Should You Forgive?
Forgiving – sometimes easy, sometimes impossible.
There is no rule that requires that you forgive. Period.
- While religion often promotes forgiveness, ultimately it’s something that cannot be compelled or required.
- Forgiveness requires a special kind of thinking that is not always easy; a letting go, a putting things in perspective and an acceptance that the world has been unkind, or perhaps even cruel to you.
Yet, I would argue that forgiveness, when done well is the ultimate act of self reclamation, despite what may have been done to you or your loved ones.
Forgiveness is the work of freedom.
Let me show you how.
In so many ways, it’s the beginning of a new year.
Millions of children are just getting to know their new teachers. College students are already slaving away, trying to give their young lives a sweet start. And, religiously, this time of year has us thinking about beginning anew.
So what does this all have to do with forgiveness?
- To forgive is to put the past into its place, and to free yourself to face life today. It is a psycho-spiritual beginning.
- As long as you are possessed by past hurts, or carry bitterness, you will be dragged back. The past becomes the present which can then become the future.
- Forgiveness is to let go. It is not about forgetting or allowing hurt to be perpetuated again. Forgiveness is about moving past the traumas that hold us in their claws, with unrelenting power.
- To forgive is to take back your power, put life into perspective and learn the lessons that we all must learn.
Forgiving is Human:
Too err is human. To forgive, divine. Maybe.
In my mind, the capacity to forgive is a powerful and affirmative part of our humanity. It’s the soul’s ability to clean away psychic hurt that clings too tightly. It is a form of freedom.
- An Important Distinction: Forgiveness should be differentiated from its close cousin, acceptance, which while important, is essentially, passive. For many, the healing power of forgiveness allows us to truly move on. It’s a topic that is relevant in your life, whether you are religious or not, guilty or not.
Forgiveness is essential in overcoming a divorce, an unfair boss or even a car accident, and it has a place for everyone, regardless of age or level of hurt. The topic is timely, because, today, there’s a lot of hurt in the world. There is anger in the streets. Families are struggling to keep everything going, and many of our politicians and institutions seem to have let us down.
- Everyone has something that they can be forgiven for — and that they must forgive.
This is a good time of the year to look at your own actions, how you rationalize poor behavior and how you can step forward, even when injured, to take charge of your life to the extent that it is possible.
So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at some of the permutations of forgiveness.
Everyone is Wounded:
It is remarkable how many of us carry wounds inside; wounds from yesterday and wounds from too many yesterdays to count. Here are a few to give you an idea.
Consider that you are a man with a vain father and a younger brother who considers himself a better athlete than you. Your brother has exploited his talents and has won over your mom, dad, and others in your world. He has a certain confidence that kills you. Or consider that you have an older sister who is successful, but her primary sin is that she came first. You never feel that you are number one, and it is important to you. You spend the rest of your life feeling like number two, always falling short or never feeling that any success is enough.
Now, neither of these problems are truly serious. There is no rape, incest, violence or loss involved. But, these wounds truly count. People live lifetimes feeling second best, easily rejected or angry, at least in part, because of the hurts they were dealt as youngsters.
You must forgive.
How do you break free? How do you forgive?
Your parents did the best they could. They were flawed, as is everyone. Your brother or sister are just who they are. They have their own demons to deal with. Your job is to let go. You forgive your mother, your father, your brother or sister.
You forgive God, if necessary.
You realize that holding on serves no purpose.
This is not an easy process, but it can save your life. Who wants to be anchored by the past? Psychotherapy’s great power is in its ability to help a person free themselves from the negative influences of the past. When insight oriented psychotherapy is done well, it resembles a technology of forgiveness.
Stages of Forgiveness:
Consider grief and its stages. You loved someone, or you lost something dear to you. You go through denial, bargaining, anger, depression and finally you come to acceptance. These are the stages of grief that were so well described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
Forgiveness is a lot like grieving. And like grief, it’s experienced over a long period of time.
- First you have to acknowledge that you have to forgive. Carrying old wounds is simply a burden and steals the pleasure from the life that you have now. I often counsel patients that they have a choice everyday between being a victim or a survivor. One has to choose the latter to break free to forgive.
- Forgiveness requires getting in touch with hurt, often with feelings of anger and at times, betrayal. Too many people can’t get over just how unfair life is. Such pain, for what? Life is unfair, but it is also filled with potential for beauty, love and grace. You can be angry with a parent, a spouse, a difficult child, a nasty boss, an ex wife or with your concept of God. And, then let it go.
- Forgiveness can pass through depression or despair. After all, you have to come in touch with having been wronged by someone you trusted. It is a break in the world. A break in your sense of things being fair, which they are not. Often to forgive is to finally grow up and let go of the childlike thinking that fueled your hurt. A competitive brother is competitive, an illness hit you and not others, a priest or rabbi abused your sacred trust. All these things are wrong, and some are terrible. Life is not fair and can be cruel. Do you want to bring victimhood into your future, and let others define who you are and want to be? No! That is why forgiveness is a gift of the greatest import.
- Yes, to forgive is a great gift. It allows wounds to heal. You can forgive God for the hurts that you had nothing to do with, your parents for their blindness, and your siblings for countless injuries. But ultimately you have to forgive yourself for holding on for so long. You will be free to better enjoy this life when you accept what happened, vow to not let it happen again, forgive if possible, and move on.
Forgiveness and Trauma:
When a psychological hurt lies deep in our minds, like an early trauma or deprivation, or a violent betrayal, forgiveness will require trauma work. This is because trauma wires your brain to a fight/flight mode that can be triggered in multiple ways – and sometimes daily. You strive to let go, but you find yourself reliving the event, over and over. In order to do forgiveness work, you will have to deal with the depressive and often maladaptive ways that your mind processes trauma.
- If you find yourself easily angered, or victimized or if you retreat too easily, the trauma may be alive and well in your current life…and disrupting relationships in the here and now, creating more hurt and deprivation. If you are involved in a cycle like this, you know what I am talking about.
In cases like these, forgiveness work is the last stage of treatment. First one must take charge of the reactivity and get help to create healthier circuits in the brain. Sometimes medicine can reduce the tendency to be triggered. But, often there are effective treatments that can get to the trigger/response encoded in your brain.
Somatic Experiencing, EMDR and DBT are useful treatments for these conditions.
This work is hard, but very much worth the effort.
When Forgiving is Impossible:
Terrible things are part of this world. Some people are raped and murdered. Holocausts, both personal and national do happen. You don’t have to forgive everything or everybody — it is not appropriate. But you still don’t want to be stuck in a wound that then defines your entire future.
Maybe the best you can do is grieve the fact that this terrible event touched your life.
Maybe you have to wrestle with this issue with God, Himself. That is up to you.
Yet, in the absence of forgiveness, grief can still work.
Life is not fair and you were terribly hurt. Go through the morning process. Grieve the innocent boy, girl, man or woman who had been injured so badly. Allow yourself to experience the anger, the hurt, and the despair of grief – but work towards acceptance; an acceptance that is tempered by memory. This is not a happy acceptance; aim towards a meaningful acceptance that acknowledges that there’s a lot about life that is not in our control.
There is a life to live and staying victimized by this terrible experience is probably not an answer that is good for you. Maybe you can change from the position of a victim to a survivor, by working to protect future people from experiencing your fate.
This can be a healing for you and the world.
The Power of Forgiveness:
There is much more to convey about the power of forgiveness. While it can heal our wounds, forgiveness does not come easily. If we have hurt others, making amends and working on ourselves is an answer that counts. If we have been hurt, make every effort to grieve the loss of innocence or of lost time – forgive in whatever what you can – and move forward.
The future beckons.
Some people never forgive and never forget. They remain victims forever, not just victims of what happened, but also to an identification with their wound that may have impact on future relationships and their sense of identity.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a technical term meant to deal with damage of unremitting victimhood (be it from human or non human sources). But you don’t have to have PTSD to be stuck in the past. Victimhood, in divorce, marriage or as nations does not help in the long run. We must forgive what we can, grieve when we can’t forgive – and yet remember what is necessary. There are always lessons. Perhaps the best one is that you survived to make something new and better.
In the end, our lives are about the stories we live and tell ourselves. Forgiveness is a story about putting the past in its place, letting go with an affirmative change in our hearts and living our present and our future. It has a power that is worth exploring, again and again.
A New Start:
I wish my readers goodness and blessings free from hurt and victimhood.
And, if you carry hurt, or a chronic sense of bitterness, I wish you the ability to heal. Come over to the side of a survivor. Try forgiveness work, and don’t allow anyone in your past or present to continue to make you a victim.
Forgiveness is not easy. But, when done right, it can set you free.