The idea of forgiveness has been popping up a lot lately. It made me think about how many of us on are holding on to something painful from our past and not realizing how much it harms us or prevents us from stepping into our brightest futures.
Do this simple exercise — think about someone you have not yet forgiven for harming you deeply, whether it was physically or emotionally. Think about what she or he did and notice what you feel in your body and where you feel it. What emotions does this evoke in you? What physical reaction does your body have to these thoughts and feelings? Pretty intense, huh?
For me, I feel anger and resentment with a touch of fear in there too. I get a sudden contraction in the stomach muscles just under my ribs, my breathing gets more shallow, my heart rate increases, and I feel a tension in my jaw hear my temples — all signs that my body has fired off the “flight or fight” response and now I have adrenalin and cortisol coursing through my veins. It’s very real and it’s very intense. OK — so now I have to breathe and try to calm down — it will take me few minutes to get there. What happened in your body and what does it take to undo your reaction? Take a minute to jot down what you notice. I once heard the quote, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking poison every day and wishing the other person would die.” And seeing our reactions is proof of that. Just the mere thought of that person sent our bodies into a chemical reaction that will linger in our tissues for hours. This is the real reason why forgiveness is so important — so that we don’t spend our lifetimes holding this kind of toxicity, both physical and emotional, inside us any longer. Is it possible that doing so can lead to serious illness like cancer or chronic pain? Hasn’t this person done enough harm already? But forgiveness is a tricky concept. Most of us have a hard time separating the idea of forgiving with letting the person off the hook — that forgiveness might somehow condone what happened. So we spend our lifetimes sipping that poison… Ultimately, we need to forgive to achieve the healing that will lead to our own peace and wholeness. To be able to achieve happiness in our lives and harmony in our relationships, we must change how the memory impacts us from now on so that it no longer has the ability to harm us in the present. I am working on my own issues of forgiveness and I encourage you to do so as well. My favorite book on this topic is Forgive for Good from the Stanford Forgiveness Projects. The author, Dr. Fred Luskin, outlines the following 9 steps as part of the forgiveness process — visit his Learning to Forgive site to learn more.
- Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience.
- Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else.
- Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you, or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the “peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.”
- Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you two minutes – or ten years – ago. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.
- At the moment you feel upset practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response.
- Give up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” you have for your health or how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace and prosperity and work hard to get them.
- Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt seek out new ways to get what you want.
- Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.
- Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.
Another great source is The Forgiveness Project that shares powerful stories of forgiveness from around the world — I find this site to be very inspiring. Be sure to check out the video by Bishop Desmond Tutu on the “about” page. Ultimately, forgiveness requires intentional effort on our part to take responsibility for our own healing. Forgiving another is really a powerful act of love for ourselves, allowing us to let go of the pain and claim a future filled with joy and happiness.