that we are now okay with what happened. Implicit in the fact that we need to forgive, is that this thing is a big deal to us. If what they did was okay, we would not need to forgive them. We would be satisfied to simply go on our way and enjoy life because there would have been no wrongdoing. This is certainly not the case. There were words or actions which in some way caused you harm; your forgiveness does not erase that harm or encourage it to happen again. You accept the pain and hurt, but not the behavior.

5. Forgiveness is not waiting for someone to acknowledge their wrongdoing, repent or apologize. The fact is the person who wronged you doesn’t even have to feel badly about doing it. Yes, it would be nice and make it easier if they regretted their action, but what they think or feel has little to do with your act of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about the forgivee; it is irrespective of their state of mind. The act of forgiving is about creating a more harmonious and peaceful world for the forgiver.

6. Forgiveness is not neglecting justice. You may simultaneously forgive someone who has committed a crime and call the police to arrest him or her. Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. Forgiveness does not remove the offender from legal accountability.

7. Forgiveness is not reconciliation. You are forgiving someone who did you wrong. Reconciling takes two people. Reconciling cannot be achieved unless the victim forgives and the offender repents. While forgiveness is a necessary step on the road to reconciliation, forgiving someone does not mean that you are wanting or willing to reconcile. 

8. Forgiveness is not a two-way conversation. Forgiveness is one-sided. It’s all about you, the forgiver. It may offer additional benefits if you acknowledge forgiveness to the offender or identify it publicly. However, if the offender never knows anything about you forgiving them, you will still reap the rewards of improving your mental, emotional, and spiritual health. For example, someone speeds through a red light on cross traffic and causes you to jam on your breaks, spill your coffee all over your new car, and start shaking with the thought of almost getting into a high-speed accident. You have a choice: spend your time cursing and calling them names while your face is red and your blood pressure reaches the summit of Everest, or acknowledge what happened, try to empathize why someone would have gone through a red light, and forgive them — a healthy and happy response. The offender is already two miles away. They don’t care how you respond; it doesn’t affect their life in any way. How you respond only affects your life.

Resentment and vengeance hold you as a prisoner. Forgiveness is the key to opening the door and setting yourself free.     

A useful acronym for Forgiveness is Everett Worthington’s REACH:

Recall the hurt,

Empathize with the person who hurt you,

offer an Altruistic gift of forgiveness,

Commit to forgive (ideally publicly), and

Hold onto that forgiveness.

That’s all for now.

Be Well and Forgive often.

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Neil Farber

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