Forgiveness is the greatest, most empowering gift you can give yourself.
At its most basic level, forgiveness is letting go of a grudge, anger or hurt, and releasing any desire for revenge against the person who has hurt you. When you choose to not forgive someone, you keep the situation “alive,” and can re-live and feel the hurt, pain and anger of the situation over and over. In effect, you are choosing to continue the hurt by hurting yourself.
Here’s why: Our mind does not know the different between an event or situation that is actually happening versus one that is a memory. So when you re-live a situation that caused you pain, your physical, mental and emotional bodies respond as if the situation were actually happening at that moment.
Don’t believe me?
Take a moment right now and bring up a memory of an event or situation that you haven’t forgiven that really made you angry. Replay it in your mind. Now check in with your body and your emotions. Do you feel tense? Angry? Maybe your heart is racing. If you haven’t released an event, replaying it in your mind will cause you to react as if it were happening right now. Now imagine an event or situation that filled you with joy or feelings of love. How do you feel now? (It’s better to end this exercise on positive emotions!)
When you forgive and release, you release the power the situation had to cause you pain. You release the bond and connection you have with the pain and hurt. You release your emotions related to the event. And you release the hold the other person has on you.
Forgiveness, quite simply, is something that you do for yourself so that you can move forward, feeling whole, complete and healed.
All of this is also true when you forgive yourself. You release any guilt that you are carrying and can extend love and compassion to yourself.
Forgiveness helps us in many ways. The Mayo Clinic reported that holding onto painful memories and bitterness results in long-term health problems. But when we forgive, we are empowered and receive a number of health benefits, including:
- Reduced stress (no longer thinking and mentally re-living the experience)
- Reduced hostility and better anger management skills
- Decreased anxiety
- Lower blood pressure (due to lower anxiety, stress and anxiety over situation)
- A stronger immune system
- Lowered heart rate
- Decreased risk of alcohol or substance abuse (usually done because of pain — when you release the pain you decrease the risk)
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Reduction in chronic pain due to psychological causes
- Healthier relationships with friends and family
- Improved mental health
- Improved self-esteem — movement away from victim mentality to empowerment
- Improved spiritual well-being — aligned with higher power
Forgiveness allows grace, calmness and love to come into your body and your being. We have all had moments when we feel these things — maybe it is after a loved one has had a close brush with death and we are filled with love and gratitude, or perhaps when we see our newborn child for the first time, or maybe we have an incredibly moving experience watching the sunset or during a meditation…but these gifts of grace, love and tranquility are available to us whenever we forgive.
With all of these benefits from forgiveness, why is it so difficult for us to actually do it?
Well, for starters, we may not know how to forgive. Forgiveness is a skill that takes practice. We may have held onto something for so long that it has become part of who we are. We may have defined ourselves by a situation or experience, rather than by the unique being that we are — and in doing so, we have made ourself the victim. Or, we may be “stuck” in a cycle of re-living the situation and don’t know how to break out it.
We may not be able to see how our lives can move forward after the situation. The hurt or pain may be so great that we cannot see a future. And, we may not think that the other person “deserves” forgiveness because what that person has done to us is so horrible, so grievous that we can’t see how they could possibly warrant any type of forgiveness. We feel a sense of injustice. We are filled up with so much bitterness, anger, hurt and hatred that we don’t think there could be any light in our lives…let alone extend it out to the person that caused these feelings in the first place.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” ~Mahatma Ghandi
Ghandi is right! It takes courage and strength to look beyond the reasons that may be preventing you from forgiving. It takes courage to learn something new. It takes courage to break out of and release something that you have been holding onto tightly for so long. It takes courage to trust that you are more than what has happened to you. And it takes strength and conviction and courage to offer forgiveness when you don’t think the other person deserves it.
How can you find the courage to forgive?
Forgiveness is a process, and you may need to employ several techniques over time to learn how to forgive or to truly forgive a specific situation. Here are some suggestions:
- Start small. If you have several things to forgive, you may feel overwhelmed. Start with one, “small” thing — something that feels less emotionally charged or hurtful to you. Work on forgiving that one thing so that you feel a sense of accomplishment and experience the benefits of forgiveness. This can give you the confidence, courage and motivation to move onto a “bigger” hurt.
- Consciously choose to forgive. Sometimes just making that shift in your mindset can empower you enough that you can forgive.
- Be mindful. When you start re-living a hurtful situation in your mind, recognize what you are doing and stop. Recognize that when you do this you are giving more power to the situation (which has already passed) and keeping yourself in victim or hurt mode. Take several deep breaths and send love to yourself. See yourself as the strong survivor you are. If possible, send love to the other person involved.
- Ask for help. Ask a close friend or family member, or even a higher power, to help you recognize when you are holding onto something and then help you release it. If necessary, work with a professional.
- Write. Write down all your feelings, memories and fears associated with the situation. Get everything onto paper, and then create a ceremony to release the hurt and eliminate it from your life. Burning the paper is a great way to do this while asking for love to come in its place.
- Employ empathy. Ask yourself why someone would do what was done that needs forgiveness. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. See if you can find a reason for their actions. Sometimes just by understanding why someone might act the way they did can help open the door to forgiveness.
- Remind yourself that we are all human and we all make mistakes. With self-compassion, look at ways that you have hurt others and made mistakes, and then recognize that others do the same.
- Send love to yourself and to the other person. Love can help us release our pain and open the door to forgiveness.
- Look for the gift in the situation. Is there something that you learned because of it? Perhaps you discovered how strong and resilient you are. Or maybe you learned a valuable life lesson that you wouldn’t have if you hadn’t experienced the situation. See if you can find a gift. This can help you begin to feel gratitude for the situation, which can then can help you begin to forgive and release.
- Say it from your heart. Look at the person who hurt you and say, I forgive you, with all the love and compassion you can muster. If you beating yourself up about something, look at yourself in the mirror, making eye contact, and say the same words.
- Surrender. If nothing else works, or the situation seems to be too big for you to forgive, surrender to it. Recognize that the event is in the past and that it is over. Ask a higher power or your higher self to remove the burden for you.
Once you start forgiving, it becomes easier over time. You “hardwire” yourself to forgive.
By the time I had my accident a few years ago (a guy hit me with minivan at 25 mph while I was walking in the crosswalk), I had made forgiveness a practice. Granted, I am human and therefore am not always perfect, but I am much more aware and try to move much faster to forgiveness. Many of my friends and family were angry with the guy for hitting me. They love me and don’t want to see me hurt. Some of them even talked about revenge. I consciously chose to not go down that path. In fact, I started forgiving him while I was lying on the side of the road being tended to by the paramedics. I began by looking for the gift. The guy who hit me had many “strikes” against him — he had no driver’s license or insurance, he had borrowed the van from someone who didn’t have insurance either, he was legally blind, and he was an undocumented immigrant…and yet, with all of these things, he stopped. He tried to help me up from the road. He waited with me and he met with the police. This was a gift — an insight into the type of person he truly was and a reminder that it was an accident. Forgiveness was much easier with this insight.
When you regularly practice forgiveness you can begin to “deflect” the hurts before they take hold in your body.
This is what I did with the accident. And this is what I try to do whenever someone says something thoughtless to me or does something that could be seen as hurtful. I’ve found that when I immediately move into forgiveness, I pick up less pain as I go through life.
Try it. Your happiness, health and life will be the better for it.