By Diane E. Lykes, LCSW
Would it surprise you to hear that people who practice forgiveness on a daily basis live fuller, happier and healthier lives? And that people who forgive others are emotionally strong, have full hearts and live life with meaning and purpose. Reading these time-honored quotes may shed some light on this:
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” (unknown)
If we practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” (Alexander Pope)
Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself. The impact of holding on to hurt, anger and even vengeful thoughts can impact as little as two people and as many as an entire world.
Read on to learn what it means to forgive and how you can take the necessary steps to build this practice into your daily life.
What is forgiveness?
There is a great deal of confusion about what it means to forgive others. To forgive another person does not mean you will forget what happened or that the person is now free from accepting responsibility for his or her actions. It doesn’t mean that you will allow them back into your life. Forgiveness is the act of letting go of your pain, anger and resentment so that you can emotionally heal and move forward.
When you choose not to forgive, you are agreeing to hold onto your resentment and ultimately that person will continue to have a hold over you. It takes more energy to carry a grudge and this negative energy will have a direct impact on your relationships and your happiness.
At the same time, when someone violates your trust, you cannot just forget what happened. In fact, unless we remember history, we will have a greater chance of repeating the same mistakes. In one of his speeches, John F. Kennedy stated: “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” Your relationship and trust for the person who hurt you can only be repaired through a gradual process of healing and re-building. Reconciliation is possible if we keep several things in mind. Consider the following list of suggestions as you work on building forgiveness into your life.
How do we forgive?
How do you forgive a hit and run driver, an unfaithful spouse or a boss who makes your job unbearable? A growing number of researchers are suggesting that we can teach ourselves how to forgive and that the result will be improved mental and physical health.
When something tragic happens, it is important to take your time and allow yourself to grieve. Rushing to forgive someone does not give you the time to heal from the pain. Talk with the people you trust and ask them for support with your healing. We can learn a great deal about ourselves if we learn how to deal with our deepest hurt. The other person may choose to apologize, make amends, attempt reconciliation, but forgiveness is always your choice and yours alone.
Once you have given yourself permission to grieve, it is important to begin looking for the “hidden gifts”. Ask yourself: what is the lesson in this for me? Is there some way that this experience will serve me?
Another important tool for moving toward forgiveness is learning not to dwell on pain inflicted by others. Dr. Frederic Luskin, author of the book, Forgive for Good, suggests that you stop renting out space in your mind to the things that hurt you. Think of all the energy you expend ruminating about someone who has hurt you. Being consumed by another person is exhausting. Forgiveness gives you the energy to focus on the things in your life that you want to achieve.
Learning to understand the reasons why people make certain choices is also a helpful tool in working toward forgiveness. For example, people are more likely to have an affair when their emotional needs are not being met. When couples attend counseling for infidelity, both partners often state that they are feeling “emotionally empty” in the relationship. Understanding your partner’s behavior does not mean you accept or condone it, but it does offer an awareness that may be necessary to heal yourself.
Finally, begin accepting that you cannot make someone behave the way you would like him/her to. It’s futile and only leads to greater frustration. Getting angry and stressed out is not going to make your boss fair or kind, but it will make you exhausted and worn down. Your own healing should not depend on whether the other person apologizes or changes their behavior.
The practice of forgiveness has been shown to increase hope, peace and compassion in our daily lives. It leads to improved emotional and physical health and long-lasting relationships. Although it can be immensely challenging, it deserves our full attention.
Diane Lykes is a Principal of Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany where she specializes in individual and couples counseling, educational training and clinical consultation. Synergy is a unique counseling practice providing compassionate, solution-oriented treatment for adults, children, adolescents and families. She can be reached at 466-3100 or at firstname.lastname@example.org