Life is full of pain. About this we have no choice, it comes with the territory. What we do have choice around is how much we suffer. Life is full of ups and downs and feeling wounded occasionally doesn’t necessarily indicate that we’re doing anything wrong. Forgiveness allows us to be in charge of our own experience rather than being tossed around by others actions. Understanding that forgiveness is a verb and takes work can empower us to be in charge of our own experience.
Forgiveness is a verb
Forgiveness can be that magical elixir that allows us to go on loving even though we’ve experienced pain as part of our relationship, because what we hold onto holds onto us. It takes up space inside of us and absorbs energy that we could be using for joyful, productive living. And it can even come to define who we are if it becomes a deep pattern of thinking and feeling.
Most of us think of forgiveness as a gift that we give to another person. But first and foremost, forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. Daily we read a new research study on the cost of stress, anger and withheld emotion to our bodies and our minds. Our immune systems are compromised when we are under internal stress and our body pumps out stress related chemicals that do everything from thin our hair to cause us to put on weight. When we hold on too hard to past hurts we relive them as if they were happening over and over again and our bodies can’t always tell the difference between then and now; we tighten up and rev up for a fight even if none is at hand. In short we suffer more than the other guy when we can’t work through and release intense, stored emotion. And the same phenomenon can be at work if it’s ourselves we’re angry at, in fact forgiving ourselves for something we feel bad about can be harder than forgiving another person.
Forgiveness is a process, not an event.
Forgiveness is a process, not an event. It takes work, it takes time. And it doesn’t happen all at once nor does it happen completely, at least for a while. It has stages and there can be many roadblocks along the way. People, in my experience, struggle with a few myths when it comes to forgiveness, some of them are:
- If I forgive myself I’ll be more likely to do it again.
- Forgiving myself is wrong or selfish.
- If I forgive, my relationship with the person I’m forgiving will definitely improve.
- If I forgive, it means I want to continue to have a relationship with the person I’m forgiving.
- If I forgive, it means I’m condoning the behavior of the person I’m forgiving.
- If I haven’t forgotten, I haven’t really forgiven.
- I only need to forgive once.
- I forgive for the sake of the other person.
- If I forgive, I’ll NEVER AGAIN feel angry at that person for what happened.
- If I forgive, I forgo my right to hurt feelings.
In my book, The Magic of Forgiveness, I outline five stages that I see people go through as they forgive, much like the stages of the grief process. They are:
- Waking Up (something is blocking us from feeling at peace)
- Anger and Resentment (either we may be blocking these feelings or feel them over and over again)
- Sadness and Hurt (feelings that can make us feel vulnerable or lost), Integration (when we feel what’s really going on, understand and integrate rather than block),
- Reinvestment (when we reinvest our freed up energy by choice).
However we choose to forgive, it heads us in a self affirming direction. The decision to forgive implies that “I am valuing my own peace of mind more than a grudge.” Step by step, piece by piece, we feel lighter inside, less confused and tangled in our own web of negative feelings. And in forgiving someone else, we find, mysteriously that we may even be letting go of a piece of the puzzle, of the dynamic, that we were holding against or within ourselves.
Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, TEP, is the Director of the New York Psychodrama Training Institute and the Program Development for Breathe Life Healing Centers and executive editor of the Journal of Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. She serves on the board of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and is the author of 15 books. Dr. Dayton is the creator of the Internet's first interactive self-help website, www.emotionexplorer.com. Learn more at www.tiandayton.com.