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The 5 Psychological Stages of Forgiveness

When most of us don't understand the need to forgive, it becomes the type of forgiveness that makes us believe we are doing it for "the other" -- usually in return for some reward.
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Forgiveness has been a misunderstood concept used mostly by religion to encourage humans not to hold a grudge and to let go. However, most humans have an innate need to comprehend and rationalize something to be able to truly follow it through. In other words, consciously or unconsciously, you may ask this question: Why should I forgive?

When most of us don't understand the need to forgive, it becomes the type of forgiveness that makes us believe we are doing it for "the other" -- usually in return for some reward. I have worked with many clients who have used this method thinking that they have been able to forgive but when we explore it further, it is obvious that most haven't really forgiven but have only denied and/or repressed the emotions associated with it. This method is more like forgetting and not forgiving. What we forgive, we release; but what we forget through repression is still going to affect us. These people have learned to deny any feelings attached to the person who needs to be forgiven, in an attempt to make them believe that they have mastered this art. Not knowing that this, in the long run, will only create more of an unconscious resentment or angers either toward that perpetrator or toward a third party who, in most cases, happens to be the doormat.

Forgiveness is a process not an immediate goal. In order for you to be able to forgive you have to digest the fact that you need to do it for you and not someone else. Below are some of the stages to forgiveness that you may find useful:

1.Define who and what it is that you need to forgive: First, identify the person who has affected you negatively and with whom you still have an anxious attachment, physically or emotionally. Then, identify the specific behavior that damaged you. Be precise and clear about this. Write it down and reflect on it. Think of the person as a whole person with positive and negative behaviors and his own life experience. Don't make the person the behavior, but remember that the behavior a part of that person. This will give you a better perspective when you are trying to understand the situation. It is rare if not impossible that a person is all evil. Looking at it this way will help you become more objective and may even help you to feel compassion toward the person who damaged you. This is not an excuse but an explanation. Excuses remove the element of responsibility but explanations create compassion.

2. Let the feeling be felt: Any feelings that are attached to the damaging behavior need to be brought to the surface. You need to find a safe place to do this, to let the feeling out and to process it, to release these toxins. If the person who hurt you is now more open and you feel safe communicating with him, sit down and talk to him about your feelings or write them to him. If this is not possible, then use an empty chair technique or some other type of an imaginary technique to let the feeling out. If you need to cry, do so. If you get angry, find a safe place to let the anger out. In some cases, you may need professional help for this stage. If that's the case, invest in yourself.

3. Understand why forgiveness is good for "you": Many of us have anxious and negative attachments to people who have hurt us. This is like a cord that attaches us to the perpetrator in a negative way and is based on anger, hate, resentment and sometimes mixed with irrational guilt or shame. This could create a love-hate type of a feeling and an internal conflict. All of these are heavy and negative toxins that need to be released. When you cut this cord between you and the perpetrator, you feel liberated, you feel light, and you feel like a new person. This internal transformation makes you more open to the positive that life has to offer. When you let the cord hold you back, it slows you down from moving forward. That is why you have to cut the cord through forgiveness.

4. Have clear boundaries with the perpetrator: You need to make sure you rebuild a place of safety for yourself. And that means having clear boundaries with your surrounding including the person who damaged you so he can't repeat his behavior. You need to protect yourself and make sure you feel secure and that can be accomplished through clear boundaries.

5. Remember that it needs certain courage to be able to forgive: Most of us like to stay in our comfort zone, not wanting to face our deep emotions since they make us feel anxious, at first. Now knowing that it may be so in the beginning but at the end, it will be more liberating. It is like running away from chemotherapy because it does not feel good, but chemotherapy can get rid of the cancer.

At the end, you have to realize that forgiveness is an internal feeling and not a certain behavior. It cannot be an imitation, it has to be authentic. Also, be patient with the process since it differs with different people and situations as to how long it takes people to forgive. Do it when you're ready and don't push anyone into doing it, if they are not ready to do so. Again, have a little faith and give yourself some credit for trying to forgive.

Roya R. Rad, MA, PsyD
Self Knowledge Base & Foundation
A non-profit dedicated to public education

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