One ex-prisoner of war asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” The second one replied, “No, never.” And the other turned and said, “Then it seems like they still have you in prison, don’t they?” (Cover of “Spirituality and Health”, Winter 1999)
Are you still being held captive? Are you still trapped in your anger and resentment for what has been done to you? Your need to hold onto such feelings is keeping you stuck in the moment or event; you have not moved on from that period of time. You are not in the present. You are dragging your past into your present everywhere you go, like a heavy ball and chain. It’s there infiltrating every aspect of your life; your thoughts, your decisions, your relationships, and is keeping you from really living and from experiencing happiness and joy.
Nelson Mandela said that “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies”.
You are not free until you forgive and let go of the anger and resentment. In fact, the perpetrator or person who has wronged you, still has power over you until you set yourself free!
An extremely common myth: in order to forgive, the person must deserve to be forgiven. The truth is that it is not for you to judge whether they deserve it or not. Life will take care of that. Each of us eventually suffers whatever “consequence” for our actions or wrongdoings we “deserve”. It is not about waiting for them to apologize or admitting they were wrong.
Similarly, another myth: forgiving means you are condoning that person’s behavior. Again, it isn’t your place to condone or not; to approve or pardon or not. Forgiving does not mean what they did is acceptable.
Another myth: in order to forgive, you must forget. You do not need to be able to forget it… ever, in fact, depending on the severity, you probably won’t. There is a beautiful book on forgiveness that addresses this common myth right in the title: How to Forgive When You Can’t Forget, written by Charles Klein, (Liebling Press, Inc 1995).
So why forgive?
You do not forgive for the good of the other person. Instead, you forgive for your own good so that you can be free and move on. Tian Dayton states in her daily affirmation book (Forgiving and Moving On), that “we forgive not to erase a wrong, but to relieve the residue of the wrong that is alive within us.” (pp367) In essence, we forgive because it restores us to a sense of inner balance.
It’s a process
In the book The Magic of Forgiveness, Tian Dayton describes five stages of forgiveness: 1) waking up, 2) anger and resentment, 3) hurt and sadness, 4) acceptance, integration, and letting go, 5) reorganization and reinvestment. She explains that the process of feeling the feelings, going through the pain, and then letting go of the pain and resentment, is very freeing and healing. She states, “We cannot do a flying leap over pain and resentment to forgiveness without first working through those feelings and restoring our lost sense of self.” I couldn’t agree more!
Cherie Carter-Scott, author of If Life is a Game, These are the Rules, (Broadway Books: 1998), defines forgiveness as the “act of erasing an emotional debt” and says you engage in a “conscious and deliberate release of resentment”. She reminds us that it is “impossible to learn anything meaningful while you are engaged in blaming”. She describes four kinds of forgiveness; beginner and advanced forgiveness of yourself, which requires extending compassion toward yourself, and beginner and advanced forgiveness for another, which requires letting go of harboring resentments and revenge, which keep you trapped in victimhood (pp 41-45).
Forgiveness is especially difficult when the event or wrongdoing was especially traumatizing. Victims of abuse suffer for years unable to forgive their perpetrator and unable to forgive themselves for somehow “allowing it” or “inviting it”. It is classic for victims to blame themselves, however incorrect and misconstrued that is, they need to forgive themselves. “The process of forgiving, letting go, and moving on, requires a willingness to know one’s own truth and the courage and strength to feel pain that has been hidden in silence.” (Tian Dayton, Daily Affirmations for Forgiving and Moving On, 1992, pp 370)
There is another side to forgiveness; the feeling or need to be forgiven
How many times have you said that someone “will never forgive me for that” or tried to figure out what excuses or lies to tell them in order to get someone to forgive you? We need to be forgiven in order to alleviate our guilt. We don’t want to feel the pain of having hurt someone else. We need to fix things; to make them better. We feel the need to repair the relationship before it is lost or damaged.
There is a sense of relief once someone has forgiven us, which often times does not include consequences or punishments. “I thought she was going to…” kick me out of the house, never call again, tell my boss, etc, “but instead she forgave me and I promised not to do it again.” Promising not to do it again implies a child pleading with an authoritarian figure and finally convincing them of your good intentions.
There is a psychiatrist I know who teaches that “asking for forgiveness (from others) is the same as asking for permission to do it again”. He insists that until you forgive yourself the behavior won’t change. Forgiveness must begin as an internal experience and then may or may not include external forgiveness from others. Self-forgiveness relieves some of the guilt and allows us to move on, whereas waiting to be forgiven keeps us stuck.
Learning to forgive others and yourself is a powerfully healing lesson to learn in life. Each of us deserves to move on past the pain and resentment. It is within our power to let go and free ourselves and that is the “gift of forgiveness”.
Originally published in issue 376, January 16 to 22, 2016 PV Mirror City Paper.
Written by: Giselle Belanger, RN, LCSW (psychotherapist) Available for appointments in person, by phone, or by skype webcam. Contact info: firstname.lastname@example.org Mex cell: (322) 138-9552 or US cell: (312) 914-5203