How To Forgive: Clearing Away Emotional Clutter

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“You have the power to take away someone’s happiness by refusing to forgive.  That someone is you.”  —  Alan Cohen

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful practices we can embrace in order to live with an open and loving heart. Forgiveness is an often misunderstood concept and as a result, can be difficult to apply in our lives.

What is forgiveness? Here is what it is not. It is not deciding that what someone has done to you is acceptable. This misunderstanding about forgiveness acts as an obstacle in our attempt to forgive others. We know that what someone has done to us is not OK and as a result we are not interested in forgiving that person.

Instead, when we change our definition of forgiveness and see it as an opportunity to let go of emotions, such as anger, resentment, sadness and grief, that persist in relation to an incident or person in our lives, we may be far more motivated to explore the topic. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to feel open and loving despite how others act, instead of feeling angry resentful and sad? When forgiveness is defined that way, it seems like a very attractive goal.

Another obstacle to forgiving another is the misunderstanding that a reintegration, with the person who has done something unacceptable to you, must follow. Betrayal by a friend, for instance, can proceed to forgiveness and lead to a reconnection with that friend, integrating a better mutual understanding of each other, compassion for one another and a deeper relationship. On the other hand, if the friend who has betrayed you does not take responsibility for her actions, shows no regret and perhaps attempts to justify the betrayal, it is reasonable to assume this person is likely to betray again. Deciding not to integrate this person back into your life – not out of retaliation but out of self-love – can be a wise and loving decision for you both. Forgiveness of this person, however, is still possible, despite lack of recognition or apology, because forgiveness is about healing yourself. No participation of the perpetrator is needed!

Expressing the feelings that are inside of us in reaction to whatever another has done, is vital to forgiveness. Feeling the anger and hurt after a friend’s betrayal moves us through those feelings, until they are literally expressed – outside of us and no longer inside of us. As a wise hippie once said, “You have to feel it to heal it”. As corny as this expression may be, it works. It just works. Feel the anger, hurt and pain that you feel in response to another. Express it – in a responsible way – in order to get past it and let it go.

Self-forgiveness is also a vital component of forgiving others. If anger and resentment toward a person or an incident seems to linger, self-forgiveness is often the way to get past these feelings. We can become so focused on the one who ‘did us wrong’ that we fail to look at the judgments and criticism we may be directing toward ourselves. A friend’s betrayal may make us feel gullible, embarrassed and vulnerable. We may not like these feelings at all. However, until we feel these feelings and then forgive ourselves for being a fallible human being, the anger and resentment probably won’t subside.

Many of us learned as children that it was counterproductive to fight back with our parents, who really had power over our very survival. Even if we were being treated in an unacceptable manner, keeping quiet and acquiescing was a way to prevent the situation from getting even worse. Or, perhaps we did fight back only to have our parents treat us unfairly even more. As adults, our automatic response may be to keep quiet or acquiesce in the face of conflict in order to survive the situation. Perhaps we are still combative as adults, fighting every battle instead of letting the little things go, which ultimately increases our own suffering more than anyone else’s. The avoidance of the shame or embarrassment or anger we then feel for not standing up for ourselves – or by standing up for ourselves too vehemently – can cloud our ability to forgive another.

Once we are able to feel compassion and understanding for our own actions, it can enable us to feel compassion and understanding for the person who has wronged us. Instead of labeling the friend who has betrayed us as “evil” or a “lost cause”, perhaps we can see how she was acting out of her own need to survive, based on her own feelings of powerlessness. Again, it doesn’t make the betrayal acceptable, but it can make it understandable and perhaps we can begin to feel compassion for that person. After all, we are all human beings ultimately having a very similar experience.

“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare…” – Anne Lamott

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