Mary, happily married for 10 years, still harbors extreme bitterness towards an ex-boyfriend who cheated on her 20 years ago. Brett remains enraged with a supervisor that “didn’t appreciate” all of “the hard work” he had done many years earlier. Sheila is frequently at her “boiling point,” in response to the childhood emotional neglect she received from her mother, and wishes her mother would suffer the same pain she experienced.
What’s common with the above scenarios? These situations all suggest difficulties with forgiving another person. Forgiveness is traditionally described as “pardoning” someone and “letting go of resentments” towards that person. It does not imply having to deny, minimize, negate, or even having to forget what happened. It does not dictate whether one still needs to have that person in one’s life or not and does not take away from accountability on the part of the other. Although one may (or may not) decide to outwardly express forgiveness towards the other, true forgiveness involves being able to release oneself from the difficult emotions that one still feels towards that person. It is an inner process that can take time and some hard work.
Without real forgiveness, one may form a “grudge,” which is like a wound that has become “hardened” by the anger, resentment, and bitterness forming it. An old grudge may last for years or indefinitely. Not only do ongoing resentments affect one’s health (e.g., increases in stress hormones and blood pressure, immune system depletion), they also “spill out” into one’s present life, negatively affecting one’s feelings about oneself and the ability to form healthy relationships with others. For example, one may be left feeling like a powerless victim, overreacting to or completely mistrusting others and constantly expecting to be hurt by them. Without forgiveness, one is literally bound to the past and short changed from being able to “move on” and fully engage in present life.
So, what are the steps that lead to forgiveness?
1. Initially, it is important to examine the costs of not forgiving, along with the benefits of forgiveness. One may be unhealthily invested in holding onto anger/resentment, believing it to provide a sense of power and control. Typically, however, this is only a façade that results in hurting oneself more than the other person. It is important to imagine the experience of feeling “liberated” from the weight of the anger and resentment, knowing that this will lead to improved self-esteem and relationships with others.
2. In order to further “let go” of the resentment, it will be important to look at some of the other unresolved feelings that still remain. The initial anger may have been valid at the time of the incident(s), because anger is a typical reaction to having been treated unfairly or having healthy expectations (i.e., trust in others, belief that others have “our back”) violated in some way. However, there may be underlying disappointment and hurt that were too vulnerable to experience at the time of the event(s). These feelings are important (but painful) to acknowledge and may “drive” some of the overlying anger and resentment. To facilitate accessing and expressing these difficult feelings, one can write a letter (that is not sent) to the other person, describing the emotional impact of the previous hurtful event.
3. A third step is to try to understand where the other person may have been coming from at the time they acted in the hurtful way. This does not mean “making excuses” but rather empathizing to understand possible reasons for their behaviors. Frequently, hurtful actions are indicative of the psychological limitations of the other person at that time. A parent, spouse, or friend may have been re-enacting their own “wounds” and were only able to do the best that they could, given their limited physical or emotional resources at the time. Reminding oneself of one’s own limitations and the likely hurts that one has also (unintentionally) caused others can better facilitate an ability to empathize with another.
4. Finally, one can recognize the learning (albeit painful!) that has arisen from the hurtful experience and from the process of forgiveness. For example, there may be “gifts” of greater compassion towards others, tremendous inner strength, or overall emotional growth from the experience. There is an expression that says “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and forgiveness can definitely make one stronger.
Note: If the work towards forgiveness feels too large to do on one’s own, it is important to seek help from a qualified therapist.