Redefining Forgiveness: Forgiving Others and Letting Go of The Past

Update 11/16/2014: I’ve published a new entry with 5 resources and activities for forgiveness. View it here.

Serendipity is one of the few experiences that has given me something akin to palpable spirituality.

I need to remind myself of this, because this post isn’t about spirituality or serendipity, but it’s important and it’s meaningful to me, and without spirituality or serendipity, I wouldn’t have had the impetus for waking at 5am this morning and thinking about forgiveness, which this post is about.

But first, let’s briefly return to serendipity; for me, serendipitous experiences have always been born out of intuition. Not the serendipitous event itself, because the ethereal and spiritual coincidences that I call serendipity were never the actual path, which intuition led me down, but rather the happy accidents that I found on the path. Almost as if in trusting my intuition, the universe answered the question, which lay dormant inside of me, unbeknownst to all but my subconscious and the ether of the night sky under which I sleep.

And so it was, (in grand anti-climactic fashion) that yesterday evening, for no reason at all, other than the intangible sense there was something philosophical to be learned, that I felt compelled to watch The Lion King.

So, I procured a digital copy and did. There was nothing that particularly stuck out to me about the story or the dialogue, but nonetheless, it was enjoyable – and I felt no regret having spent the time watching it.

I then hung out with my girlfriend, and watched Game of Thrones, and then went to sleep. (I’ll get back to The Lion King Later.)

Then at 5am this morning I awoke with the impetus for this entry. And it was forgiveness I thought of. Forgiveness towards others in relation to forgiveness towards ourselves. And it wasn’t just a momentary thought, it was an overwhelming feeling that awoke me; a flood of thoughts.

My initial thoughts interspersed with this morning’s sleep were that in forgiving others we could open pathways to forgive ourselves and that in doing so we could free ourselves from many of the traps that an absence of forgiveness creates in life. For example: people often commit the same transgression for which they didn’t forgive another for in their past, i.e., a tragically ironic situation where a cycle of childhood hurt is continued, or, when someone is unfaithful to a partner, when the same had been done to them in a previous relationship (as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people). And, to this end, I began thinking about how when we don’t forgive, we are essentially accepting something as a normal behavior, in that we aren’t explicitly declaring that an offending behavior is below our expectations for life. But, on the other hand, when we choose to forgive ourselves and forgive others we are releasing the hurt and the hate, which in carrying around, we have essentially accepted as a part of life and as a part of ourselves.

I couldn’t help but feel the power in this awakening.

In hindsight, I began reflecting on research I had done the previous day for a poem I was writing about end of life regrets, and in thinking about forgiveness this morning, I couldn’t help but feel the elephant in the room seemed to be forgiveness itself; I couldn’t help but feel as if forgiveness would have been an antidote to major life regret for many, if not a possible route to avoiding the regret altogether.

But what do I know about forgiveness? Sure, I like to think that I’m a fairly emotionally whole person, and while there are many things I have forgiven – I don’t pretend for a second that there aren’t things I still haven’t forgiven others for and things that I haven’t forgiven myself for (and after this morning’s realization, I couldn’t help but see a very clear parallel between the two). I also sure as shit don’t pretend that the pain from those instances has been insignificant, or that my wellbeing hasn’t been significantly impacted as a result. Hell, it’s easy to forgive the things that don’t fuck us up, it’s the things we think about when we’re lonely and sad, pain that haunts us like a ghost in the night, those are the things we have the hardest time forgiving. For all the inner work I have done – therapy, reflection, writing, meditation – I know clear and well the score when it comes to the baggage I carry and which skeletons are still left in my closet. Even without my introspective nature, I’d likely be able to easily discern the major resentments I hold and the pain that I carry.

Who among us (even healthy self-aware people) doesn’t carry around their share of hate, hurt, regret, bitterness, resentment, and pain from the past? I would chalk it up to being human, but that would be a cop out.

When you realize just how much unresolved inner-conflicts and the unreleased pain and bitterness they impart within us effects our lives – even more so as we age and reflect back upon a life full of our share of disappointments, you begin to understand just how serious of an issue we are talking about here. If you don’t grasp the significance of what I am saying, look up the correlation between bitterness and disease. I’ll spare you the depressing links (Google is your friend.)

So, what can we do to free ourselves from the past? To release the negative feelings we are carrying?

First, let’s take stock of what the average person knows about forgiveness.

If you’re like me, and you were raised by normal parents, (regular people who were raised by other regular people) and not Psychologists or famed Humanist Philosophers, then it’s likely you know exactly dick about forgiveness.

Let me explain from my egocentric and ethnocentric American perspective. Having done a fairly decent about of research on forgiveness (I’m a speed reader and possibly slightly autodidactic), I can tell you that while parents and teachers “taught me” to forgive, I never really learned what forgiveness was.

You see, NONE of us are ever really taught what forgiveness is, instead, forgiveness is this funny thing that begins in early childhood when we are forced into forgiving someone for the first time (Have you ever seen a two year old have his favorite toy taken on the playground? Trust me – forgiveness isn’t inborn).

So, usually, we first learn forgiveness after little Johnny’s mom forces him to say sorry to us for talking our army guy away, or after dad tells our sibling to apologize for kicking us, so we look at the offender and begrudgingly say I forgive you (But come on, the little twerp took my toy! we think to ourselves). And this is how we learn the act of forgiveness. And unfortunately, we never get much better at it throughout life, it remains an act, and we suffer because we are acting as if we forgive others – when in fact, we haven’t been taught what it means to practice the art of forgiveness, which is a process, a habit, and something we must commit to wholly and genuinely – in a much different way than we learned as children.

Learning to forgive isn’t just about redefining how we forgive – it requires completely redefining what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness is not the pious, guilt-induced act of nobility that we were voluntarily forced into doing as children. That’s not forgiveness – that’s sanctimonious social posturing by parents who were taught the same by their parents, and are just doing their best to raise kids who aren’t entitled brats.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not decrying the adolescent brand of forgiveness where Tommy says “I’m sorry” to little Johnny for stealing his toys, and then little Johnny says to Tommy “I forgive you” and they shake hands and make up. That helps children learn moral boundaries and personal responsibility, as well as an important social skill – forgiveness. But – there’s a difference between forgiveness as a vital social skill, where Tommy and little Johnny play nice immediately afterwards, or when Tammy in the office eats your last Cliff Bar and you forgive her – and forgiveness as a life skill, when you find out your lover of X years is fucking your best friend. The transgression need not be that extreme to illustrate the difference between forgiveness as a child and forgiveness in the real world.

As a child, forgiving means getting over it and chasing each other again on the playground. As an adult, forgiveness can mean starting over in life. And even in less extreme instances, such as when a close friend hurts your feelings, as an adult it’s not as simple as saying “I forgive you” in response to their apology, and moving on. We of course instinctively know this, but culturally and socially we are still pressured to forgive or not. To make matters even more clouted, we’ve all heard the childish pleadings of: “I said I was sorry!”, in full expectation for us to automatically bestow our forgiveness upon their apology. And to make matters even worse, half the time, even as adults in cases of serious transgressions, the offending party isn’t even capable of apologizing, much less giving a proper, sincere apology (which I will explain later). And it’s not that I’m a pessimist when it comes to forgiveness, it’s just that the breed of forgiveness that got us through adolescence does little to serve us in the big leagues.

So, let’s start by redefining forgiveness from a humanistic, psychological perspective (this is very important, please read carefully):

What is Forgiveness
From The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley:

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.

Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from accountability.
Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. In that way, it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.

Please, read the above twice. (It’s written by the folks at UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center – many with PHD after their name.)

Essentially, forgiveness is the practice of moving forward with an open heart and letting go. Forgiveness is not a gift for others, it can be, but forgiveness is a gift for YOU.

It’s time to give yourself that gift.

Utilizing resources from The UC Berkeley, and Stanford University’s Forgiveness Project, I’ve created the following, which provides my interpretation of a whole, healthy approach to Forgiving Others and Letting Go of The Past.

Please bookmark and revisit as needed.

Forgiving Others and Letting Go of The Past

Here are seven steps for forgiving others and letting go of the past (plus one bonus):

1. Articulate The Wrongdoing:

“What this person did to me was not okay because ________________”

Be able to clearly articulate to yourself what was not okay about their behavior.

2. Express Your Present Feelings:

“My feelings about it today are____________________”

You must put your feelings into a present perspective in order to release the hurt you feel today, and recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what offended you or hurt you X years ago or even X minutes ago.

3. Feel Worthy:

“I deserve the peace and understanding that comes from removing the blame and releasing the negative feelings I have held onto, because_____________________”

Make a conscious choice to start feeling better and state why you feel worthy of feeling better: i.e., You deserve to feel better, you are a good person, and you want to move forward with your life.

4. Accept the Past:

“I am forgiving the past for ME and no one else. I am not condoning their actions and I understand that forgiveness is only a part of reconciliation, but I am choosing to reconcile this hurt with myself beginning today by freeing myself from the prison of the past I wanted and giving up all hope that the past can be any different.”

5. Take Back the Power Over Your Life:

“I am no longer going to give power to this person over me by focusing on my wounded feelings because________________”

State why this person no longer deserves power over your feelings i.e., they betrayed my trust, and caused me pain.

6. Redirect Your Energy & Attention:

“I am choosing to put my energy into new ways to get my positive goals met other than through the person and the experience that hurt me.”

I.e., redirecting your energy and attention to more positive memories, experiences, people, and opportunities.

7. Reframe The Past to Honor Your Forgiveness, & Appreciate What You Have:

“I am looking at the past in a new way that honors the heroic decision I have made to forgive. And I am reminding myself to focus on the love, beauty, and kindness around me, rather than focusing on what I do not have.”

8. See The Silver Lining (optional)

“Because of this hurt and this experience, I have learned to be more _________________”

I.e., focus on a positive trait, such as self-sufficient, independent, resilient, wise, or a positive lesson you learned – but remember, this is a silver lining for you to discover on your own- not a gift the person who hurt you gave you, or a favor they did for you you. Looking on the bright side and focusing on your strengths helps you move on and discover how you have evolved an grown to be a better person.

###

Forgiving others and letting go of the past is a process, and these steps should be revisited as needed. You can do this. You deserve to be free.

But before I go, let me finish the story of serendipity and The Lion King. So, late this afternoon, I received an email with an answer to a question on Quora, which I am subscribed to.

This was the email:

20140611-025820.jpg

Picture and quote from Disney’s The Lion King. Rafiki!

Remember, hatred is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die and forgiving is merely giving up hope for a better past. You deserve peace. Start living free today. There is no better investment than doing the inner work on yourself to be whole, healthy, and happy. Just think, you’re already ahead of the game just having read this.

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5 thoughts on “Redefining Forgiveness: Forgiving Others and Letting Go of The Past

  1. Pingback: Self-Forgiveness and Forgiveness: Tools and Practices | 7Saturdays

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