How can we forgive someone?
Several years ago, a therapist introduced me to the power of forgiveness as a tool for spiritual growth. This particular therapist owed his life to the concept of forgiveness, as he had been in therapy himself when someone taught him how to let go of his anger. His life story revolved around a childhood incident that kept him trapped in a cycle of resentment and anger for most of his adult life. He found relief when he learned how to forgive.
Why should we forgive someone?
When we think about forgiving someone who has wronged us, we feel like we are “letting them off the hook.” This is a limiting belief that prevents us from healing. For one thing, as we will see later, you are not necessarily letting anyone “off the hook.” For another thing, we are not necessarily forgiving this person for their benefit. Instead, we are going to do so that we can get some relief. The purpose of forgiving others is not so that they can have a clean slate (we’re not god!), it’s so that we can let go of our anger towards them.
Develop the Willingness to Forgive
There are times when we were truly a victim, and had no part in the drama that was created. Someone wronged us and we did nothing to provoke it, or we were very young and truly defenseless. In these cases, it can be very difficult to even consider letting go of our anger, because we feel so justified in it. But this justification is poison, and we will benefit greatly if we can forgive them instead of hanging onto our anger. Notice how it feels to hang onto that anger. Increase your awareness of it. Take note of the resentment. See it for what it is. Remember that you are going to have some anger in your life that occurs naturally….the problem comes when you don’t let go of it; won’t get over it. Keep an awareness about yourself that allows you to see when you are “stewing” over something and need to let it go.
The Infamous Myth: to Forgive is to Forget
This is a damaging myth that can limit people from releasing their anger towards others. Imagine that someone kicks you very hard in the shins. You can eventually forgive this person without exposing your shins to them in the future. It is possible to “stay on guard” while still letting go of your anger towards them. The old cliche still applies: burn me once, shame on you….burn me twice, shame on me. It’s your own fault if you keep exposing yourself to being burned in the future. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to give them free reign over how they treat you in the future. Learn from the past. If someone is dangerous, then keep your guard up around them. You can still forgive them while protecting yourself.
There are times when it is simply not an option to speak directly to someone when you forgive them. This is okay–you actually don’t have to speak to them or tell them at all. Conventional wisdom might say that if you don’t tell them you’ve forgiven them, then you haven’t really done so. This is simply not true. Remember, we are forgiving them for our benefit, not theirs. You can forgive someone without even letting them know. The forgiveness is between you and your higher power. It is a release of your personal anger, and really doesn’t even involve the person you are forgiving. They need not know about it for it to be effective.
If you still are not willing to forgive…
Remember that we are all innocent. You can reason this out for yourself. Think back, using your own life as an example. There have been times when you have lashed out and hurt others, times when you have been the transgressor. You may have been angry or hurt or scared–but regardless–you acted out and hurt someone. Surely we have all done this. Now, realize that when you hurt someone in your past, you weren’t actually being evil. You were doing the best you could given your situation. Other people are in the same boat–they are simply doing the best they can with what they’ve learned. Some people might lash out and seem to be malicious, but those are the tools they’ve been given to deal with life. They are doing the best they can. Yes, there is a better way. But they have not learned it yet, and so our resentment towards them is unreasonable. They are doing the best they can. Remember that we were all babies once–pure and innocent. No one is born with a need to hurt others–they have learned that behavior by going through emotional turmoil themselves.
How to forgive someone
You’ve made the decision to forgive someone–for your own benefit. If you have truly decided to forgive them, then you are already half way there. It is not necessarily critical that you actually speak to this person (they might have passed away already). What you are going to do is release this person from your debt. You have felt anger that this person wronged you, and you felt that they now owe you–owe you so much in fact, that they can never possibly repay you. This is the thing that you are going to release. In effect, you are going to say to yourself “They don’t owe me anything. I am releasing them from their debt to me. They hurt me, but life (or God) will deal with them on their own terms. It is out of my hands.” Saying this and actually doing it are two different things. You don’t have to tell the person that you forgave them, and you don’t have to expose yourself to more risk with that person, but you do have to genuinely release that person from your debt. Let them go. If you believe in a higher power, release it to them. Put it in their hands to be dealt with.
Remember that this is about erasing a debt. You are releasing them from what you think they owe you. Open yourself to the idea that justice will be served in another way, but don’t secretly hope for them to suffer. If you are inclined to pray, then pray for them. Pray that they might live a better life and enjoy happiness.
If you are still struggling to forgive someone, then ask for help. Talk with a sponsor in the program, or a spiritual adviser, or someone else that you trust. Process your feelings and get them out there with the help of one of these individuals. But don’t continue to carry the heavy burden of resentment. You deserve to be happy instead.
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