Forgiveness transforms anger and hurt into healing and peace. Forgiveness can help you overcome feelings of depression, anxiety, and rage, as well as personal and relational conflicts. It is about making the conscious decision to let go of a grudge. Why would anyone want to forgive someone who has wronged her in the past? It is not about letting someone off the hook for a wrongdoing, or forgetting about the past, or forgetting about the pain. It certainly does not mean that you stick around for future maltreatment from a boss, a partner, parent, or friend. It is about setting yourself free so that you can move forward in your own life. Joan Borysenko said in an interview, "You can forgive someone who wronged you and still call the police and testify in court." Forgiveness requires a deep inquiry within ourselves about "our story."
Forgiveness means giving up the suffering of the past and being willing to forge ahead with far greater potential for inner freedom. Anne Lamott famously declared, "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past." Besides the reward of letting go of a painful past, there are powerful health benefits that go hand-in-hand with the practice of forgiveness. In the physical domain, forgiveness is associated with lower heart rate and blood pressure as well as overall stress relief. It is also associated with improving physical symptoms, reducing fatigue in some patient populations, and improving sleep quality. In the psychological domain, forgiveness has been shown to diminish the experience of stress and inner conflict while simultaneously restoring positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
The problem for many of us is that sometimes we can choose to forgive another, but still in our heart of hearts, the anger or resentment lingers. However, it is in fact possible to forgive and truly let go of past disappointments, hurts, or blatant acts of abuse. Although at times this may seem implausible, forgiveness is a teachable and learnable skill that can dramatically improve with practice over time.
Harvard researcher and physician George Vaillant describes forgiveness as one of the eight positive emotions that keep us connected with our deepest selves and with others. He considers these positive emotions to be key ingredients that bind us together in our humanity and they include love, hope, joy, compassion, faith, awe, and gratitude. Whether you have a spiritual bent or not, the research supports the notion that developing stronger positive emotions supports us in leading healthier, happier, and more connected lives. When we forgive and develop these other positive emotions we become less encumbered by the scars of the past.
The question remains: How do we give up a grudge and forgive someone who has hurt, disappointed, or betrayed us? Fred Luskin talks about the way we develop our grievance story in his book Forgive For Good. Your grievance story is the one you tell over and over to yourself, and possibly to others, about the way you were maltreated and the way you became the victimized. Luskin teaches us to cast our story in such a way that we become a survivor of difficult times, or -- better yet -- the hero of our story.
The following strategy model for learning forgiveness is derived from an amalgam of work by several researchers and my own work as a psychologist:
1. Inquire deeply about the root of your anger or grudge. Look at the situation honestly, without embellishing or rearranging the details. Pay attention to how this anger is holding you back and keeping you hostage in your own day-to-day existence.
2. Review your grievance story and reengineer that story so you see yourself in a more empowered way. Perhaps you chose to disengage or limit your time spent with a friend or family member that has consistently been hurtful to you. Perhaps you left a toxic partner. You had the fortitude to leave a bad situation. You were indeed the survivor and hero in your own story. Look at the strengths that you developed as a result of this situation. Being hurt or compromised can be your invitation to a transformative new path and a more fulfilling life.
3. Develop your capacity for empathy and compassion for yourself for landing in a painful situation. Blaming yourself for not seeing the signs sooner doesn't help, and slows down the process of making change. Also, in my professional experience, usually abusers have been abused themselves, and they are operating at a deficit. Without accepting their hostile behaviors, try to understand the pain and suffering that he or she must be enduring. You can understand and forgive without accepting bad or abusive behavior.
4. Create new associations with your old story of neglect or abuse. Perhaps you can practice a ritual that signifies the end of things as they were and say goodbye to the past as you once experienced it. Welcome the good, the support, and the love that you now invite into your life. Light a candle, for example, to symbolize the brightness of the moment and the days ahead, or gather some friend to celebrate the end of an era and the beginning of a new phase of life.
Remember that you cannot control others, but you can control your own choices. As you continue to reshape your grievance story -- becoming the hero of that story, developing empathy, and compassion for the abuser and celebrating your strengths -- you will undoubtedly begin to notice a shift in your consciousness. Your feelings of anger and sadness are likely to quiet down and your self-esteem is likely to blossom, as will your relationships.
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