Seven Steps To Forgiveness

An excerpt from Let Go, Heal, Be Happy by Mark Linden O’Meara

 

“Growth in wisdom may be gauged exactly by the diminution of ill-temper.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

 

In your healing process you may ask yourself whether it is necessary to forgive those who have harmed you. But first it is important to also ask whether there is anything to forgive. Suggesting that you need to forgive someone implies that it is beyond questioning whether they have truly done anything wrong at all. You must evaluate whether the issue is a serious one that requires forgiveness or whether it is just a misunderstanding or difference in viewpoint that caused the disruption in the relationship. Once you decide that forgiveness is a legitimate and necessary goal, you need to evaluate and clarify your understanding and definition of forgiveness.

 

First and foremost, forgiveness is something you do for yourself. It is also for the good of all people involved. It is an act that restores your sanity by changing your attitudes and feelings. In forgiveness, you do not condone the actions of others, nor do you minimize the impact those actions had on you. It is not a process of wiping the slate clean. It is a process of acknowledging what occurred, the impact of those actions or events, and the work you have done to cope with and resolve the problems.

 

Secondly, forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation. Forgiveness can occur without reconciliation or an apology from the offender. It is also important to note that forgiveness is not necessarily or even probably something you do only once. It is an ongoing process. If you do not forgive, you end up living with resentment and bitterness. If you are unable to forgive, you are more likely to avoid certain people and situations and have unhealthy thoughts of revenge. It appears that revenge is a purely human trait, not present in the animal world. Being prone to revenge correlates with a higher degree of depression. Even if you succeed in being revengeful or adopting an avoidance stance, these strategies rarely, if ever, bring you long term happiness. Forgiveness, on the other hand, brings about continuity in relationships and eliminates any sense of righteous indignation, contempt, hostility, and thoughts of retaliation. It also impacts the frequency of recall of troubling incidents. Forgiveness results in improvements in many measurable aspects of well-being. If another person knows that you have forgiven them, they too experience a greater degree of wellness. Furthermore, while it has been suggested that people are more likely to forgive those with whom they share close rather than distant relationships, making an effort to forgive those who are more distant can also benefit your own well-being.

 

On the other hand, by not forgiving, you end up harming yourself. Most definitions of serenity include not only acceptance and empathy, but also forgiveness as a fundamental means by which to attain it. Others have seen a lack of forgiving as an imprisoning of the soul. Terry Waites, upon release from his hostage ordeal, said that he felt it had been necessary to forgive his captors, otherwise he would have remained captive forever.

 

In my own path of forgiveness, I found there was a very spiritual dimension to the process. In doing forgiveness work, I discovered a greater sense of being human, and learned more about others. I learned about the frailty of the human condition, and the difficulties other people had faced. I also learned not to judge, to be mindful of my own limitations and to maintain a spiritual practice of love for myself, and others.

 

Still, it was a difficult process, as I needed to examine the nature of my anger, attributions and self-doubt. With situations of abuse, it became necessary to move towards seeing the abuser as a human being with weaknesses and someone who was not totally evil or bad. It is often easier to hate than to forgive. Naturally I was very angry with a number of people who had treated me poorly and verbally, emotionally or physically abused me. At times I felt I would like to confront them and hold them accountable for their actions. To heal it is necessary to gain understanding beyond these feelings.

 

While moving forward in your healing process you may consider confronting the offender. In such cases it is extremely important that you understand your expectations regarding the confrontation. It is important to stop further incidents, so one must be mindful that additional pain may arise from your expectations of the offender. You may expect them to apologize and dramatically change their behavior but this may not occur. Some people will deny the offence. Others may admit to it and apologize, yet continue with offensive or abusive behavior due to their own difficulties and problems. Others may begin their own process of healing, while still others may be resentful. In your quest to forgive you need to give up the notion that the offender owes you something or needs to make up for what they did or did not do. Only when you give up this notion can you have truly forgiven them.

 

While you may feel that confrontation is necessary, it is often ill-advised, as it never goes as planned. Forgiving involves the lack of a need to retaliate. It also involves accepting an apology if one is given. One of the most difficult things to do is to accept an apology when you are still very angry. You may not be at the same healing place as the other person and as a result of the timing, healing may not occur if you do not acknowledge the apology and modify your thoughts accordingly. You may be still invested in being angry and judging the other person. To heal and forgive you must begin to see the good in others. Remember that apologies come in many forms. Sometimes a gesture of goodwill, special eye contact, a hug or other body language, will suffice when words are hard to speak.

 

One of the most difficult types of forgiveness to achieve occurs when there is no acknowledgement of the incident or hurt. In this situation, you need to discover for yourself what you need to forgive. Essentially, you need to master your own healing process.

 

Another challenge for many is what is called “pseudo forgiveness”. You may go around saying “I’ve forgiven” but it is really only a state of denial. You haven’t really done the required work and are blocking out the feelings. Forgiveness involves giving up your sense of hostility and need for amends from another person or organization. To do so allows you to move on to greater things in your life. Studies of forgiveness have noted substantial improvements in peoples’ lives in the area of mental health when they forgive. These include improvements in relationships, physical health, and decreased levels of hostility, anxiety, and depression.

 

The Skill of Forgiveness

 

According to the latest research, forgiveness actually is a learned skill that comes with age and is developed over the total life span. According to a French study, adults are more likely to forgive than adolescents, and seniors are more likely to forgive than younger adults. There are also a number of factors that facilitate forgiveness or make it more difficult. The first consideration is the degree of harm that was experienced. Obviously, a simple mistake made by another person that has little impact on our lives is much easier to forgive. Secondly, if you have been adequately compensated in some way such as through an apology or kind deed, you will be more likely to forgive. In addition, strong emotions regarding an incident tend to make it more difficult to forgive. It is necessary to work through the emotions in order to bring the incident into a process of forgiveness. Finally, if you have a reason for why someone did something, or you can gain insight into why something happened, it is much easier to forgive.

 

In a forgiveness study, college students were told that a dog had bitten another person. One group was told the dog had been abused, while the other group was not given any reason. The first group exhibited far more compassion for the dog than the second group. By gaining a view of the other person as being human with flaws just like yourself, it becomes easier to forgive. One technique that seems to help facilitate the process of forgiving is to tell your story. Journaling can be very helpful. I remember an incident that happened years ago that I was angry about. I took some time and wrote out what happened as I remembered it. As the details flowed out, my ability to see other aspects of the incident expanded. I ended up with a much deeper understanding of the dynamics involved in the situation. Forgiveness became easier!

 

Blocks and Catalysts to Forgiving

 

Of all the factors that stop us from forgiving, age is not one of them. Study after study has shown that forgiveness is a learned skill and habit that seems to increase with age, not diminish as do so many other aspects of living. It seems that as you get wiser in your older years, you learn to forgive and increase your sense of wellbeing. As mentioned previously, another factor that helps you forgive is the closeness of the person you wish to forgive. You might find it more difficult to forgive a colleague than a close family member. What helps you forgive is a desire to restore the relationship, especially when the other person is a member of your close community.

 

From the studies I have read, there appears to be very little difference between genders in willingness to forgive. Mood is, however, a factor in willingness to forgive: it is easier to forgive when you are in a good mood. Also, generally speaking, people find it easier to forgive if there was no intent to harm, or if there was no negligence. The more severe the consequences, the more difficult most people find it to forgive.

 

There are other blocks to forgiveness that we can examine. First of all, some people want revenge or punishment. This is clearly a block to forgiveness. Others want to cancel the consequences and return to the state that they had before the incident. Often this is not possible and therefore blocks people from forgiving. Many people believe they cannot forgive if they have not received an apology. Correspondingly, many people find it easier to forgive if there is repentance and remorse on the part of the offender.

 

In some situations, people will forgive only out of social, peer or authority pressure. This type of forgiveness is not as effective in reducing anger and generating healing between the offender and the injured person. Forgiveness out of obligation is less effective than forgiveness derived from a sense of love and compassion for yourself and others.

 

Finally, some people find it easier to forgive after a period of time has elapsed since the event. Perhaps as you acknowledge and healthily express emotions, and the event fades into the background, friends, family, and colleagues realize the value of the relationship and are willing to make amends or let go.

 

Seven Steps to Forgiveness

 

Much has been written about forgiveness. Everywhere you turn people are saying you have to forgive, yet few people likely understand the process of true forgiving. For genuine healing, forgiveness is essential. The same holds for developing true compassion. One must be cautious though: I have learned that going from anger straight to compassion does not bring about authentic forgiveness. Unless there is a full understanding of the deeper process, it only creates a sense of pseudo forgiveness. In most cases the shortcut backfires. You have only repressed your anger. While you maintain an air of forgiveness, you may find yourself easily triggered when speaking of the original event, or you find yourself reacting emotionally when the issue is raised.

 

I have found that the following steps bring about lasting forgiveness when implemented and practiced on a daily basis. I’ve had many things to forgive, so I’ve had practice. I’ve noticed that it is easy to fall back into the trap of non-forgiveness and resentment unless you make it a daily habit to forgive. Why forgive? You forgive so that you can stop harming yourself through resentment and begin to move into a state of happiness and gratitude.

 

Stage 1 – Admit You Are Angry!

 

Many of us will echo the thoughts “What? I’m not supposed to get angry! I’ve done all this healing work!” I’ve learned that it is harmful to get angry but it is more harmful to be angry and not admit it! The way to check if you are angry is to observe your inner dialogue about how you are relating to yourself and others. Are you finding yourself being negative, critical or frustrated? Do you find yourself being impatient with people and critical of how things are done? Are you constantly blaming others for your troubles, wishing that others would change? If so, then it is likely you are angry. Try to recognize what you are angry about. It may not be recent little things, but something that happened months or years ago. Look back in time to what might have triggered your anger and where your expression has been blocked. Bitterness is anger with no outlet to be heard or a feeling that you cannot change anything. It is a form of helplessness. Try to discover what you are bitter about. Make a list of resentments. Don’t hold back or edit your thoughts. Being honest with yourself is the first step in healing anger.

 

Stage 2 – Acknowledge the Loss and Consequences

 

In order to fully forgive, you need to look at the consequences of the event. By consequences, I do not mean just emotional pain. Look at the past and the present, and honestly note any changes. Were you physically injured? Were you emotionally hurt? Did you suffer financial loss? What other types of losses occurred? Was there harm to other relationships? To achieve lasting forgiveness it is important to acknowledge all of the losses, otherwise forgiveness will have to be revisited. When listing the losses and consequences, try to look objectively at the incident without investing in the emotions around the losses at this time.

 

Stage 3 – Submit to a Feeling of Vulnerability

 

The next stage in forgiveness is to open yourself up to change and dissonance. You cannot spread butter when it is hAcceptance word on a 3d blue puzzle piece and a hole with the word Peace to illustrate the inner satisfaction and harmony you feel by admitting or accepting a shortcoming or faultard and cold. Forgiveness does not come easily when your ideas or thoughts of revenge and justice are hardened. You must retreat and re-examine your approach. Just like a pound of butter, if you want to forgive and heal, you need to let your ideas thaw and be molded into a new perspective and combined with other ideas and views. You need to admit that to harbor anger and resentments violates the laws of kindness and compassion both for yourself and other people. You must realize that in not forgiving, you are now betraying the person at whom you are angry. This is not an easy step. It can be painful to realize that it is you who needs to change, and that it is you who has the poison of anger and resentment. It is easy to build up a wall of justification around your thoughts, actions and feelings regarding the harm done to you. In order to heal and forgive, you need to break through this wall and tear it down completely!

 

This stage of forgiveness also requires you to look at whether there was any responsibility on your part. In some cases there was none; in others you may have taken action that contributed to the problem. In the latter case, it may be hard for you to admit that you caused part of your own suffering since it is easier to blame others than to take any responsibility. This stage requires an honest, fearless, kind and moral inventory of your own actions and behavior. Sometimes you may not like what you find, but facing your shadow can be one of the most powerful healing experiences. See if you can find some common

ground.

 

Stage 4 – Stop Punishing

 

One of the common impulses of people is to try to punish those who have harmed us. Most studies have shown that punishment rarely teaches anything other than to promote resentment in the person doing the punishing! Some of the ways you may punish are by withholding companionship, giving the silent treatment, or even giving compliments but then taking them back with an insult. You may try to go further with legal action, or by damaging things the other prizes, or by gossiping about them. In order to truly forgive, you need to give up the expectation that the other person will be punished. You can ask them to make amends for their harm, but if they refuse or are unable to make amends, then releasing them from the idea of punishment frees you from lingering resentment.

 

There is great wisdom in the following Buddhist teaching – “Should one person ignorantly do Punish Forgive Switch Shows Punishment or Forgivenesswrong, and another ignorantly becomes angry with him, who would be at fault? And who would be without fault?” It is far better to try to forgive, and reintegrate your friends back into community than to ostracize them through punishment. Try to practice compassion, work at developing a deeper understanding of how and why people behave the way they do. It seems that we prefer a simple explanation of things, yet you need to understand that human beings and the relationships between them are complex. Understanding the ways of the world and the people in it requires wisdom and self-control. Use the opportunity to forgive as a means of growth.

 

Stage 5 – Identify Some Good in the Other Person

 

This step, finding some good in the other person, is probably the most crucial step in bringing about lasting forgiveness. It can also be the hardest depending on the severity of the event you are trying to forgive.

 

According to Francis Bacon, the key to forgiveness is in “not expecting the other to change, to give love, to be kind and develop the ability to see that in everyone else’s eyes and heart there is some good.” In forgiving, you try not to think of yourself as being good and the other person bad. You can find it easier to forgive if you can understand that the other person has difficulties too, or was harmed in the past.

 

If you do not practice this step, forgiveness will be futile because it will be done with a sense of contempt. If you cannot find good in the other person, then at least pray for them. A wonderful technique for developing your vision of good in another is to imagine a seed of goodness in their heart, and in prayer imagine that both you and God are watering it to make it grow stronger. Better yet is to image that each person already has this great flower of goodness in them. Admit that it has been obscured from your view because of your anger, resentment and justifications. Learn to look for the good. At first, like developing any skill, it is challenging. You will become better at it with practice.

 

Stage 6 – Develop Genuine Neutrality

 

Hopefully in the process of forgiveness you will come to resolve any negative emotions and thoughts about yourself and the other person or organization. To do so requires that you do not expect or demand any payment or restitution after forgiveness. You must assume that there is no debt owed to you. Mother Theresa once said “it is between God and myself, it was never between me and them anyway.” This must be practiced daily. It is easy to slip into anger and resentment if you do not cultivate the practice of neutrality. Depending on the severity of the event, you may choose to not have any further contact with the person, but if you meet them by chance, you want to have a sense of neutrality and calmness instead of avoidance.

Stage 7 – Stay in the Present

“Bury the hatchet” is a phrase you may have heard many times. There is wisdom in this phrase if you understand its original meaning. The phrase comes from spiritual traditions of North American Indians who would put all weapons out of sight while smoking a peace pipe. For your own forgiveness work, you must keep the original wound out of sight, or out of present mind. It is necessary to acknowledge what happened, to not forget it, but also to not drag it up again as a fresh wound. Resurrecting the event and bringing it up again with the person who harmed you will cause you to feel the associated feelings again. Balance your memory of the event with your memory of the forgiveness work you have done. Practice loving those you don’t spontaneously feel warmth towards.

 

All of your forgiveness work can be undone and the resentment rekindled if you begin to dwell on the event again. If you rerun your mind’s movie of the harm, you may find yourself back in a hurt and angry state. It is the nature of your mind to ruminate, and therefore you must develop self-discipline and remind yourself that you have completed forgiveness work around this issue. Thank your mind for the intrusive thought, and send it off into the far reaches of the universe! Refuse to bring the past into the present again. Continually rise above the injury. Practice compassion and unconditional love towards all people.

 

Making Amends

 

There is great wisdom in one of the most critical steps in twelve step programs in which you make a list of all persons you have harmed and make amends to them as long as doing so will do no further harm. I believe this step is a very powerful example of doing unto others what you would have others do unto you. It is also a powerful step in self-healing, respecting others boundaries and taking ownership of your own behavior and issues. We have all hurt someone some time in our lives. Examining the impact it had on yourself and others, and looking at how your own character may have negatively affected someone else, requires self-love and a degree of caring for other people.

While attending a dinner I bumped into a woman whom I dated briefly after completing my master’s degree. At the time, I was physically and emotionally burnt out and wasn’t warm and accepting of her kindness. I told her how bad I felt about how I treated her. Although I conveyed that I was not in good shape and that I wasn’t really capable of giving at that time, she was not the one who had a problem. I said I was sorry for not recognizing the gifts she had to offer. I could tell from the sense of relaxation that came over her and the unspoken reduction in tension between the two of us, that my words meant a lot to her.

 

Clearly this was a case in which contact between the two of us would not harm her, however in some situations an apology can bring about more harm than good. When a secret has been kept from someone and then you tell him or her and also apologize, you have to wonder if the apology is meant to help him or her, or yourself by appeasing guilt. For this process to work, I would suggest that the apology must address some event of which both people are already aware. In apologizing, you may be bringing up old wounds for the other person that they are not ready to deal with. It is best to ask whether it is okay to talk to them about it. If they say no, then their wishes should be respected. If you apologize for something you did that the other person was never aware of, you may end up hurting that person with new information, dumping your problems onto them, and causing pain over a closed chapter of their life.

 

Making amends can entail other methods too if necessary. For example, if there is someone you cannot contact and you wish to be forgiven for some deed, create a simple ceremony in which you do something for a stranger and in silence, release yourself from owing the apology. You are still accountable for your actions, but in some way you are giving out the energy of health by completing the issue for yourself. If you are fortunate to have that person come back into your life at some time, you can tell them of the ceremony you conducted for them.

 

Self-Forgiveness

 

In my healing, it was very important to forgive myself as well. There have been times when I have let myself down, regretting the things I had not done or wishing that I had acted differently. Self-forgiveness is needed just as much as forgiving others, yet it is just as difficult. Self-forgiveness is accepting yourself for the things you did with the knowledge you had at the time. It is accepting your limitations, yet not limiting your capacity for change. Self-forgiveness requires that you look at your shadow, or the secrets you hold that you hope no one will ever discover. It is about acknowledging your deepest fears.

 

I was twenty-three when I was told that my mother was terminally ill. I simply could not accept that she was going to die. I was also quite busy with starting my undergraduate degree, and was playing in a rock band. I postponed going to visit her at the hospital. When I finally did, she was unconscious. I never got to say goodbye to her. It was always difficult to forgive myself for this, until I realized that there was no way I could have held my life together other than to deny my fears and to rationalize that she had bounced back at other times and she would do it again this time too. Being gentle with myself, accepting the place I was at during those weeks, as well as sharing these feelings with a counselor, has helped heal this shadow. I have come to accept that my mother knew far more about me than I realized. At the moment she passed away, I was setting up my drums for a high school dance. As she departed this level of existence, I felt her presence sweep down on me, hug me, and then move off towards a great expanse of freedom. I knew that she was gone, and that she loved me deeply enough to say goodbye. She wouldn’t want me to feel remorse, and she certainly wouldn’t want me to punish myself.

 

Try to discover which events in your life you have regrets about. Find practical ways of self-acceptance and forgiveness.

 

“Does a true hero have to be heartless? Surely a real man may love his young son. Even the roaring, wind-raising tiger turns back to look at his own tiny cubs.” – Lu Xun

 

 

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