by Linda S. Barnes, Ph.D.
The goal of forgiveness is to further one’s own sense of well-being. Forgiveness is not for everyone. It does not mean denial, forgetting or risking re-injury. Forgiving does not require you trust, open yourself up to or even continue a relationship with the person who hurt you. In some cases, it is advisable to have no contact with the person who harmed you. Forgiveness, in the way it is addressed here, is for your benefit. Lack of forgiveness leaves us carrying around feelings both psychological and physiological that negatively impact our lives.
There are instances where non-forgiveness can be useful. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) is one instance wherein people banded together to make a positive difference for society. One close colleague who married at eighteen was told by her father “You’ll never even graduate from high school”. During the years she worked and put herself through undergraduate and then graduate school, her father’s angry pronouncement kept ringing in her ears. She said, “When times were tough and I felt discouraged, the pain and anger I felt toward my father kept me going. I needed to prove him wrong.” She proved him wrong and later was able to forgive him as she realized his words came out of his fear for her future.
Why forgive? You may say, “Doesn’t that mean the person who wronged me is getting away with it? Doesn’t it mean I am condoning what was done to me or someone I love?” No. It means that you have accepted that you cannot change the wrong done to you or to your loved one. You then take steps to unburden yourself from the past. Nelson Mandela was a great example for all of us. When he walked out of jail after 26 years of captivity, he said, “When I walked out of the gate, I knew that if I continued to hate those people, I was still in prison.”
Achieving forgiveness allows us to no longer be burdened with the hate, anger, hurt, pain and resentment that accompany lack of forgiveness. Research shows that harboring chronic hostility can lead to cardiovascular problems as well as poor immune functioning.
One of the most common pitfalls preventing forgiveness is rumination. Rumination is a state of mind when we become stuck, reliving the experience over and over. An example of this is Gil, a relative (not his real name). Gil became partners with a Dave in a real estate business. At one point, Gil became suspicious of Dave and confronted him. Dave scoffed at Gil and said, “You have nothing to worry about. I wouldn’t steal from you unless it was more than a million dollars.” Subsequently, Dave did abscond with over a million dollars. Gil spent years lamenting Dave’s betrayal. He told his friends and family repeatedly what Dave said when Gil confronted him and how Dave swindled him out of more than a million dollars. Gil’s preoccupation with resentment prevented him from moving on with his life. He suffered high blood pressure and began drinking excessively.
When it comes to forgiveness, it’s not one size fits all. Some of it depends on the nature of the wrong and some of it depends on each individual. There are, however, some general guidelines. Timing is important. Attempting forgiveness too soon after the injury, often leads to denial and repression of one’s feelings. It is important to talk to one or two trusted friends, and/or a therapist. If you are a religious person, you may benefit from speaking with a rabbi, minister or priest about what happened. It is important not to talk about the incident(s) over and over to many people because you run the risk of getting stuck in rumination for an extended period of time.
We are unlikely to experience an “aha” moment with forgiveness. It is more likely that we will need to practice the conditions of forgiveness just as one practices yoga or meditation. Some people do benefit from meditation and yoga in this process. It is important to hold onto the fact that you have decided to forgive the wrongdoer and repeat this to yourself often. Writing in a journal can be helpful. Empathy, i.e., taking a walk in the shoes of the person who wronged you can sometimes help. For instance, when my colleague was able to understand that her father’s anger about her getting married at seventeen was born from his fear for her future, she was able to find a path to forgiveness. Remember, this does not mean you have to condone the wrongdoing. Speaking with people who have suffered similar experiences can be helpful. You may want to be part or a group for battered women, survivors of sexual abuse or other support group.
There are times you may choose to remain in a relationship wherein you have been betrayed, wronged and/or hurt. Protecting yourself in this case is extremely tricky. For instance, you may choose to stay in a relationship with a child who is addicted to drugs and is at times, abusive towards you. In such cases, practicing detachment with love may require a support group such as Alanon as well as the help of a therapist experienced with addiction. In cases of infidelity, if the betraying partner works hard to be trustworthy again and does not repeat the behavior, you may choose to forgive and remain in the relationship.
Sometimes it helps to remember great and difficult acts of forgiveness: A group of parents in Northern Ireland were able to forgive those who murdered their children; grieving parents in California forgave a young man who accidentally killed their young daughter when she chased a ball into the street; and Nelson Mandela not only forgave, but worked with his captors. As stated earlier, forgiveness may not be for everyone. However, the prospect of unburdening oneself and freeing oneself from past hatred, pain, anger and resentment may well be worth the effort.
Dr. Barnes is a clinical psychologist (license #PSY13399) and a licensed marriage family therapist (license #MFC 15089). She is a member of APA, LACPA, CAMFT and the Independent Psychotherapy Network. Dr. Barnes is in practice in Beverly Hills, CA. She can be reached at (310) 273-4799.
Copyright 2017 by Linda S. Barnes, Ph.D.