The Gift of Forgiveness

It is impossible to get through life without being hurt by somebody. All of us know how painful it is to be the target of gossip, lies, or thoughtless remarks. Some have even been wounded by infidelity, abuse, or an unhappy marriage. When the emotional pain runs deep, some people respond by hanging onto the hurt and building a wall around themselves to keep from ever being hurt again. That is certainly one way to respond in such a situation. Another alternative is to find a way to move beyond the pain you currently feel by exploring forgiveness.

Defining Forgiveness
Forgiveness is making a personal choice to leave behind the feelings of anger, bitterness, or resentment you may feel because someone hurt you. You forgive for your OWN sake, not necessarily for the sake of the person who wounded you.

It is ironic that as long as your negative feelings go unresolved, you stay emotionally connected to the person who hurt you and they continue to have power over your life. Forgiveness is like choosing to open the cage door, so that your hurt does not imprison you forever. When you forgive, you free yourself from burdensome feelings that make it difficult for you to move forward in your life.

  • Forgiveness does NOT mean that you forget what the other person did to you.  Especially when you are deeply hurt, you should not forget. Instead, sift through what happened and learn from the experience.
  • Forgiveness does NOT mean that you condone what the person did to you. You are not saying that you believe the other person was right or that you excuse their behavior.
  • Forgiveness also does NOT mean that you want to continue a relationship with that person. You can forgive someone AND choose to never have any contact with them again.

Forgiveness is completely a choice you make. You have the power to decide whether you want to forgive someone or not. No one can force you to do either.

The Process Of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is a process. Depending on your situation, that process can take a long time or it can be relatively quick. For example, forgiving your best friend for saying something mean to you may not take as long as forgiving someone who has been severely abusive to you. Below are some ideas for facilitating the process of forgiveness:

  1. It is important to start by being honest with yourself about how injured you feel. If you cannot acknowledge the emotional impact a situation had on you, it will prolong the pain.
  2. Find some way to express your feelings in a constructive manner. You may choose to talk to a friend, a therapist, or to even God. Typically, talking to someone who can be supportive and neutral helps you get clearer about your situation and identify the emotional wounds that need healing.
  3. If you were abused in some way and the person who hurt you still poses some physical or emotional threat, be sure to take steps to protect yourself from future harm.
  4. At some point, you will fully understand that you are paying a heavy price for hanging onto feelings of hurt or anger. You may then become motivated to do what you can to stop hurting. Rise to that challenge.
  5. Attempt to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. That point of view may not be rational or emotionally healthy by your standards, but taking the perspective of the other person moves you out of the role of victim and restores your power. Sometimes compassion can develop for the other person when you take this step. You may see their weaknesses, true intentions, or the complexity of the situation for the first time.
  6. Think about any responsibility you have in the situation that transpired and forgive yourself. If you also hurt the other person, remember that you did not intend to do so and would have made a different choice if you could “rewind the clock.”
  7. If it is relevant, think about a time when that person forgave you and how much gratitude or relief you felt. Consider giving this same gift back.
  8. Write down what specifically the other person did to harm you. As objectively as possible, state what actually happened, so that you can concretely identify what needs to be forgiven. Did they make a hurtful comment? Did they lie to you? Perhaps, they damaged something meaningful to you?
  9. Write a letter to the person who hurt you. Express all of your positive and negative feelings. Describe positive aspects of your relationship with the other person and express forgiveness for the hurtful behaviors. Be aware, that you may experience many different emotions as you engage in this task. You may feel tearful, angry, or even resentful as you revisit the hurt. NOTE: You do not need to mail this letter!
  10. Make the forgiveness tangible. At this point you may choose to mail the letter you wrote. You may also choose to destroy the letter if you no longer want to have a relationship with the person. Sometimes telling a trusted friend what you are doing can make the experience feel more “real” and bring closure.

The process of forgiveness can really challenge you to grow as a person. When done properly, it can be a liberating and empowering experience that allows you to regain emotional freedom and a sense of well-being. Remember that you do have a choice about whether you live your life with bitterness or resentment. You CAN choose to let down those walls and embrace life to its fullest.

NOTE:  This post is a reprint from Healthful Changes: Proven Strategies for Taking Charge of Your Life available free at:  http://www.healthfulchanges.com/Documents/Healthful%20Changes.pdf.

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Licensed psychologist in San Antonio, Texas.
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