The Art Of Breaking Free. A Step-by-Step Guide To Forgiveness.


I am furious, disappointed and deeply hurt. "How could she have betrayed me so badly? A 'friend' of so many years? Really?!?"

Within the inner chaos caused by this shock, one thing is clear:
"I will never forgive her!" A longstanding friend has just turned into the enemy. It can't get any worse than that.

And so, the bitter-sweet wheel starts spinning. With each resentful thought, with each vengeful inner dialogue it gains momentum. Yes, this feels like the only thing to do - to just let emotional gravity take its course - and it's toll...

It's bitter - the pain is still there and demands to be kept and fed, in memory of this despicable person. The sweetness, however, derives from the vengeful satisfaction I get from finding her reduced to this detrimental betrayal, casting its shadow over previous memories. Nothing left to cherish.

This is not going to end well. We all know that. It's exhausting, and it turns us into resentful, diminished versions of ourselves.

So, how can we free ourselves from this debilitating dynamic that so easily turns into a lasting obsession?

The unwelcome answer: by doing the very thing we have vowed against doing, by forgiving.

Forgiveness requires a brutally counterintuitive response to the hurtful experience: relaxing clenched fists - and letting go, and feeling the hurt while resisting the pull of armouring up.

That's a tough package.

How can this be done? What does it take to let go?
This burning question led me to research the facilitating and obstructing factors of forgiveness in depth, retrieving information from counsellors from around the globe, who are in the privileged position of witnessing people's letting go on a regular basis.

The findings confirmed forgiveness as a universal phenomenon of highest impact on our well-being.There is a wide agreement that forgiveness is a process that starts with the conscious choice of the wounded. This decision of letting go must mature genuinely and cannot be pushed without compromising its progression.

Forgiveness unfolds in stages similar to those of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It leaves us changed, as we need to rearrange our inner realities in order to accommodate an experience that we initially could only reject.

More often than not forgiveness feels like an overwhelming task. Contemplating its impressive benefits, however, has proven to be a helpful first step out of the bitter pit. Forgiveness heals our wounded self-image, rebuilds our self-worth, restores inner peace, it makes us stronger and wiser, increases our capacity to love, and leads to a new personal freedom.

A common roadblock on our path of letting go is overcoming our pride. The wounded Ego will resist forgiveness with all its power. The bigger the Ego, the harder it gets. That's why narcissists have no problem with forgiveness: they don't even go there. It's precisely our empathic capacity that will poke and push us when we are stuck in non-forgiveness. Deep down we can't deny our shared humanness with the one who has hurt us; it doesn't take much for us to turn from victim into offender. Aren't we all a "House of many Rooms"? As offensive as this idea may feel at first, it is a most powerful fuel on the way to letting go.

Distorted, even false ideas about forgiveness are another obstacle preventing people from finding their way into new freedom.

Some people think that forgiveness equals reconciliation. That's not true.
We can find a way to make peace with the past, while deciding not to get back in touch with the person who wronged us.

Some people think that withholding forgiveness is the perfect way to get even. Careful!
We can never be sure the offender even cares whether or not we forgive; we can only be sure of one thing: we will suffer! Non-forgiveness is a major source for psychosomatic problems and unhappiness. Each unresolved issue constitutes a substantial energy-leakage, making us cringe at the mere thought of it.

"Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies." Nelson Mandela

Some people think that forgiveness is for others. Well, yes, it probably is. But -
First and foremost forgiveness is for our own selves, to get rid of the negativity around a painful experience. If we don't find a way to let go, we will remain bound to the perpetrator in a most expensive way: through a bridge of hatred. The more intense the emotions - the stronger the connection. Forgiveness is the only way to free ourselves and move on.

Some believe that forgiveness is for the weak, the coward, and the needy. Not so.
As my research has shown, forgiveness requires the full extent of pain, bitterness and inner devastation to emerge before we can choose to make peace with this reality - an act of incredible courage.

"Forgiveness is only properly in place where initially resentment is properly in place." J.G. Murphy (1982)

One of the main concerns among mental health experts is that of premature or fake forgiveness.
We forgive prematurely when we can't face the reality of what happened, so we don't go through the process of forgiveness. We close our eyes and want to get it over with. "It's OK, honey, I forgive you." A classic 'fake-forgiveness' statement that will perpetuate an unhealthy situation. No asking for details, no hard feelings, yet...

The harmful effects of fake-forgiveness will show over time. Suppressed anger will poison the relational space, showing up at any opportunity in sarcastic comments. The hurt person's self-esteem will continue to go down in suffocating silence. Trust is broken; an increasing sense of danger replaces the feeling of cozy familiarity. Fake-forgiveness not only turns us into unhappy people, like non-forgiveness, but it also disempowers us due to the denial involved. No wonder premature-forgiveness has been pointed out as a serious mental health threat!

So, if we are tired of being mad, what can we do to move towards freedom?
Here is a 2-phase path towards freedom: 3 steps of mental preparation, 8 steps of emotional work.

First, let's get into the right mind-set:
1. Recount the abundant benefits of forgiveness, remember the costs of non-forgiveness. This will strengthen you to move on.

2. Be aware of fake-forgiveness. Accept that it can take some time before we are ready to let go.

3. Remember that pain is part of life. The closer we are, the more painful the wounds we are inflicting on each other, simply because love doesn't allow for our usual protective layers; we are bound to hurt and be hurt - a reality we cannot change.

Now we are ready to start the emotional work.

1. Be safe: The first thing we should aim at is getting ourselves out of the danger zone and making sure the hurt is part of the past; we can't really forgive something that we are expecting to keep happening!

2. Dive in: Allow yourself to remember, feel and understand what has happened to you. Let it all emerge. No holding back. Get all the support you can during this stage - a trusted friend, a therapist, a coach. It's the most painful stage in this process, where we easily divert into fake-forgiveness. Be gentle, don't push yourself. This needs time, depending on the severity of the offence. But remember: it's just a transitory stage; we move towards freedom.

3. Expand: Once nothing new comes up, all has been said, cried over, shouted about, then we can start moving forward - start imagining the offender's situation. What may have led him/her to do this? What would cause a person to act like this? We are all "Houses of many rooms" - and potential offenders as well as victims. This is important to acknowledge here, as hard as it may seem.

4. Reach out? Do you feel the need of reaching out and confront the perpetrator with the injustice and the pain he/she has caused? This can be a powerfully strengthening experience. However, this could also backfire if the wounded doesn't feel strong enough to handle a possibly hurtful response. Discuss this with a trusted person.

5. Empower: Ask yourself the most outrageous of questions: could I have had a part in this offence? As innocent as we may be, often (not always) we can see in retrospect that we unknowingly did something that triggered the hurtful action. Understanding the dynamics of what happened will help us to regain a sense of control and power.

6. Relinquish: If you believe in God or in a higher power, you may be able to trust that eventually justice will be done - no matter how humanly impossible this may seem at the moment. This trust has shown to help victims in the process of letting go.

7. Persevere: Be patient and hold on to your decision to let go. Time is an important factor here. This process will move you through ups and downs, and sometimes you may even wonder if you are moving at all.

8. Celebrate: over time the intensity of emotions will subside until you realise it's gone, and not only that: by overcoming it, the initially negative experience will have turned into a source of wisdom and strength.

"The experience of violation and its impact on the forgiving person's life is different at the end of the process than it was at the beginning". Malcolm & Greenberg (2000)

Looking back now at the wounding incident with my friend, I still feel the loss of somebody I once deeply trusted. I have accepted that she is not the "pure" person I thought she was, and that her actions had little to do with me, but a lot with her own unhappy life situation. I have come to understand that at this point in time it is better for me to distance and protect myself, and I have arrived at a place where I genuinely can wish her well and release her.
No more triggers that push me into angry inner dialogues, no more negative thoughts going her way.

I have grown,
and I am free.