You’ve find out somebody you love has betrayed you. Or maybe someone you trust has gone behind your back. Perhaps a person you rely on has let you down.
What do you do?
Scream at them and let your anger out? Pretend everything’s fine, but secretly harbour resentment? Cut them out of your life?
Personally, I’ve done all of these. And none of them resolved the way I felt, or made the situation any better.
The true secret to healing, in my experience, is forgiveness.
Practicing forgiveness has freed me from beliefs and emotions that had been weighing me down for years. And this is the key message here – it freed me. It had little to no impact (as far as I know) on the people who had hurt me.
I was finally able to let go of old stories that were no longer serving me, and consciously construct new ones that do.
Forgetting isn’t the answer
The real difficulty with forgiveness is that we can’t just simply forget what someone did that caused us so much pain. And the more we relive it, the more we reinforce that pain.
There’s no doubt about it; forgiving someone takes practice, patience and enormous willpower.
With any new practice, it’s important to start small, and set a “low barrier of entry”.
When it comes to forgiveness, this means forgiving on a micro level, and eventually working up to processing events or actions that we hold more blame, anger or resentment towards.
They might still be in your life
I’m currently practicing forgiveness towards a person who’s still part of my life (for their sake, I won’t share all the details). Sometimes, all I want to do – and had been doing, until recently – is be angry at them for what they did.
Needless to say, they hurt me deeply. Their actions caused me so much emotional and psychological pain, I wasn’t sure our relationship would ever recover.
And, frankly, it didn’t matter:
- How much they apologised
- Whether they took responsibility for their actions
- If they promised it would never happen again
…I still wanted them to suffer for what they did to me. I was so angry, so full of rage, so shocked and distraught.
And yet, I also still wanted this person to be in my life. I knew deep down that this one action didn’t represent who they were as a human. I knew that they were acting out of fear, and had done so (selfishly) because that’s all they knew how to do.
However, you can’t find peace in the same place you got broken. That particular person wasn’t the answer to my healing; I was.
Nobody can make us feel anything
Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic. You’re already late for work, feeling anxious about an upcoming meeting, and you just want to get moving. As soon as the traffic starts to move, a guy cuts in front of you – and the lights go back to red.
How do you feel?
Probably pretty pissed off, right? Maybe you’d express a choice expletive or two.
But what if I told you that the driver didn’t make you feel that way? That, in fact, nobody can make you feel anything at all, whether it’s positive or negative?
We feel the way we do because of the meaning we give to certain events and actions. We may be triggered by a stimulus (in this case, the driver), but the cause of our emotion is the meaning we give to the event (i.e., that the driver is an inconsiderate asshat).
Since the cause of our emotional pain is the meaning we give to any particular event, action, or situation, we can therefore take back control of our emotional experience by changing that meaning.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. – Rumi
How to practice forgiveness
1. Forgive for your own benefit
Start by recognising that your forgiveness practice is for your benefit, not theirs.
You’re healing your own emotional wounds, rather than attempting to repair your relationship with the person who’s hurt you (but this may be a natural next step, depending on the situation).
2. Allow yourself to feel the pain they’ve caused
Sit with the emotion that arises when you think about what the person has done.
What story are you telling yourself about how they behaved? What did it say about them, or about you? How does it feel in your body, and your heart?
3. Identify the benefits of not forgiving
Yep, you read that correctly. Take a moment to identify what you’ve been gaining by not forgiving this person.
Have you been able to avoid taking responsibility for your part in it? Have you been able to make them feel guilty, and wield this power over them? Have you managed to avoid facing up to the reality of it?
4. Decide what it’ll cost you if you don’t forgive
Take a moment to identify what it’ll cost you emotionally, mentally, physically, financially, or otherwise if you don’t forgive this person.
What is it already costing you? How is it affecting your mental or physical well-being? How will it affect your future relationship(s) with yourself and others?
5. Empathise with them
Now that you have a strong reason to practice forgiveness, take a moment to put yourself in their shoes.
What might they have been feeling, and needing, for them to act in the way that they did? What stories might they have been telling themselves, in order to justify their actions? What experiences taught them that this behaviour is acceptable?
Finally, set an intention to forgive this person. Repeat to yourself, “I see and feel the pain you’ve caused me, and it’s my intention to forgive you”.
With practice, this process empowers us to shift our perspective, cultivate compassion (for ourselves and others), and assign a different meaning to our experience.