“But how can I forgive him for what he did to me? I was a child!” cried the 32 year old child sexual abuse survivor.
“Doesn’t forgiveness mean I am saying what you did to me is OK, and I’m supposed to be all nice to you, and pretend that nothing happened?,” asked the woman who was angry at a family member.
“Can I let go without forgiving?,” asked many a person who sat in my office working on inner transformation.
When it comes to forgiveness and letting go of past trauma or angst that has been bottled up inside us, there are lots of questions and no easy answers.
Which is why I figured it would be worth writing about, based on my training as well as my clinical experiences with people over time, like the ones I mentioned above.
Ultimately, the case I make is for us to live a life that is joyful, peaceful, free, in the here and now, and well-integrated with the scars of the past that have formed but which can’t hurt us anymore.
Those scars will make their presence felt once in a while, but that’s because they are a part of us, and can teach us that who we are is because of how we braved the storm and sailed through.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me break this down into bite-sized chunks.
First, what causes the anger / resentment that we hold on to?
Significant negative life events can get encoded in our memory and cause us to have intense emotional reactions (mood swings, tearfulness, anger) when we remember those painful experiences. Holding a grudge is, to use a technical term, an “imagined emotional response.” What this means is that one constantly (and often automatically) stokes the negative emotions in order to keep them sustained enough over a long period of time. Add to that a layer of vengeful, anger-filled thoughts that amplify and exaggerate the incident with such contempt that it intensifies the emotional imagery and the physical responses, and we feel justified in a way to continue feeling this way.
In other words, we hard-wire ourselves to want to feel negative emotions as the right response to a negative event. Think about that.
Now, I have to admit, that talking about forgiveness with clients in session often is a difficult process. They trust me, open their heart out session after session, but when I gently bring up forgiveness after some time knowing that the resentment and anger are obstacles in their own right, there is a cognitive dissonance created in their minds.
“Are you kidding?” “Never,” “Not after what she did to me,” are some common reactions, often laced with anger and rage. While they go along with me, I do realize how challenging a concept this is for them to even start working on.
When we start talking about heartbreak and how we guard ourselves from further hurt, the conversations often get intense, with expressed emotions often being high. For me, the actual work starts here.
So, how do we actually feel about forgiveness?
Take a few moments and notice what the suggestion of forgiving someone evokes for you. Allow an individual to come to mind whom you feel has been a source of personal pain. How do you feel about forgiving that person? What does it mean to you to forgive him or her? What would you have to do in order to forgive?
When people get hurt by the ones they love, anger and resentment build up.
“We trusted them, we loved them, so how could they do this to us?”
And just so that they don’t hurt us again, we guard our hearts fiercely. We don’t let them in again, we create a distance, our communication becomes stilted, and gradually we stop talking. Misunderstandings and assumptions build up, hurt festers more, because our viewing lens often becomes “This person hurt me, and will continue to hurt me, so I better guard myself.”
We assume the person’s conduct to be a certain way, and we add our own perceptions of “mean, vicious, evil, ill-intentioned, hypocrite, manipulative, and any other adjectives we can think of, based on one event / incident. Even long after the incident is over. That is our hurt, anger, bitterness, and resentment speaking, which taints our perceptions and further festers within us. And any mention of that person or incident acts as a trigger and we react negatively, mostly with anger, often without our knowledge for why we reacted that way. And the hurt within ourselves continues to hold us back.
We may think that the guardedness is OK, that it’s needed to protect ourselves from getting hurt again, that we are doing the right thing by standing up for ourselves, but – and here’s the crucial thing – does it come with a sense of peace, calm, and equanimity? Have we actually gotten over the hurt to begin with? How is holding onto the anger and resentment helping us? Is it affecting our relationships with others as well? The ones who truly love us? Is it affecting us within? It’s only when we reflect on these questions and open up our hearts to acknowledging that there is healing after hurt, that letting go and forgiveness is for ourselves to benefit from does the internal shift happen.
That’s right, forgiveness is for ourselves to benefit from.
Before we get to what forgiveness is, let’s get to what forgiveness is not:
— It is not forgetting, excusing or condoning the other person’s hurtful act
— It is not to make the other person feel better. If it happens as an organic result of your conversation with him/her then it is a different thing.
— It is not about minimizing the hurt or anger you feel by asking you to let go.
— It is not about having you be a “bigger” person, displaying self-righteousness and an attitude of superiority who is operating at a higher spiritual plane and looking down at someone who demands your mercy.
— It does not require that you verbally communicate directly to the person you have forgiven.
— It is not pretending everything is just fine when you actually feel it isn’t. There is a difference between being truly forgiving and denying or repressing anger and hurt, and this often seems deceptive and confusing.
Which brings us to the next important question: Why do people like to hold onto grudges?
For many of us, there are major stakes in letting go of anger and resentment because we feel that we get something from holding onto it. Sounds familiar? These benefits, referred to as “secondary gains,” are frequently unconscious and very powerful until we become consciously aware of them and find healthier ways to respond.
It’s important for us to reflect on whether we use anger or resentment in any of the following ways:
1. Do we stay angry because it gives us a feeling of being more powerful and in control?
2. Do we use anger as fuel for getting things done?
3. Do we use anger to avoid communication?
4. Do we use anger to help us feel safe? Does it seem to serve as a protection? A wall?
5. Do we use anger as a way to assert that we are “right” when we may not be so?
6. Do we hold onto anger to make others feel guilty?
7. Do we use anger to avoid working through the feelings that are seething under the anger?
8. Does our anger keep us in hold of the the role of the victim?
9. Do we use anger to hold onto a relationship?
10. The big one: Do we remain resentful so that we don’t have to take responsibility for our role in what’s happening in our life now, or for how we feel? This tends to be one of the most powerful set of secondary gains of holding onto resentment, for as long as we hold onto resentment, we can always blame someone else for our unhappiness and misery. It’s somebody else’s fault. People do contribute to our happiness or unhappiness, I agree, but ultimately we are responsible for how we feel. If we indulge in constant blame games and resentments, never attempting to see the larger picture, we avoid acknowledging the potential power we have in changing our relationship, our equation to the situation. As long as we see the problem as exclusively outside ourselves—that is, we have no role in how we feel—we keep ourselves helpless and trapped.
So what actually happens when we hold on to our grudges?
Here are the pitfalls:
We become so wrapped up in the “wrong” and perpetuating our guard against the wrong that we forget to live in the moment. Our minds are constantly being triggered by the memories or our thoughts and our emotions get caught up in that warp. We are preoccupied and consumed by the incessant barrage of memories that trigger our belief patterns and lower our thresholds of tolerance.
Those belief patterns get formed by our identifying with the thoughts and our feelings towards the “perpetrator.” Our viewing lens becomes distorted and even a benign action by the person we are upset with, gets filtered through the faulty belief pattern and we ascribe a malicious intent backed up by no real evidence. It’s my “feeling,” or “I just know it,” is what I often hear people say.
We become depressed, anxious, angry, and we may not know why. It becomes our new normal till people express concern about our well-being.
Our anger and bitterness creeps into new relationships and new experiences and we become cynical or sceptical about the goodness of people.
Our irritability spills onto our loved ones, who do not deserve to be scapegoats for anger festering towards someone else.
We are doing ourselves a huge disservice by suffering for something that we do not have control over; a memory of the past, or a person who continues to be a certain way. What we do have control over is how we choose to respond to it. Do we hold on to that grudge, or do we let go? And if we choose to let go, then what does it entail?
So what is forgiveness about?
It is s decision, an attitude, a process, and eventually a way of life.
It is about you and having you function at your optimal, best self by resolving feelings of anger, bitterness, hatred, self-loathing, guilt, shame and making way for emotions of joy, peace, contentment, meaning, purpose, and love.
It reawakens us to the truth of our own goodness and belief in self-love
It is about you letting go of thoughts pertaining to anger, hurt, vengeance, and resentment. Why should I, you may ask.
Think about how the act that hurt or offended you, has you in its vice like grip. You still continue to give the person control in a way of hurting you even when they are not physically present. You are the one who has put a wall around you to protect yourself from hurt, so who have you given the charge to? You have in a way acknowledged that the other person has a bigger impact on you and so you have your arms and ammunition on your back. They are living their life, with no inkling of the extent of anguish you are going through. So who is suffering more? When you forgive and let go, you are liberated from that grip, and you wrench yourself out of the control of the person who harmed you.
Resolving the hurt, letting go, and focusing on emerging from the incident brings a peace that helps you move forward. “Always move forward,” is a good motto to have.
Let me bring this home. Here are all the ways in which forgiving benefits us.
The benefits of forgiving are many, they affect health across psychological and physical benefits, and also fosters healthier relationships:
Improved overall mental health more so when it comes to psychological hardiness, or our ability to bounce back from failures, hurt, and disappointments, our ability to love and nurture ourselves, enabling a fostering of hope and optimism.
Less anxiety, stress, hostility; fewer symptoms of depression
Improved heart health
A stronger immune system
If it is so awesome, why is forgiveness such a difficult concept for us to fathom as adults?
It’s because empathy cultivation rarely or never happened when we were children. By empathy I mean connecting to the other person; putting yourself in his/her shoes; feeling “with” that person; however their equation with you may be. When it comes to someone offending us, it is the ability to hold ourselves through the hurt, but also to see the situation from the other person’s perspective and attempting to understand what might have contributed to the behavior that caused harm. We weren’t socialized much with the concept of forgiveness and empathy and hence as adults we find it difficult to work with because we haven’t practiced it enough.
So where do we start when we talk about reaching a state of forgiveness?
A basic understanding of human nature helps because from there stems our behavior. At the center, core, or essence, we have the ability to be “aware;” to see clearly, without defensiveness and distortion. And then we always, always have “free will”- the ability to choose how we respond to situations. This core nature and fundamental capacity for clarity, conscious choice, and action is referred to as the Self.
The Self over the years and our experiences usually is covered by layers of our subpersonalities: “happy,” “manipulative,” “angry,” “guilty,” “perfectionist,” “control freak,” “critical”, “victim…” you get the drift. And we lose that Self. Till we focus on reclaiming it and returning to our core, our center, our essence.
Letting go often comes as the tool to bring the focus back to the Self, unadulterated, untainted, pure, a clean slate.
When you’re ready to move away from suffering, consider letting go, and commit to embracing forgiveness into your life, you might start with the following basic steps:
Recognize how forgiveness can truly alter your life. Focus on yourself, and on moving forward. Work through the resistances that the mind may throw in why you shouldn’t move onto this journey.
Identify what aspects of your broken Self need healing, who needs to be forgiven, and for what. Acknowledge your emotions and the harm done to you, and how it affected you personally, your relationships, and your behavior in general, and work to release them. Seek the help of a mental health professional to work this through if unable to do so on your own.
Choose to let go of the victim role and reframe it to being in charge of yourself so that you can let go of the vindictive grip, power, and control the offending person and the situation have
Engage in loving-kindness meditation, towards self and others. The world needs more love for sure 😊
Some questions may remain: What happens if I can’t forgive someone? Does forgiveness guarantee a reconciliation? Will the other person change his/her behavior? What if I’m the one who needs forgiveness?
The conversation continues next week, in Part 2 of Forgiveness: The Key to Freeing Ourselves 😊