A dear friend was asking me about forgiveness the other day. She asked ‘What’s wrong with me that I can’t forgive people? Even though I’ve tried to forgive them many times, why do I just keep thinking about what happened again and again?”
As we talked, I realized that this was a conversation that you might like to hear, too. Nowadays, everyone is writing and talking about the need for forgiveness, but why is it so hard to do?
What is Forgiveness?
The Encarta Dictionary defines forgiveness as “the act of pardoning somebody for a mistake or wrongdoing.” Forgiveness is not condoning a wrong that has been done to you. It’s simply letting go of the emotional pain of what happened so that you are free to move forward in your life without your past still holding you back and dragging you down.
In 1709, Alexander Pope, who was a well-known English poet, wrote An Essay on Criticism. In it he wrote the famous words “To err is human; to forgive, DIVINE!” Alexander Pope had obviously experienced what he was writing about. True forgiveness lifts you to a higher level of consciousness, where love, peace, joy, harmony and beauty become the norm in your life.
How to Forgive
Many of us in our spiritual training learned the words of the ‘Lords Prayer,’ which in the traditional version said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” As a young person, I always knew that I SHOULD forgive, but I struggled for many years with HOW to forgive.
The person who was hardest for me to forgive in my younger years was my father, who was physically and verbally abusive to me and to other members of my family. His professed spiritual beliefs felt very hypocritical to me when I compared what he taught to how he actually treated us.
When I asked respected teachers how I could forgive him, they told me forgiving others was simply a decision. They said I could simply decide to forgive him and let go of the past. I did my best to follow their instructions, but I found that I had to forgive him again and again in the process of my growth. There were so many ways that he had influenced my life and impacted me with low self-esteem and self-worth.
Over time, as I worked through the feelings of how he had affected me, I grew to a point where I could feel that I was truly a good person and that I had value and worth as a human being. I remember how freeing it felt when I first learned the famous quote from the ancient ‘Desiderata,’ which says, “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here!”
As I regained my sense of SELF that my father had stolen from me, it became much easier to let go of the emotional pain and forgive him for what he had done. Although he never understood how he had affected my life, I eventually came to a place of compassion and understanding for him.
Forgiveness or Denial?
Later, as a psychotherapist, I came to understand that there’s a real problem with many traditional teachings about forgiveness. I learned that because how we are treated as children does affect our self-esteem and self-worth, deciding to forgive too soon can actually become a form of denial.
Many clients who have walked through my counseling doorway have told me that their parents were neglectful or abusive, but went on to say “It’s not a problem anymore, because I forgave them.” They saw no reason for talking about their childhood, because “It’s in the past.”
What I’ve found is that when you decide to forgive from your mind, and you don’t give yourself the chance to process the feelings of how you were treated in childhood; you’ll continue to UNCONSCIOUSLY blame yourself or believe that what happened was your fault.
If you were treated abusively or disrespectfully back then, you will probably continue to allow disrespect and abuse in your current life. The great psychologist Carl Jung said, “”Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
The emotional patterns you learned from the way you were treated generally continue in your adult life until you become aware of what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you want to stop those patterns from constantly replaying today, you need to let yourself feel the emotional pain of what happened in childhood and release it.
True forgiveness happens naturally when your authentic feelings are processed and released.
When It’s Hard to Forgive
When it’s hard to forgive someone in your present life, it’s generally because that present day person is triggering your unresolved feelings from childhood. If you let yourself think about or write about what you would like to say to the person in the present, often it’s the same thing you needed to say to someone in childhood who hurt you deeply.
For example, my friend was talking about a co-worker who is always disrespectful to her. When we explored her feelings further, she realized that that was exactly the same feeling she had with her mother as a child.
My friend had always wanted to be respected, valued and appreciated by her mother. I suggested that she write letters (that she doesn’t send) first to the co-worker and then to her mother, expressing her feelings, so that she can finally release them and let them go.
I know that forgiving the co-worker will become natural and easy when she has truly worked through her feelings from childhood. Of course, she’ll also need to set boundaries with her co-worker about what is acceptable or not acceptable professionally, but the boundaries will become much easier when she has taken the time to release the emotional pain that is triggered by this situation.
The real place to start with forgiveness is to forgive yourself. It’s extremely important to forgive yourself for not knowing what you wish you would have known, so that you could have made better choices and decisions throughout your life.
When you understand that you were really doing the best you could, given the lack of unconditional love, support, guidance and encouragement in your life, then you can stop blaming yourself for the unfortunate things that happened as a result.
It’s important to give yourself a chance to mourn the pain of not having received the unconditional love that you needed. When you had no guidance or role modeling for how to be healthy and happy, it’s pretty hard for a young person to figure all of that out on your own.
When you realize that, it become easier to let go of your past mistakes and understand why you made the choices you made. It also becomes clear that with what you know today, you can choose to change anything or everything in your life!
What follows naturally from truly forgiving yourself is realizing that the people who hurt you probably didn’t receive unconditional love and guidance in their lives either.
After I had forgiven and healed myself, it become clear to me that my father also had unresolved pain from his childhood. His mother had died when he was young and his father remarried a woman who was not kind or respectful to him.
Although I knew that my father’s past didn’t excuse the way he treated us, I also understood that he was acting out his own pain. Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When a person makes you suffer, it’s because he suffers deeply within himself and his suffering is spilling over.”
Forgiveness is NOT Resolution
When you forgive someone, it does NOT mean that you have to be best friends with them. You absolutely have the right to decide who you want to be close to in your life, based on that person’s level of personal responsibility or how you feel being around him or her.
True forgiveness does mean that you come to a place where you can wish that person well and genuinely hope that he or she has a good life. When you let go of getting even or trying to punish them for what they’ve done, you can turn the situation over to the Higher Power and let God be in charge of their consequences or the lessons they may need to learn.
I’d love to hear your comments and questions.
Has forgiveness been challenging in your life?
What has worked for you with forgiving and letting go?
What would you like to hear more about?
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