Forgiveness is often seen and dismissed as a virtue of the saintly. Many people cling dearly to their anger, pain and sense of injustice. The choice of not forgiving might temporarily give people a sense of power – power to condemn, power to judge and hold the other person guilty, power of righteously being holier than thou. However, going one level deeper, one sees just how hollow and fictitious this power is as you are actually giving your power away, allowing the opposite person and the conflict to remain significant in your life and continue to impact you endlessly, triggering negative emotions and reactions.
When you find yourself unable to forgive, it usually is because the emotional charge is still intense, because there still is significant pain and anger. Many people also end up blocking the natural healing of their emotional wounds, waiting for retribution, apology or for the other person to realise just how wrong they were. However, keeping the pain of the hurtful memories alive and feeding the anger, serves no purpose other than amplifying the mental and emotional distress.
Research has shown that forgiveness reduces stress and toxic anger, helps rebuild self-esteem, reduces depression, anxiety and other mental health symptoms and improves physical health. – “Forgiveness and Health” by Toussaint, Worthington and David R. Williams. So even if it seems difficult or unattainable, it is worth pursuing.
Misconceptions about Forgiveness:
One of the main reasons contributing to the difficulty and resistance to forgiveness stems from the understanding that to forgive is to make things easy for the opposite person – to unburden him from guilt or repercussions of his actions and let him off the hook – to even condone the wrongdoing. This however is not true. Just check, how many of the people you are refusing to forgive are even aware of your emotions, or more importantly, just how many of them are affected by your lack of forgiveness in any way? More often than not, others would have simply carried on with their lives. So the only one it is really affecting is YOU.
Forgiveness is not giving in, it does not make what happened right or okay. Forgiveness is also not the same as justice. It is the acceptance that whatever happened – whether right or wrong, has passed and holding on to the unfairness of it will not change it. The purpose of forgiveness is unburdening you and helping you move on, shedding the unnecessary weight of past baggage.
Forgiveness also does not require reconciliation as it is an internal process and it may not be safe, practical or necessary to reconcile with the other party in person. For e.g. if we now finally choose to forgive the person who bullied us in kindergarten, we don’t necessarily need to go hunt them down and let them know they are forgiven, for the process to be complete.
Bob Enright (PhD), a psychologist who pioneered the study of forgiveness 3 decades ago says that true forgiveness goes a step further and involves offering something positive to the person who has hurt you, in terms of empathy, understanding and compassion.
We assume that forgiveness will happen once we get over the pain, but the flow of healing can happen the other way round too. Be proactive and make life simpler, forgive first and see the pain easing itself out of you. And then the memories, the person himself will lose the ability to affect you as you will be at peace. Practising empathy is a good way to build on the ability to forgive. Some other tips that may help are accepting that there will be pain, that all is impermanent and that you play the most crucial role in the solution to your problems. For deep emotional wounds, therapy can help with the journey of healing and forgiveness.
As I see it, forgiveness is in essence self-care – a choice to move forward lighter and more at peace – it is a gift to yourself.
*Reference: Article ‘Please Forgive Me’, published in APA’s Monitor on Psychology, January 2017
Written by Mahima Gupta Didwania
M.A., MSPS, CRT, C.Ht.
Registered Clinical Psychologist