Sometimes it is hard to just let go of negative emotions. When we feel we have been wronged in some way, we feel real emotional pain and often do not realize how much it affects our overall well-being. We hear the phrases “get over it,” “let it go” and, my personal favorite, “don’t let them live rent free in your head,” but it is so much easier said than done. How do we really learn to forgive, and why does it matter?
The American Psychological Association defines forgiveness as a process (or the result of the process) that involves a change in emotion and attitude regarding an offender. Most professionals also add that this is an intentional and voluntary process. Mahatma Gandhi was once quoted as saying “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Amber Tucker, a local licensed marriage and family therapist, said that forgiveness is not for benefit of the offender, but for ourselves. “When I have resentment, hurt or anger toward another, it is like drinking poison expecting the other person to die,” she said. “We end up hurting ourselves [by] ruminating [on] painful feelings.” In fact, holding on to anger or resentment can lead to increased irritability, difficulty sleeping and unhealthy coping, so it is truly in our best interest to forgive.
If you find yourself having difficulties being forgiving, you are not alone. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Fetzer Institute, 62% of Americans said that they could benefit from more forgiveness. Tucker outlined five steps we need to take when working toward true forgiveness.
- Recognize your own feelings. Whether you are angry, sad, hurt, scared or frustrated, you must start with identifying how you are feeling emotionally about the situation. Allow yourself to explore the feelings below the surface of your anger.
- Identify how you contributed to the resentment. Ask yourself if you did anything you regret or if there is something for which you may need to ask forgiveness. Often when we have been hurt, we have lashed out defensively or miscommunicated our feelings.
- Talk with a friend, family member or therapist about these feelings you are processing. Allow others whom you trust to give you feedback about your experience.
- Accept the situation. The key to forgiveness is not receiving an apology. It is about releasing yourself from the prison of “holding on.” This means practicing kindness and compassion toward those who have hurt you.
- Find ways to learn from this experience. We do not have to make the same mistake twice and you can apply these steps to anything you are hanging on to.
Some theories view reconciliation as a major part of the forgiveness process. Others feel those are independent processes. All agree that there are benefits to forgiveness. According to a series of studies done by the American Psychological Association, some of the benefits of forgiveness include improved physical and mental health, restoration of a sense of personal power for the victim, positive changes in affect and the promotion of hope for the resolution of conflicts.
Do not give someone control over you by spending your time focusing on your hurt feelings. Try to focus instead on the good around you. Forgiveness is about empowering yourself, so show your strength!