It happens all the time. Someone says or does something offensive and you’re left feeling hurt and angry. We have a natural tendency to fight back, to seek revenge, to be anything but forgiving. But having an attitude of unforgiveness usually affects your heart more than that of the person who wronged you. You may suffer more by prolonging the pain unless you can extend grace to the other person. This isn’t an easy task. However, psychologists and spiritual leaders indicate that practicing forgiveness in our lives provides greater mental health and better relationships overall. While that sounds good in theory, it’s important to begin by understanding what forgiveness is — and is not.
Forgive… and Forget?
How many times have you encountered the phrase “forgive and forget”? Our culture seems to indicate that we’re supposed to forgive someone for hurting us — and then act like nothing happened in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time with that. You might say you have forgiven someone, but in reality, hold onto the pain inside. This ultimately affects how you respond to the other person in future interactions. You might start to resent them or even avoid them entirely. This could go on without the offending party even suspecting there’s a storm brewing inside you. And who do you think is damaged even further in this situation? You are, as you hold on more tightly to the hurt!
Oftentimes, forgetting an offense so easily seems nearly impossible. That’s quite normal. You would be wise not to dismiss everything without reflecting on how and why the hurt took place. Many times it’s best to remember the details of what happened. Not so you can form any kind of vendetta against the other person, but so you can learn from the situation. You could probably discover valuable clues to your own emotional makeup if you give yourself space to reflect. Instead of becoming jaded or skeptical of others, your experience might lead to a more balanced and mature outlook on human relationships.
If you consider when you have wronged someone and personally sought forgiveness, you might better understand your own behavior for what it is, imperfect and flawed. If nothing else, perhaps you can prevent something like this happening again in the future. Practicing forgiveness can be a positive thing, helping us to slow our judgement of other people.
The Process of Forgiveness
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden. Practicing forgiveness takes time and effort. Not everyone will choose to forgive, but if you do decide to make that your plan, taking certain steps may help with the process. Acknowledging the hurt is the beginning. This means accepting your feelings and facing the situation with honesty and courage. As you reflect on what happened and how it made you feel, it pays to take time to step back emotionally. Try to look at the circumstances from other perspectives. Maybe you can empathize with the other person and begin to comprehend why they acted in such a way. Thinking about your own past behavior can be helpful. For example, under the circumstances, might you have done the same thing?
I can think of a time in the recent past when I counted on someone to be on time for an event we were attending. She was late and I was upset about it. I felt like I wasn’t important enough to expect that sort of commitment from our friendship. Although she apologized (and had a legitimate reason for her tardiness), I was still miffed.
Until I began to put the proverbial shoe on the other foot. I thought about my own past actions. Unfortunately, I am too often late because I can easily find so many things to do that I lose track of time and end up rushing around and making excuses for being late. So I had no choice but to extend grace to her, forgive her, and make a mental note about how I would try to avoid situations where I was the one who didn’t show up on time!
Letting Go and Moving Forward
Learning from your experiences always allows you to make better choices. In fact, practicing forgiveness can adjust attitudes and behaviors that help you avoid future conflicts. When you can reflect upon and then let go of hurts, you can be confident that you will be doing your mental health a favor. You might not get an apology from the other person — or even have the opportunity to express your hurt openly — but you have the option to choose your next step. Whether to continue in the relationship or disengage either for a time, or even permanently. You can’t control what happened to you, but you do have power to choose how you will move forward and end the suffering.
Jack Kornfield, psychologist and author beautifully summarizes the real power of practicing forgiveness as follows:
Forgiveness is, in particular, the capacity to let go, to release the suffering, the sorrows, the burdens of the pains and betrayals of the past, and instead to choose the mystery of love. Forgiveness shifts us from the small separate sense of ourselves to a capacity to renew, to let go, to live in love.“The Ancient Heart of Forgiveness” (https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_ancient_heart_of_forgiveness):
Try forgiving and be free from the suffering you’ve experienced. In doing so, you are choosing love — always a better way!