Letting Go: 8 Steps to Forgiveness
Valerie Poteete was a single mom who had just started her own business. She had no insurance and was, much to her dismay, quickly diagnosed with cancer. When she lost her home, her sister came to help her pack up to move. Valerie went to the store to pick up some more packing materials, and when she returned, her sister had stolen every bit of cash from her home. On top of that, her sister had stolen a check from her checkbook, which she used to pay her own bills without Valerie's permission.
Her sister was a gambling addict. This wasn't the first time that her sister had stolen from her, but it was the worst.
It was the last in a long line of wrongs that her sister committed, and it was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. Although they are no longer in touch, Valerie knows that her sister has pulled herself together and is holding down a steady job. Valerie's sister has never apologized, and yet, Valerie has forgiven her.
"Forgiveness is for the victim, not the abuser," Valerie explained to me. "Harboring resentment keeps the emotional toxins active and thus damages the one holding on to them."
Whether you are still in contact with someone who hurt you or not, you can benefit from learning to let go of your anger, and forgiving. It isn't easy, but it's better for you in the long run. (See also: How to Be Happy and Married: 24 Tips From a 24-Year-Old Marriage)
Why Should You Forgive?
From childhood bullies to abusive spouses, most of us have a certain amount of residual anger that we hang onto. Why bother confronting these feelings to begin with?
A great amount of energy is exerted and needed to harbor unforgiveness. Unforgiveness locks a person into a past incident and that same unforgiveness dictates a person’s future, altering not only they way they view life but also the outcome of each day.
— Dr. Daniel & Penny Loosenort, authors of We Promise — 18 Foundational Stone for an Unshakeable Marriage
There is a misconception about forgiveness that we often repeat — when you refuse to forgive someone, the only person you hurt is yourself. While it's true that a refusal to forgive someone who has hurt you is probably more detrimental to you than it is to them, refusing to forgive someone has repercussions beyond your own mental health. When we refuse to forgive someone for something, the anger that we feel toward them can color everything that we do. It doesn't matter if the anger is righteous — it changes the way that we feel, and the way that we interact with others.
It takes a great deal of energy to continue being angry with people who may or may not even remember upsetting us.
Anger also stifles personal growth. "Forgiveness is the process by which we learn, grow, change and transform from our mistakes," explains Rabbi Ari Sherbill of Beth Israel in Halifax. "The person who understands that life is growth understands that life is also mistakes. Everyone constantly makes them, and as you let go of your own and of others, you're freed to move forward."
But how do you go about forgiving? Like mourning, forgiveness can take a long time, and it will only be possible once you are ready to forgive. Here are eight steps to help you begin the process.
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings
The first step to dealing with emotions is recognizing that they exist to begin with. This might seem obvious, but plenty of emotions are buried beneath mountains of denial, blurred memories, and attempts to forget. When we talk about true abuse, especially that we suffered as children, it's possible that the memories themselves have been obscured by years of trying to forget. These feelings can run the gamut from anger to despair to guilt. Trying to pinpoint them can take some time.
2. Reach Out for Help
There are some instances in which a wrong is so wrong that the occurrence is serious enough to warrant professional therapy. There is nothing shameful in seeking a mental health counselor who specializes in past abuse to sort through your memories. Don't hesitate to get help if you feel like you are unable to cope with the feelings of pain on your own.
3. Look to Your Faith/Spiritual Discipline
Many religions have sophisticated doctrines that deal with the issue of forgiveness and acceptance. Whether you are religious or not, it is likely that there is a discipline that can help you at least visualize the forgiveness process.
4. Accept Your Role, and Forgive Yourself
Understanding your role in the wrongs that you have suffered doesn't necessarily place blame on you. If your parents beat you to within an inch of your life as a kid, you obviously weren't at fault (although you probably thought you were).
Sometimes, we do hold some responsibility in a situation that requires our forgiveness — like a falling out with a friend that could have been prevented. Other times, while we technically aren't to blame for a bad or abusive situation, we blame ourselves for not ending the relationship sooner, or for not seeing the signs that led to the wrongdoing. But being angry with yourself is even less useful than being perpetually angry at someone else — anger can be a destructive emotion if wielded too long. You have to forgive yourself for whatever blame has been heaped upon you, by yourself or others.
On a similar note, if you feel like YOU owe someone an apology for any reason, now would be a good time to reach out and make it.
5. Walk a Mile in Another's Shoes
There are some kinds of wrongs committed that don't necessarily warrant much empathy from the victim — violent crimes, for instance. But there are some situations, like a fight with a friend or an unfaithful partner, in which trying to see the other person's perspective can help guide the process of forgiveness.
6. Ask for an Apology — But Don't Expect One
Apologies are extremely powerful — a few choice words can sometimes wash away years of hurt feelings. The crux of an apology is the acknowledgement of bad behavior. Sometimes, the person that hurt you is blissfully unaware of your pain. Other times, you may be dealing with someone who either doesn't think to apologize, or who feels that they have done nothing wrong.
Maybe you are no longer in touch with the person who hurt you (perhaps for your own safety or sanity). Perhaps the person who hurt you is dead. Or maybe you're still married to her/him. Whatever your situation, you can express your feelings and request an apology. It might be in the form of a letter that you never send or a speech that you give in front of the mirror.
7. Take Your Sweet Time
Forgiveness is often seen as something that we simply do, and then forget. Connie Stapleton, a psychologist and best-selling author, cautions, "Forgiveness is a PROCESS, not an event! I think people are often "guilted" into saying they "forgive" someone for religious purposes or to meet someone else's needs."
Some people like to conduct a small ceremony in which some sort of symbolic gesture is made toward "letting go" — releasing a balloon or burning something. The effect can be temporarily cleansing, but bad feelings may continue to crop up for years to come, making forgiveness something more of a daily choice than a one-time event. Forgiveness, especially for serious wrongs that have been committed, is a daily choice and a constant commitment.
8. Look for Lessons Learned/Help Others
There are some tragedies that befall us that don't offer easy lessons, but even the worst transgressions can teach us something about ourselves. Very often, when we have been wronged, the only lesson we take away from the experience is "Don't trust anyone." But lack of trust doesn't serve anyone well (except James Bond, maybe), and if nothing else, we can learn from bad experiences to know how we would react if faced with a similar situation in the future. For instance, I know that I will never again stand to be treated with anything other than respect from my partner. I also know what signs point to unhealthy relationships — these signs are never as obvious as we expect them to be.
Is there anything more cathartic than being able to turn a bad situation into one that helps others? Some of the best trauma therapists are people who have suffered abuse themselves and learned how to channel their empathy into a career helping others overcome anger, pain, and resentment. Turn your anger and resentment into a creative or philanthropic force — donate time or money to organizations that help people escape abusive situations, or use artistic media to express your pain and hope for a better future. Discuss what you have learned with people you know and love, and teach others how to see the signs of abuse.
Have you had to forgive someone recently? How did you do it?