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January 2013

Finding Your Way to Forgiveness

by Dorothea McArthur, Ph.D., ABPP

We are condemned to repeat what we don’t understand. If someone did something bad, we may decide to replay it with another person of similar characteristics hoping to understand “where we left off and the other person began.” In the process, we can hurt other people, both purposefully and unintentionally. Other people can hurt us for the same reasons. Acting on feelings about past hurts displays what is called an “unresolved conflict.”

So … here you are. Someone has hurt you. It really hurts. Perhaps it was sexual, physical or verbal abuse. Maybe it was neglect, abandonment, sabotage, poverty, addiction, a serious illness or accident. What are you going to do about it? You do not have to feel afraid; you will find the right time to deal with it.

You may seek psychotherapy if you feel hit, hurt, demeaned, rejected, angered, guilted, embarrassed, confused, anxious, panicked, lost and/or shamed. Misconceptions can fuel these feelings, leaving a sense of disintegration, desperation and failure. The initial psychotherapy hours are often challenging ones.

If you decide to come and talk with a therapist, I can suggest the following journey although it would need to be individually tailored for your particular needs and your own unique life story. You may be able to take parts of this journey on your own by reading about your conflict and writing in a journal.

First, we’ll look at what you’re feeling and find the words to describe it. We will honor your feelings since they will guide us through your past experience.

Second, we will go on a search through your memory of the past, your bad dreams and nightmares and your insights, to recover as completely as possible just what happened that was hurtful to you. Repressed memories may surface suddenly as your unconscious mind listens and cooperates with us. We may be able to talk to the hidden younger person inside you who was hurt, but didn’t dare say anything back then, so that we can really understand. In the process, that younger person will not feel so alone, will be cared for and will begin to integrate back into your adult self.

Third, we will look for information about the unique life story of the person(s) who hurt you. We’ll try to understand who these persons were, and why they did what they did to you. We’ll likely see that your perpetrators were also suffering in pain from unresolved conflicts. We tend to hurt others when we’re doing poorly ourselves. Your actions may have innocently triggered their problem causing them to lash out. You are often not the problem; instead they are acting out on their own problem with you.

Fourth, we will come to understand the ways in which you survived this event, the courage that it took to do so, and the ways you tried to protect yourself from its happening again. We’ll clarify the ways in which it was not your fault. Then we are ready to replace the old behaviors with new behaviors for the present and future.

Fifth, in talking about what happened, we will realize that all of the thoughts, feelings, resentments, bitterness and actions you have previously experienced cannot change the fact that this wrongdoing happened. It will always be with you in your memory.

Sixth, out of all of these dialogues, you will come to see that you have love for yourself, rather than shame about the events that happened. You will become a stronger and deep-er person if you are also able to muster some compassion for the person who hurt you. You will know “where you left off and the other person began.” You will accept that you cannot change the past. It will be clear. Your understanding will likely have brought you towards some degree of forgiveness.

Seventh, the events that hurt you in the past will no longer hold center stage in your life. You will not forget, but you will be able to “put it on the back burner,” and make new, healthy goals a priority for yourself. Therefore, you and other people may eventually benefit from the wrongdoing that has hap-pened to you. Because, out of the pain unfolds, like a miracle:

.. foundation of strength and respect for yourself
.. a new integrated character that understands both past and future survival
.. new known purpose in how to lead your life.
.. sense of confidence, security, and protection about how to handle inevitable future knockdowns.
.. When you have “got it,” you will earn respect from others because you have a depth of character that recognizes and articulates compassion for others’ adversity. As May Sarton was quoted in Julia Cameron’s Walking in this World:(p.123) “It always comes down to the same necessity; go deep enough, and there is a bedrock of truth, however hard.”

You are entitled to some help with your psychological work and the dialogues and essays within Defining Moments can assist you. If you have an “unresolved conflict,” and are ready for some psychotherapeutic help, read the essay in this book entitled, How to Find the Right Therapist, and maybe the essay entitled, Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for a Reduced Fee.

Never give up the right to take good care of yourself and to make a unique difference with your own special talents. You will add substantially to the quality of your life, with a “rip-ple effect” to others’ lives as well. You will come out ahead of where you were before.

This article is Chapter 32 of Dr. McArthur’s latest book: Defining Moments: Breaking Through Tough Times, Cove Press, 2012, available through booksellers and

Dr. McArthur is a psychotherapist in practice in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, and is president of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. She can be contacted at (323) 663-2340 or by e-mail at


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