You find out your partner’s been cheating on you.
Or your closest friend has been gossiping about you behind your back.
Or a family member has totally flaked and let you down. Again.
What do you do?
Scream at them until the anger fizzles 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 heavy, stagnant emotions that weighed 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 hurt me.
Forgetting isn’t the answer
The real difficulty with forgiveness is that we can’t just simply forget what someone did… but the more we relive it in our mind, the more we reinforce our pain. GAH!
There’s no doubt about it; forgiving someone takes practice, patience, and enormous willpower.
And as with any new practice, it’s important to start small.
This means practicing forgiveness for small stuff (like that guy grabbing the last vegan doughnut in the coffee shop when you’re frickin’ starving… damn him to hell), and eventually working up to processing events or actions that we hold more blame, anger or resentment about (such as your boyfriend having sex with another person in your bed… you know who you are, motherfucker).
They might still be in your life
I’m currently practicing forgiveness towards a person who’s still in my life (for their sake, I won’t share 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 part of 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.
Still, you can’t find wholeness in the same place you got broken.
This person wasn’t the key 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.
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 ballsack).
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 anybody else’s.
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
Sit with whatever emotion 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?
Try freewriting or meditating, and give yourself permission to really feel it.
3. Identify the benefits of not forgiving
Yep, you read that right. 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 emotional 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 (hopefully) have a couple of compelling reasons to practice forgiveness, take a moment to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
- What might they have been feeling, and needing, for them to act the way 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 the 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.
We can begin to forgive, even if we can’t forget.