Forgiveness is More than Just Words, it's a Process

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Image credit: photo by Banter Snaps on Unsplash.

How often have we heard, “Just forgive her.” Like it’s just something we can do automatically, like turning on a light switch. If it were truly so easy, we would probably just do it. However, it’s not. Forgiveness is a process. 

Many religions decree that it is necessary to forgive to be considered a good person. Insisting that we can reduce our anger, or resentment, by forgiving others. Some religions, and even perhaps some people we know, may use forgiveness as a weapon to guilt us into forgiveness.

Maintaining that withholding forgiveness makes us a bad person, or that we might never emotionally heal. The reality is that in order to forgive we must work through our feelings first. And whether we are able to forgive or not, does not determine the kind of person we are. 

Forgiving Isn’t Always Easy 

Therefore, many of us spiritual beings also want to be able to forgive, yet sometimes it is not so easy. There is a certain peace that comes with forgiveness. A releasing from a burden and often a gift of serenity. 

Certainly, there are some things that are easier to forgive than others:

  • The harsh words a friend, or loved one, said in anger and now regrets.
  • Emotional wounds that have long faded and healed with time.
  • Mending a relationship that is worth more than the anger that severed it.

We may even need to forgive ourselves for some things:

  • Past mistakes.
  • The chances you wish you took earlier in life.
  • The things you didn’t say until it was too late.

The Benefits of Forgiveness

From my perspective, forgiveness may be something we really want to do, yet we struggle with it. But if it feels as if it is in our highest good to do so, then ultimately, hopefully, we will take the steps to work through the feelings standing in the way to forgive.

When we say, or hear, “I forgive you, yet I’ll never forget.” This generally means, that we haven’t really forgiven. There is still a level of anger or resentment we are experiencing that needs to be worked through. Saying it isn’t necessarily feeling it. 

Although some believe that forgiving for our own benefit is selfish, I see it differently. I see it as self-caring. The person who wronged us may not even have the self-awareness to realize we still suffer from the wrong doing.  For it to be truly forgiveness, it needs to be about us taking care of ourselves and not carrying around the anger, resentment, and hurt, that may eat us alive inside.

Steven McDonald was a New York police officer. Despite being shot by a 15-year-old boy in 1986, which drastically changed his life and left him a quadriplegic, he forgave the boy who shot him. He then spent his life traveling the world talking about forgiveness and peace. His speeches inspired love, respect, and forgiveness.

 Forgiveness Has Been Shown To:

  • Decrease anger, hurt, depression and stress.
  • Increase feelings of optimism, hope, compassion and self-confidence.
  • Lead to greater spiritual and psychological well-being.
  • Lower blood pressure and strengthen immune system.

“Quality empirical research has shown that when we are better at forgiveness we experience lower stress, tension, levels of depression, anxiety, and perhaps most important, anger.”

Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP, Professor at Santa Clara University & Stanford University School of Medicine.

Forgiveness Must be Authentic to be Effective 

The good news is that if we work through the process and reach forgiveness, then the other person will still clearly benefit. Although if we are forgiving for someone else, if we think it is the right thing to do and not doing it for ourselves, then it isn’t going to be emotionally effective for us.

If we are forgiving because it feels like an obligation, and isn’t coming from an authentic place, it’s hard to fully forgive because the motivation for it is not coming from that genuine place. This is not going to be true forgiveness. 

The Process of Forgiveness

How we come to forgiveness and how it manifests may be different for each of us. For some it may mean ultimately letting the other person know that we forgive them. For others, it is an internal process only.

It is even possible to forgive someone who has passed. Forgiving someone is us taking care of ourselves. Being pressured to forgive someone won’t expedite the process. We must work through the process on an individual level. 

Forgiveness is Not a Reconciliation 

What is important to remember is that forgiving someone for something they did, or didn’t do, does not mean that we are saying what happened is okay. It just means that we have reached a point emotionally where it no longer negatively impacts us.

It doesn’t mean we are even accepting the person that we feel wronged us. It’s accepting what happened, or accepting that the situation, or our life, didn’t turn out how we’d hoped.

For some of us forgiveness may not feel possible in situations such as sexual abuse, rape and other traumatic experiences. Although it is still possible to work through the trauma and heal, yet not forgive the other person. 

 Not everyone is Steven McDonald. Even though he was an incredible being and could forgive what happened to him, and use his experience to inspire others to forgive, it does not make us any less than if we are not able to do that. We are emotionally wired differently and our journeys are not the same. 

In addition to forgiveness being a process, there are also different stages and/or layers to it.

We experience these stages at our own pace.

 At the First Stage of Forgiveness:

  • We may first have to deal with our hurt feelings, shock, and anger.
  • We experience the desire to forgive. 
  • We forgive ourselves, if necessary, if we feel we made a mistake.
  • We accept that mistakes are part of being human.

At the Final Stage of Forgiveness:

  • We no longer want to punish, or demand restitution, from who wronged us.
  • We may forgive our offender, whether they deserve our forgiveness or not.
  • We become grateful for the good things in life.
  • Most importantly, we are no longer emotionally triggered by what occurred and we feel a sense of inner peace and acceptance.

If you struggle with finding the peace achieved with forgiveness, speaking with a trusted psychotherapist at Nassau Guidance & Counseling located on Long Island can help you work through your feelings of hurt, or anger. Our licensed therapists have helped many people work through emotional traumas, and heal.

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