Whether it's a spouse who was unfaithful, a parent who let you down as a child, or a friend who shared something told in confidence, we all must face the question of whether and how to forgive.
After you are wronged and the initial wave of emotion has passed, you're presented with a new challenge: Do you forgive the person? By forgiving, you let go of your grievances and judgments and allow yourself to heal. While this may sound good in theory, in practice forgiveness can sometimes feel impossible.
To learn how to forgive, you must first learn what forgiveness is not. Most of us hold at least some misconceptions about forgiveness. Here are some things that forgiving someone doesn't mean:
- Forgiveness doesn't mean you are pardoning or excusing the other person's actions.
- Forgiveness doesn't mean you need to tell the person that he or she is forgiven.
- Forgiveness doesn't mean you shouldn't have any more feelings about the situation.
- Forgiveness doesn't mean there is nothing further to work out in the relationship or that everything is okay now.
- Forgiveness doesn't mean you should forget the incident ever happened.
- Forgiveness doesn't mean you have to continue to include the person in your life.
- ... and forgiveness isn't something you do for the other person.
By forgiving, you are accepting the reality of what happened and finding a way to live in a state of resolution with it. This can be a gradual process—and it doesn't necessarily have to include the person you are forgiving. Forgiveness isn't something you do for the person who wronged you; it's something you do for you.
So if forgiveness is something you do for yourself and if it can help you heal, why is it so hard?
There are several reasons: You're filled with thoughts of retribution or revenge; you enjoy feeling superior; you don't know how to resolve the situation; you're addicted to the adrenaline that anger provides; you self-identify as a "victim"; or you're afraid that by forgiving you have to re-connect—or lose your connection—with the other person. These reasons not to forgive can be resolved by becoming more familiar with yourself, with your thoughts and feelings, and with your boundaries and needs.
Now that you know what forgiveness is not and why it's so hard to do, ask yourself: Do I want to forgive?
Forgiveness requires feeling willing to forgive. Sometimes you won't, because the hurt went too deep, or because the person was too abusive, or expressed no regret. Do not attempt to forgive someone before you have identified, fully felt, expressed, and released your anger and pain.
If you decide you are willing to forgive, find a good place and time to be alone with your thoughts. Then, try following these four steps to forgive even when it feels impossible:
- Think about the incident that angered you. Accept that it happened. Accept how you felt about it and how it made you react. In order to forgive, you need to acknowledge the reality of what occurred and how you were affected.
- Acknowledge the growth you experienced as a result of what happened. What did it make you learn about yourself, or about your needs and boundaries? Not only did you survive the incident, perhaps you grew from it.
- Now think about the other person. He or she is flawed because all human beings are flawed. He or she acted from limited beliefs and a skewed frame of reference because sometimes we all act from our limited beliefs and skewed frames of reference. When you were hurt, the other person was trying to have a need met. What do you think this need was and why did the person go about it in such a hurtful way?
- Finally, decide whether or not you want to tell the other person that you have forgiven him or her. If you decide not to express forgiveness directly, then do it on your own. Say the words, "I forgive you," aloud and then add as much explanation as you feel is merited.
Forgiveness puts the final seal on what happened that hurt you. You will still remember what happened, but you will no longer be bound by it. Having worked through the feelings and learned what you need to do to strengthen your boundaries or get your needs met, you are better able to take care of yourself in the future. Forgiving the other person is a wonderful way to honor yourself. It affirms to the universe that you deserve to be happy.