One topic that’s near and dear to my heart is forgiveness. I’ve become more self-aware within the past few years. This has influenced me to reevaluate my relationships with others, including who I keep around me and how to forgive those who I’ve chosen to keep in my life even if they have hurt me. Recently, my father passed away and we didn’t have a completely civil relationship. I have chosen to forgive him for how he has hurt me. Even though he isn’t here anymore to receive my forgiveness, I’ve learned that forgiveness is more for ourselves than it is for those whom we choose to forgive.
According to some of the research I’ve found on the topic of forgiveness, the most difficult people to forgive are those that keep hurting you. Fear of getting hurt again can make us scared to forgive. For those who may struggle with forgiveness, I have put together some ways to go about forgiving others and possible factors to consider when deciding to forgive or not.
This is a major first step because when we’ve been hurt, we tend to get defensive and our survival mode can become activated. This can make us react in impulsive ways. There is an understandable tendency for anger to become the primary emotion when one has been hurt. By relaxing yourself, you are more capable of assessing the situation and thinking in a more rational way.
Reframe this hurtful experience in a way that allows you to take it less personally. Remember that this could have happened to anyone. What someone else has done to you is not always entirely your fault. Being able to release the hurt that has been caused to you is helpful for moving on. Whenever we hold on to bitterness or thoughts of revenge, we don’t trust that this person will have their own consequences to deal with. We tend to think that we are required to show them the consequences of their actions through our reactions. Reframing the experience that has impacted us negatively can be an encouraging step to releasing the pain we feel.
- Take Responsibility
This next point may seem contradictory but consider the benefits of this step for a moment. Take full responsibility for how you feel. Understand as best as you can that your feelings are dependent on your own thinking. Your thoughts and beliefs cause your feelings. Reframing can also help you realize that you have contributed to this experience in some way. Of course, we all react naturally. However, we can take ownership of this reaction. Blaming others for how you feel actually gives them some power over your life. Recognizing that you control how you feel and that only you have the ability to respond can be an empowering insight.
If it is at all possible, clearly communicate your pain to the person who has hurt you. Some ways you can do this include writing a letter, preparing a speech or verbally expressing what comes to your mind. Regarding the letter, you may or may not wish to share that with them. However, expressing how you feel in regards to how they have treated you can help the experience in three different ways. First, it releases you of a heavy burden that you may have otherwise held onto. Second, it may help them not to hurt others in the same way that they have hurt you. Lastly, it can allow a door to open for reconciliation.
Set clear and appropriate limits or boundaries to ensure that you don’t get hurt again unnecessarily. It is natural that close relationships imply some pain and it’s okay for you to structure your relationships to minimize the risk that you will get hurt. Making sure you feel safe is your responsibility. Calmly and coherently expressing these limits to others, either verbally or nonverbally, can provide an opportunity for them to know that what they’ve done is unacceptable, or for you to clarify what you will and will not accept from others. By honoring your own values, you acknowledge that for others to be in your life, they must respect your boundaries.
- Renew or Release
Work on either renewing or releasing this relationship. It is up to you where you’d like to go from this point. They may naturally leave your life or you may choose to let them go. If they have hurt you and it is an option for you not to engage with this person anymore, then you can gently release them from your life without ill wishes or speaking negatively of them. If letting them go isn’t an option for one reason or another, or you’d prefer to keep the relationship in your life, find new ways to re-establish a better relationship. Going forward, the relationship should involve responsibility for one’s own actions and reactions, honest communication, and expressed boundaries.
- Forgiveness is Not…
To understand forgiveness better, we should consider what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not telling someone that what they’ve done is okay. It’s not pardoning someone for their wrongdoing. It’s not the absence of pain. It’s not continuing the same relationship that allows them to have more opportunities to hurt you. It doesn’t mean allowing yourself to continue to be hurt.
- Forgiveness is…
On the other hand, forgiveness does involve letting go of the negative emotions and bitter thoughts that you may be holding onto. Forgiveness isn’t easy, but we hurt ourselves by carrying a burden of unforgiveness. Even though this person has already hurt you, by not forgiving them you’re continuing to let them hurt you by giving them control over your own happiness and peace of mind. Forgiveness is essentially for you, so it doesn’t really matter if the person you’re forgiving is here to receive your forgiveness or not.
We don’t have to let someone else have the power to control our present and future experiences. Holding onto negative emotions that we feel were brought on by someone else really limits our own power. As someone that has struggled with allowing myself to feel powerful for a very long time, I know how important it can be to find those moments of inner power. For me, those moments exist by not letting anyone have that kind of control over my life so as to dictate how I’m going to feel or what I’m going to think. I’m free to choose that on my own, to feel how I want to feel and to think what I’d like to think. That’s what forgiveness is to me: it’s personal freedom.