I wonder what you think about the concept of ‘forgiveness’? The reason I ask is because I talk quite a lot about forgiveness in my work as a counsellor and I find that how I see forgiveness is often quite different from my clients.
For some it means letting someone off the hook, for another it might feel like you’re having to minimise and dismiss what the other person has done as unimportant, for another it might seem like an unpleasant choice of having to try and put an offence behind you in order to remain in some form of relationship with the offender. Whereas for another it may mean a recognition that we’re all human and therefore all make mistakes, so forgiveness is something we all need from time to time.
So, for the purpose of clarity, I thought I’d share an excerpt from a book that I’ve found helpful on this subject (and one I’d highly recommend as a good read) ‘Forgive For Good’ by Dr Fred Luskin:
What is Forgiveness?
- Forgiveness is the peace you learn to feel when you allow these circling planes to land [thoughts of resentment settling and stop racing around your mind].
- Forgiveness is for you and not the offender.
- Forgiveness is taking back your power.
- Forgiveness is taking responsibility for how you feel.
- Forgiveness is about your healing and not about the people who hurt you.
- Forgiveness is a trainable skill just like learning to throw a baseball.
- Forgiveness helps you get control over your feelings.
- Forgiveness can improve your mental and physical health.
- Forgiveness is becoming a hero instead of a victim.
- Forgiveness is a choice.
- Everyone can learn to forgive.
What Forgiveness is Not
- Forgiveness is not condoning unkindness.
- Forgiveness is not forgetting that something painful happened.
- Forgiveness is not excusing poor behaviour.
- Forgiveness does not have to be an otherworldly or religious experience.
- Forgiveness is not denying or minimizing your hurt.
- Forgiveness does not mean reconciling with the offender.
- Forgiveness does not mean you give up having feelings.’
Before I go any further it’s important to mention that whenever something happens that upsets you and has caused harm, it’s completely natural to be angry about it and that’s OK. Anger is a normal human emotion, just like sadness or happiness is. So firstly, it’s important to allow yourself to feel that anger and find a way to express it (in a healthy way that doesn’t hurt anyone else). However, once you’ve processed that anger and had time to reflect on what’s happened and how to prevent a reoccurrence, what happens next? Well, the danger is that you don’t let the anger go, you hold on to it and it turns into resentment and bitterness.
You may think that remaining resentful towards the offender is a deserved standpoint – what they did was awful and you’re not going to forgive them. However, at this point an important question needs to be raised: Who will suffer if you stay resentful? The offender can’t feel your feelings, but you can – you’re the one who’s experiencing the unpleasant feelings of bitter resentment, no-one else. So remaining in unforgiveness means that you’re suffering, and you’re allowing the offender’s actions to continue to keep you there. This is what Dr Fred Luskin means about taking back your power. It means declaring that you’re not going to allow the offender and the offending event to keep causing you to feel angry and upset any more.
But what if the offence has caused a set of problems for the survivor that are ongoing such as physical ailments, financial hardship, mental health issues? This is difficult because you’re having to live with the consequences of someone’s harmful behaviour and so it’s hard to make a clean break from the offence. If it’s possible, you may want to seek justice and reparation for the damage done, and that’s understandable and right. Offensive behaviour needs to be addressed to try and prevent it happening to anyone else, and to ensure the offender has some consequences for their actions and is given the opportunity to provide reparation for the damage they’ve caused. However, if it’s possible to seek justice or not, at some point we must come to a place of acceptance that certain outcomes have to be lived with, and reach out for whatever help we need to cope with that.
Another aspect of forgiveness is recognising that we can’t make everyone abide by our rules. We all have rules for how we’re supposed to live life – for example, most people will agree that murder, rape, kidnapping, and burglary are unacceptable actions, but what about how much debt your partner racks up on a credit card? Or whether someone else is OK to apprehend and tell-off your child? Or how much your boss has the right to adjust your job role or increase your workload? These are greyer areas where everyone will have their own idea of where they stand on the scale of acceptability. You may be at one end of that scale and someone right at the other end. You may have good reasons for your position, but you’ll almost certainly find that the other person has their own reasons for their position, and the tricky thing is, you can’t force someone to be in the same place as you, to see things the way you do and to follow the ethical guidelines you’ve decided on for your life. You may be able to bring your young children up with a certain set of rules, but eventually they’ll grow up and make their own decisions about right and wrong. So a part of accepting life on this planet means that people will have different morals and ethics to you and getting angry and resentful about their ways of behaving won’t change this.
So how can you forgive? …This is where the work starts. It tends to begin with a full acknowledgement of what’s happened and how it’s made you feel… in as much detail as you can. Writing it down can help, perhaps in the form of a letter to the offender (you don’t have to send it). If any feelings come up as you do this part of the work, allow yourself to express it in a safe way. Maybe that’s finding a cushion and punching out your anger, or screaming or weeping into the cushion, whatever is needed.
From there it’s important to think through what happened and recognise that you didn’t have the power to demand or force that the person treat you differently, so instead of framing things in a way that highlights the offence (‘he or she did this and it was wrong and I got hurt’) it can be reframed to ‘I hoped that the offender would treat me in this ______ way, but they chose not to. I cannot change what happened, but I can hope for better in the future and take the following steps… to help make that more of a possibility.’ By focusing more on what you want for your life, and taking positive action towards achieving these, it gives your mind a positive thing to strive for, rather than focusing on past offences.
Thoughts of resentment can easily continue to press in and taunt you, so another part of forgiveness is to take charge of your train of thought and switch from thinking resentfully to thinking gratefully or hopefully. Notice when you are returning to old grudges and mulling them over in your mind, take charge of this and deliberately think of something else to focus on instead, perhaps even have something prepared for these moments, such as taking stock of all the positive aspects of your life, or think about planning something positive to look forward to, such as a day out at the weekend, catching up with a friend etc. By not allowing resentful thoughts to circle around your mind you are reducing their power to upset you.
As you can see, forgiveness is an active process that takes effort and time. But the results are well worth it, you can release yourself from the past and its power to hurt you and give yourself more peace of mind and hope for the future. I appreciate that what I’ve shared here isn’t easy (far from it actually!) but it is possible. It’s worth making the effort because your wellbeing is important and worth fighting for.
If you think you’ll need some help and support in going on this journey of forgiving someone or something, then you’re welcome to contact me. I’d like to help you find that freedom you deserve.