“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” – Lewis B. Smedes
I think just about every person I’ve ever known has struggled with this at least once in their lives: forgiveness. Though very good for the soul, it does not come easily to many. Even the most forgiving people can encounter that person or incident that they just can’t forgive or forget, even if they want to.
Forgiveness begins with a choice, but the rest is a gradual process. It does not mean you forget, excuse, or minimize the harm and hurt that has occurred. It does not mean you have to seek justice and make amends. It’s an internal process that is completely up to you, regardless if the person who has wronged you has apologized or not. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky defines forgiveness as “a shift in thinking toward someone who has wronged you, such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good (or to benefit your relationship) has increased.” Forgiveness researcher Frederic Luskin adds, “Forgiveness means remembering [the wrong] more benignly, with compassion. It involves some purpose of moving ahead, rather than just being stuck in the past.”
There are many health and psychological benefits to being able to forgive and let go, such as lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and a decline in depression, anxiety, and anger. Angela Haupt says, “People who forgive tend to have better relationships, feel happier and more optimistic, and overall, enjoy better psychological well-being.” A study even found how much holding on to grudges can literally weigh you down. Researchers asked people to write about a time they either gave forgiveness or withheld it. Then they were asked to jump as high as they could. The study found that, “Those who had been thinking about a time when they’d forgiven jumped highest, about 11.8 inches on average; those who had written about their grudges, on the other hand, jumped 8.5 inches.”
There are two types of forgiveness: decisional, which is mostly external, and emotional, which is internal. When you decide to forgive someone, you change the way you behave toward that person, but may still feel negatively toward them. With emotional forgiveness, “resentment [gives] way to positive emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion, and even love.” Forgiveness can happen naturally, but other times, it requires a decision to forgive, which can lead to emotional forgiveness.
I think many of us understand how important it is to forgive, but the actual practice of it is difficult. There are religions and cultures who include forgiveness and atonement in their daily lives, or have holidays for it once a year. But for those who don’t know how to reach forgiveness, Clinical Psychologist Ryan Howes gives a four step process: A) Express your emotions, B) Understand why, C) Rebuild safety, 4) Let go. He explains that A, B, and C can happen in any order, and they are how you process the injustice: “It's how I feel, how I understand what happened, how I know it won't happen again.” but number 4 is the last step and requires a decision to let go.
A) Express the emotion – “Whatever the crime or injustice or violation, the forgiver needs to fully express how it made her feel. If the transgression elicits anger or sadness or hurt, those feelings need to be deeply felt and expressed.” It’s not necessary to express your feelings to the person who hurt you, but it can be incredibly helpful.
B) Understand why – “Our brain will continue to search for some explanation until it's satisfied. Maybe we won't agree with the rationale, but we need some schema that explains why the act took place. In some situations, even an acceptance of randomness can be a sufficient paradigm.”
C) Rebuild safety – “The forgiver needs to feel a reasonable amount of assurance the act won't recur. Whether it comes in the form of a sincere apology from the perpetrator, a stronger defense against future attacks or removal from that person's influence, safety needs to be re-acquired.”
4) Let go – “Letting go is making a promise to not hold a grudge… It's resolving to refrain from lording the transgression over the other in the future. When it comes to forgiveness, the victim holds all the power… Letting go means surrendering this dominant role; a stepping down from the powerful position of victim to allow equality again. In addition, letting go is making a promise to yourself that you'll stop dwelling/replaying/ruminating/perseverating on the injustice.”
I think the most important part of letting go is to stop seeing yourself as the victim. When you believe you are a victim, there is a certain power you hold over the other person. You believe you can make them feel bad for what they have done to you. You have control over their guilt, and possibly how they see themselves. But when you relinquish that power, you are freeing both of you. You are no longer a victim and they are no longer victimizers. You are just both people, equal in the ways you have done good and bad to each other.
Don't forget the past, but rather learn to see it differently. Learn to be more compassionate and understanding so that you can be more forgiving. You don't need to be a victim, either feeling powerless or powerful. You don't need to be trapped by feelings of anger, resentment, pain, injustice, or grief. You can be free by freeing another.
p.s. I found Melissa Dahl's article, “17 Things We Know About Forgiveness,” very interesting and wanted to include a few extra facts. Cats are the only animals observed that don’t show any behavior of forgiveness after a quarrel (primates are known to kiss and hug to make up, and goats and hyenas behave similarly). The Amish are very forgiving because they practice forgiveness exercises with their families from a young age. Extroverts seek out forgiveness more often and give it easier. Introverts are at first more concerned with forgiving themselves, and then seek to make amends with others. Religious people are more forgiving than nonreligious people. But people who classify themselves as “spiritual” practice self-forgiveness more than those who say they are “religious.” The younger a child is, the easier they forgive, with or without an apology. Kids learn to apologize as young as 2 or 3. The most common unforgiven offense is betrayal, which includes affairs, deceit, broken promises, and broken secrets. Researchers believe that no offense is unforgivable, because there will always be someone willing to forgive the person who has done wrong.