For many of us, the emotions holding the tightest grip on our hearts are disappointment, resentment, blame and anger. They place a stranglehold on our happiness, and the only person who can release them is you.
Although forgiving someone (or ourselves) can happen in an instant, my experience is that it is usually a much more lengthy process requiring great patience, trust, persistence and prayer -- more like peeling an onion or a lotus blossoming than a lightning bolt.
Physical symptoms often accompany emotional gripping. Forgiveness and its close cousin compassion are emotions associated with the heart chakra (physically: the heart, shoulders, chest and upper back). If you're holding resentments, need to forgive and let go of someone, you may notice tightness in the upper back, between the shoulders, a sunken chest, difficulty taking a deep breath and deflated or low energy.
How do you know if you still need to forgive someone? When you talk or think about someone or an incident, do you feel a "charge" or get "triggered"? If you feel constricted, tight, feel a flush of anger (even subtly) or a surge of energy physically, it probably means there is unresolved emotional material for you to continue processing and releasing.
As my teacher, Mona Miller says, "Our work is to move from judgment to understanding."
Here are four steps to help you forgive.
1. Understand why someone acts the way they do. Perhaps the most important tool and first step in forgiveness is to understand "why" someone acts the way they do. Take your parents, for example. It's helpful to go back and objectively look at their early childhood. Imagine what their childhood, parents and home environment was like. What do you know? What have you heard? What can you infer? In psychology, we call this the primary scenario. Do some basic sleuthing to uncover or imagine why a person (partner, colleague, parent) may have certain defense mechanisms (narcissism, defensiveness, aggression, depression, etc.) or personality traits.
What are they trying to protect? What are they afraid of? What basic skills did they learn (or not learn) from their family of origin? Reframe the current upset by building a new cognitive framework to understand why someone might behave the way they do.
We are all doing the best we can with the skills and awareness we have. Beginning to ask different questions and understand "why" breeds compassion and helps loosen the ties that bind us to blame. If possible, talk to the person (when you are calm and centered) and ask them about their own experience (see below).
2. Feel and express your emotions. We can't heal what we can't feel. This may mean digging up long-held or buried emotions from the past, your childhood or right now. Our past pain affects (and in many ways creates) our current upsets. Until we fully release the emotions held in our bodies, they continue to affect our present mindset -- creating tension in the body-mind and even leading to illness.
We are animals and have a primal body that registers every emotion we feel, directly impacting our hormonal balance, brain chemistry and immune system. It is crucial to address this animal nature by flushing out emotions. Learn to express your emotions in healthy ways.
Do anger work. Find ways to release anger, rage and blame in a primal way.
- Go into nature to yell or scream (primal scream technique).
- Cry, weep, hit something (pillow, tennis racket on couch cushions, boxing class).
- Allow yourself to be fully disappointed, sad or depressed. Talk about it. Share with a friend or therapist. Give yourself permission to thoroughly feel and just "be" exactly where you are.
- How does this feel in my body?
- What does it feel like to be abandoned/betrayed/rageful?
- What are the sensations?
Write the person (or yourself) a letter. You don't have to send it, but purging emotions out on paper gives them a place to live outside of yourself and your body. Validate your emotions by breathing life into them. Journaling at least three pages first thing in the morning is highly recommended.
Talk to the person (if possible). This is only helpful if it is safe for you to speak with the person and if you are in a calm, centered state of mind. It is not usually effective to speak with another person when you are angry or until you have processed your emotions significantly on your own. Then, if possible, express your feelings in a safe environment. It may be helpful to do so with a therapist/counselor present so you both feel heard and validated.
You can also do this even if the person is not physically present or has died. Sit quietly. Take a few deep breaths with your eyes closed. Call in the other person, their spirit and energy. Imagine them sitting across from you, how they look, how you feel. Tell them out loud what you are feeling. Imagine a dialogue between the two of you. Is there anything they want to say back to you? When you are finished, thank them for listening and release them in gratitude.
3. Rebuild safety. Once you have adequately expressed your emotions, create new boundaries for yourself within the relationship. This may mean you no longer see the person, end the relationship or establish new guidelines.
In the case of a breakup, for example, it is often healthiest to cut off all communication and contact with that person (unfriend them on Facebook, please!). In the future, you may be able to reestablish a friendship, but your psyche, heart and emotions need time to fully unplug and heal.
I once went years seeing my ex-boyfriend at events without speaking. We respected and cared for each other, but could not talk or be in contact until several years had passed. Now, we're close friends and love each other very much. The love never diminished, but we needed a lot of time and space to heal the hurt and tenderness.
Creating new boundaries can be especially tricky with close family or friends, as others involved may not understand or agree with your choice for more space and distance. It is crucial to protect yourself, your inner child, your tender emotions and hold strong boundaries. Notice if you tend to put others' needs or wants above your own. Now is the time to shift gears and practice radical self-care. Honor your need for space and reconfiguring old boundaries.
4. Let go. Fully letting go of a past transgression and completely forgiving may take many months or years. Imagine the process of letting go like a labyrinth or a mandala -- spiraling around and around a center point. You may have a phase of feeling better and then realize that you are still grieving or angry. This is natural. The soul does not heal on linear time. Give yourself space. Be patient. True healing happens on the quantum, spiritual plane. Ask for help. Get quiet, mindful and pray to let go. It will happen.
Please leave a comment below with what strategies help you forgive and let go!
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