The subject of forgiveness is perhaps a touchy subject for some people, and understandably so, yet something that I have discovered to be hugely and powerfully liberating.
We will look in more detail at what forgiveness really is, and what it isn’t! But first let me introduce an evidenced benefit of learning to forgive – inner peace. There is a new forgiveness therapy centre in UK which I have links with. At this centre, clients are taken through a 12-session programme of enabling them to forgive people who have, often seriously, wronged them. Clients took 2 recognised tests both before and after the therapy which evaluated their level of anxiety and depression, including suicidal thoughts. Both tests showed that for most clients their level of anxiety and depression had remarkably and significantly reduced after the programme. This has been so impacting on the lives of these clients that the local doctor’s surgery now directs patients to the forgiveness therapy centre because it recognises that this offers so much more beneficial and lasting help than medication or anything else tried!
There is a huge physical burden attached to being hurt and disappointed and to holding on to resentment. Chronic anger puts you into constant flight-or-fight mode. Fight-or-flight is the body’s natural response to a situation perceived as harmful or threatening. It results in certain hormones being released which lead to raised heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. This is good short-term because it prepares us to either fight or run from danger. However, we were not designed to remain in this state of stress (or unforgiveness) and doing so will negatively affect health.
Being able to let go of anger and resentment, then, will have a big impact on our physical health, as well as our emotional and mental wellbeing. Research has shown that forgiveness can result in physical benefits such as lower blood pressure, lowered cholesterol, reduced levels of pain, better sleep, a boost in the immune system and an improvement in the general health of the heart. This is the power of learning to forgive, and it is possible for everyone. What good news!
I know from personal experience, though that forgiveness isn’t easy, especially when we have been deeply hurt. The anger and pain we feel from what happened can feel like a comfort, it can make us feel strong and ready to protect ourselves from harm. It can cause us to feel in control. We may believe that if we forgive we become vulnerable and weak and are opening ourselves up to further hurt. We may believe that forgiving is saying that what happened was ok. We may believe it means we have to forget or pretend something didn’t happen, or that we will have to trust the person that hurt us.
None of these beliefs are true though! Forgiveness is NOT excusing or validating what happened. It is NOT denying the hurt and saying it doesn’t matter. It does NOT mean we have to trust the person who hurt us if they haven’t changed. (Trust is earned, forgiveness is not.)
Forgiveness isn’t weakness. Far from it, it takes courage and strength to forgive. To quote Ghandi: ‘The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is for the strong.’
The self-protective walls we put up around ourselves through anger and resentment can also keep out those who would give us genuine love and support.
Although we may feel in control, in truth, holding on to unforgiveness keeps us enslaved to the person who wronged us. It keeps us chained to the past. President Clinton once asked Nelson Mandela how he was able to forgive his jailers and his reply was ‘As I walked out of the door towards freedom, I knew that if I didn’t leave bitterness behind I would still be in prison.’
Unforgiveness will chew us up inside, but the other person will be unaffected by it! Marianne Williamson said ‘Holding unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die!’ We may have been hurt by someone else, but, however unfair it may feel, if we don’t forgive, we are hurting ourselves.
Forgiveness frees us to live in the present rather than being chained to the past. It may not change the past, but it will radically change our future.
So, I’ve said a bit about what forgiveness isn’t. Let me now suggest what forgiveness actually is, because true forgiveness brings immeasurable freedom.
First of all, forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling. If you wait until you feel like forgiving someone, the chances are you never will. Similarly, if you wait for an apology from a person who wronged you before you forgive them, that apology may never come. You hold the key to your own freedom, no one else does. You cannot always choose what happens to you, but you can choose how to respond.
An initial choice to forgive is a starting place, but then forgiveness has different depths or layers. A superficial expression of forgiveness can be good to begin with, but true forgiveness needs to come from our heart, where most of the pain of the wrong has been stored. This means the pain needs to be faced in order to unlock it. This involves allowing the pain and fear to come to the surface, not to wallow in it (which will NOT help,) but to be able to truly acknowledge what we are forgiving. This may need to be repeated, again and again over time, each time choosing to forgive, until release comes.
Something that can be helpful in this process is being able to see from the other person’s perspective. “Hurting people hurt people,” so they may well have their own struggles which caused them to behave the way they did. They may even be unaware of how they hurt you. This doesn’t make the hurt less, neither does it excuse it, but it can give you an understanding which can help you to forgive. (It does not mean you can necessarily trust them though, unless there is evidence they have changed.)
Learning to forgive yourself is also vital, and liberating, but can be the hardest thing of all. Repeating “If only I hadn’t….” etc is debilitating (I know, I’ve so often done it!) Forgiving yourself and moving on is a choice you can make, and which gives you the opportunity to learn from mistakes rather than allowing yourself to be defined by them.
So, ultimately, forgiveness is not about whether someone deserves to be forgiven, it’s about your being free. It’s also a lifestyle to be adopted to remain free. Martin Luther King said “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a permanent lifestyle.” My desire for everyone reading this is that you will learn to experience the freedom that such a lifestyle of forgiveness brings.
(Featured image: robert-gramner-648456-unsplash.jpg)