Forgiveness is a loaded term. It’s not just a complicated process, it also carries the weight of tangible wounds that likely continue to impact individuals trying to practice forgiveness. Because of the heaviness of forgiving someone, we often have one of two reactions: we refuse to entertain forgiveness because it is too painful or we reduce forgiveness to something manageable so that we can move on and not face the pain that we experienced. Since both reactions lead us to ignore forgiveness, we have a hard time understanding or defining what it even means.
How to Forgive
Let’s start by acknowledging 3 steps we can take after we have experienced a wound so that we can move forward. In order to forgive we must:
1. Be in a place of safety. After being hurt, it is important to move from a place of vulnerability to a place of protection. For example, if someone hits you, you cannot move forward in the process of forgiveness unless you are able to move to a place of perceived safety. This might seem like a simple step to take but it can often be very difficult in close relationships. Fear of losing something in the relationship can keep us vulnerable to further injuries and build up our resentment towards the person.
2. Feel the hurt. Once in a place of safety, you can begin the process of noticing the harm that was done to you. This might sound redundant and it can be tempting to dismiss this step. After all, you felt the hurt in the moment(s) when you were harmed. Why would you want to feel the hurt again? The purpose of feeling the hurt isn’t to be sadistic or negative but rather to give you the opportunity to make sense of what happened to you. Making sense of the hurt involves understanding what was lost (a sense of safety, a relationship, a hope, or dream), what it meant to have lost those things, and how you would like this experience to inform how you make decisions in the future.
3. Decide what you want. Forgiveness can look like a lot of things. It can involve reconciliation, restoring trust, and growth in relationships. Forgiveness can also be done by oneself without the offending party present, intentionally choosing to mistrust the individual, and the end of relationship. If forgiveness wasn’t already complicated, now it really is! Sorting out all of your feelings to decide what you would like and need your process to look like is not something done overnight. Additionally, you might be limited by extenuating circumstances, like the death or absence of an individual that prevents you from reconciliation.
By taking time to move toward safety and feel the hurt, you will be better equipped for the difficult task of noticing your own needs and the extenuating circumstances that will influence your path forward. To take the edge off, remember that this is a process and one that can include curiosity, testing things out, and discussing ideas and feelings off of loved ones or a counselor. Bonus: It might be helpful to try and define forgiveness by what it is not.
The Cost of Forgiveness
Whichever route you decide to take on your path to forgiveness, there is something you have to realize: it will cost you. More than likely, you hate this idea. You have already been wounded so why should you be the one who sacrifices? This is a fair point and one that keeps many of us from moving toward forgiveness. However, we will only come to the desire to forgive once we realize that the cost of not forgiving is greater than the cost of forgiveness.
Forgiveness gives us the opportunity to lay to rest the bitterness, anger, and rage that tears us up and impacts our relationships with others who weren’t even involved in the original injury. Forgiveness gives us the gift of reconciling, at least in ourselves, that something truly terrible happened to you and that the particular event does not have the power to confine who you are or how you relate to your world. The cost of forgiveness is the process it takes to accept that something bad happened to you and that it will remain a part of your story. The benefit of forgiveness is the freedom from the past trauma’s control on your life due to accepting that it is a part but not the whole of your story. In other words, the degree to which you are able to practice self-acceptance positively correlates with your ability to practice forgiveness.
At the risk of sounding redundant, forgiveness is a process, which means that we learn how to do it. But how? Well, we know that the context of forgiveness are relationships. All of our relationships give us the opportunity to learn how to do forgiveness. The small wounds as well as the big ones that we experience in our significant and minor relationships make up the environment for us to learn and apply forgiveness. Sometimes starting with the big wounds in our most significant relationships can be disorienting and unfamiliar. Beginning to practice forgiveness in minor relationships or with small wounds can give us a low-risk environment to learn the basics of forgiveness.
In addition to learning through our experiences in relationships, counseling can provide us with a safe setting to navigate the complexities of healing. If you or a loved one are struggling to practice forgiveness and would like help in navigating your wounds, consider scheduling a free 15-minute consultation with one of our licensed therapists. Click here to schedule today!