‘For years my partner has behaved in ways that damaged my trust. People talk about forgiveness, but I am still full of hurt and resentment. Since doing couples counselling, we are communicating better. But I haven’t forgiven him yet. How do I let go of the past and forgive?’
Start by asking yourself what happens when you don’t forgive. If it’s only good things, then don’t forgive! But, more likely, you are asking this because you want out of the mental suffering that non-forgiveness creates.
Non-forgiveness is the same as holding a grudge, and grudges are slow poison. As the saying goes: “Resentment is like drinking poison hoping the other person will die”. Forgiveness is always for yourself, not the other person. It liberates your energy, so you can focus on better things.
So, let’s be clear on what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness IS NOT:
- Saying or thinking that what the other person did is alright;
- Forgetting what the other person did; or,
- Acting toward the person as if they’d not done the thing they did.
- No longer replaying over and over what the person did;
- Letting go of any wish for revenge;
- According to the Greek meaning it means letting go; not of the memory, but of the energy you invest into thinking about it;
- Making peace with the fact that life did not go the way you expected or hoped; and,
- Letting your hopes for a better past die.
You may not yet be ready to forgive, and that’s okay. But if you think you are ready to forgive, then remember that forgiveness, like grief, is not a single event. Forgiveness happens in stages.
Forgiveness is the resolution of grief
At the most basic level, forgiveness is on a continuum with grief. When you feel deeply hurt or betrayed, the natural response is to feel sad and to grieve.
Grief helps us get to acceptance. Forgiveness is very similar to acceptance since it is about letting go of the wish that things were other than how they are.
You cannot go back and rewrite history. It is what it is. So let yourself feel sad about it. Cry, sob, talk, journal, draw, play music, meditate, sleep. Then make a decision to accept the reality; not because “life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it” but because acceptance leaves you willing to give the next moment a chance.
Nine parts to forgiveness
Here are nine steps to forgiveness which which I came across in a zine called ‘The Greater Good Magazine: Science Based Insights for a Meaningful Life’ (Fred Luskin, 2010):
- Work out how you feel about what happened so you can articulate what is not OK by you. Talk to a trusted person or counsellor about your experience to get clear about your feelings.
- Make a commitment to yourself to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and no one else.
- Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling, and it certainly does not mean condoning their actions. You simply stop seeking peace and understanding through blaming, and you seek the peace of true and full acceptance.
- Get the right view on what’s happening now: Recognise that your primary distress right now is coming from angry or anguished thoughts that you are perpetuating, and not from what hurt you originally.
- The moment you feel upset, practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight / flight response.
- Give up expecting from your life or from the other person what they cannot give you.
- Put your energy into looking for ways to meet your needs and align your actions with your values.
- Remember that a life well lived is your ‘best revenge’. Be the bigger person.
- Amend the way you look at your past so you remind yourself that it’s your choice to forgive.
Forgiveness and your mental health
In the end, forgiveness is not saintly. It’s sanity! It is like taking out the garbage. You will be free of it when it’s done. And in your freedom, you will lose the victim identity (a common marker of anxiety and depression). In your freedom, you will gain a stronger sense of choice, greater clarity about your options, and more power in your world.
Doesn’t that sound good?