Processes of Forgiveness

Written by Meaghan Heighway, LMHC-P

“Study the past if you would define the future.” (Confucius)

Forgiveness is a huge concept, which people have struggled with throughout history. Particularly if you practice the tenets of Christ, there is a certain expectation that you will be more forgiving, because it’s the ‘Christian thing to do.’ Unfortunately, it’s because of this belief that Christians very often misunderstand what forgiveness literally means, and how they can apply that to their lives. If they become trapped in the expectation (whether it’s their own or someone else’s) of forgiveness because to not do so would be meaning they are being less than Christ-like, they are setting themselves up.

When we are confronted with the obligation to practice forgiveness, we need to deliberately take a step back, which can be very difficult to do. What makes it difficult? Because if we are trying to practice forgiveness, it implies that we have been hurt in some way. When we have been hurt, particularly if it is in a way that matters greatly to us, it is next to impossible to gain objectivity over the circumstances, at least in the immediate sense. It’s an oft’ repeated cliché that time heals all wounds, but there is a kernel of truth to it – the further removed we are from a situation by the never-ending concept of time passing, the more likely we are to have clearer thinking on the subject. But what do we do while we wait for time to pass and give us that added buffer of being removed from the situation? Here are four concrete suggestions while you consider what it means to forgive someone:

  1. Acknowledge your personal feelings. We have the innate God-given right to feel however we want to feel. God gave us emotions, as signs that we may be experiencing things that need to be addressed in some fashion. Because we are made in the image of God, we are naturally complex creatures, and that can take some time to unravel the snarls. When we have been hurt, we tend to either run away from the pain or become so immersed in it we have no hope of being realistic. Try this as an experiment: when you find yourself thinking about (or trying not to think about) the offense, pause. Notice what is being said in your mind at this moment. Note how your body feels while you’re thinking (or avoiding) these things (do your hands clench? Your muscles tense up? Do your eyes fill with tears? Do your hands or feet become cold? Do you feel like you’re choking or being strangled?). If you can, write down what you notice at that moment (what you’re thinking, what you were doing, what you were feeling). Not only does this help to gain some distance in the moment, but it enables you to gain some control over the situation. By repeatedly noting and recording what happens while you’re processing the offense, you are better armed to make more effective choices that will enable you to move forward. By taking stock of what you’re literally saying to yourself and physically experiencing in the moment, you are acknowledging that this offense was not okay, and that you are affected by it.
  2. What really happened? One way that the mind protects itself is by practicing defensiveness. We often make declarative and absolute statements like, “It’s all his fault,” or “she shouldn’t have done that to me,” or, “he always does things like this.” Whether or not these statements are true, try to consider the situation like you were doing the job of an investigative reporter. Reporters have the job of being as factual and concrete as they can be, and while no one is immune from bias, at the crux of their profession is the obligation to be straightforward. If you were researching for a major newspaper the situation you feel grieved about, how would you gather the facts? Who was there, what occurred, what led up to it, what was the environment, what was actually said, how did it finish? Then try compiling all the facts together, without editorial comment, as though you were submitting it in rough draft form for a newspaper article. Then ask yourself: Do I see the situation differently? Do I feel less emotional about the offense? Sometimes pulling away and trying to gain objectivity lessens the impact of the offense.
  3. Practice compassion. One way of tying both of the aforementioned suggestions together is to practice compassion towards yourself. When you practice noticing what your personal feelings are telling you, that can be a huge and difficult step. Acknowledge your personal effort and courage in deliberately forcing yourself to be aware of something that hurts (vs. running from it or trying to numb the pain). While you are trying to become more educated on if there are certain scenarios that make you more susceptible to experiencing these waves of emotions, practice compassion towards yourself, by mentally saying, Good job! I’m so proud of you for doing this, (insert your name here). This is hard stuff but you are doing it anyway and proving you can handle it. That’s awesome! Or, if you are alone, you might want to even practice these affirmations out loud! (By the way – addressing ourselves in the third person, as though we were another human addressing ourselves, makes us more prone to actually believing a statement, vs. just saying it to ourselves directly. Isn’t it funny how the mind takes things in?) You might also want to try making a self compassion ritual for yourself as you continue to process your experience. For example: Set aside ten minutes daily for yourself (try adding this to your calendar, and don’t stand yourself up!). During these ten minutes, put yourself in an environment that feels the most safe and comfortable at the moment (i.e. sitting in a quiet corner of the house, taking a walk outside). Become mindfully aware of your breath as it goes in and out. You’re not trying to empty your mind, but rather draw attention to how you can practice compassion towards yourself. Try to center your mind on an affirmation that is meaningful to you (a favorite Bible verse that reminds you of God’s love for you; a particular word, like peace, or calm, or enough that resonates with you, etc.). If other thoughts or worries try to intrude, acknowledge these mental events, and ‘watch’ them go on by – you don’t need to stop them or listen to them, just see that they are there and return back to your affirmation. As your breathing becomes calm and you focus on the words that are important, be fully present in that moment. After your time is done, note how you feel coming out of that place – are you more relaxed, open, confident? Ultimately, we can’t give what we don’t have – if we aren’t able to practice compassion for ourselves first, we will be even less equipped to practice compassion and forgiveness towards another person. By preparing our minds to have more compassion towards ourselves, we are slowly paving the way to have compassion for others.
  4. Moving on. The more we practice compassion for ourselves, the more equipped we are to give it out to other people. Part of the difficulty of forgiving someone is that we may not feel like they ‘deserve’ to be forgiven, or we mistakenly believe the lie that this offense means that they are all bad or even evil. Forgiveness is not about whether or not someone deserves to be forgiven – it really is about choosing to let go of something and acknowledging that we aren’t gaining anything by holding on to our inner resentment. While as Christians we are called to forgive, God understands how difficult it is to do this and knows it takes time. Part of the process is realizing that an element of practicing this is not wanting to spend our limited energy hanging on to one more thing. By choosing to let it go and actively practice forgiveness, we are giving ourselves the gift of increased energy that can be put to better use elsewhere. Also, when we practice compassion for ourselves, we acknowledge our own humanity and that we are doing the best we can. Similarly, we eventually have the hope of being able to extend this kind of compassion to the one who offended us. Just as we know that we fail sometimes, make mistakes, or simply have limits, so does everyone else. Practicing compassion for the one who hurt us is a gradual process, and shouldn’t be attempted right away. However, once you’ve done some work in moving through the experience, consider the person who offended you. What was going on in their lives at the time? What kind of environment were they in? What was happening with their health, family, community? These and other questions can help remind us that the one who hurt us is human as well, and therefore fallible, just as we are. When we can acknowledge that the one who offended us is human, we are better equipped to practice compassion towards them.

 

This article opened with a quote, “Study the past if you would define the future.” I would add, “and study the present.” As you move through the forgiveness process, study what happened and how you are currently going through the present, so that you may make better decisions for the days ahead. Above all, realize that God is with you through every step, and that He is proud of you for walking down this road of forgiveness.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog is intended to educate, inform and entertain. This does not represent psychotherapy, therapeutic assessment, or any other form of therapeutic intervention. This should not be used as a substitute for consultation and treatment with a licensed mental health professional. If you have questions related to the material contained in this site please contact CCM or a licensed mental health professional of your choice.

 

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