You have been hurt, betrayed, slighted or rejected. It can cover the wide range of wrongs to someone saying something painful behind your back to finding out your spouse is having an affair. The pain, the anger and the dark emotions stay with you. Any mention of the person’s name or the offense instantly triggers the emotions. You play out conversations in your head of what you want to say to the offender. You play out ways to get back at them. You ask, why did this happen? How can the person who caused you this pain still go on and receive gifts in their life? You wonder if that means there is no justice. This imbalance often makes the pain stronger.
Is a need for justice often seen as revenge? Can forgiveness be a form of avoidance or “turning our head” to a wrong? If we never forgive have we just swallowed a poisoned pill? We need to remember that we will experience the full range of emotions which includes seeking revenge, wanting justice and wondering if we “need” to forgive. When someone is angry about a past wrong, it is easy to start listing all the reasons for letting go. Yet we need to remember that anger is a normal emotion when we have experienced a wrong. To talk about forgiveness without acknowledging the other darker feelings, misses a piece of what is going on. So it is important to understand our hurt and anger instead of being criticized. Forgiveness is not the “right” way and experiencing the hurt the “wrong” way. All of this is part of the process.
We need to be intentional about how we want to deal with our feelings. It is also important to ask additional questions about our pain and hurt. Including the question, does nursing this pain only make the pain larger? Does focusing on the pain allow the pain to define who I am? And does revenge ever cause someone to change and understand your pain? At some point it will be important to address the idea of letting go and forgiving.
Forgiveness is such a loaded word. Often people have a knee jerk reaction that forgiveness means the offender’s actions are forgotten and sanctified. Forgiveness does not mean that approval is given to the behavior. There are often consequences that the offender will experience. Or that it means reconciliation needs to occur in the relationship. Because we forgive does not mean that the relationship is reconciled or ever will be. Forgiveness is an internal process that is chosen and is a sign of courage and strength. Are you refusing to forgive by punishing an unremorseful offender? The offender should make amends but in many situations the other person is not stepping up. It has to do with what we choose to do with our own pain and hurt. It is a choice we make about how to deal with an injustice or wrong that has been done. Research tells us that forgiveness can be taught.
Ways to Practice Forgiveness:
- Honor the full sweep of your emotions. Some people are experts at anger but don’t feel sadness. People hold on to hate because they don’t want to deal with pain. Others block the anger and are depressed. Our mind often does not forget wounds. This is adaptive so we can learn from experiences, learn lessons, recognize the enemy, anticipate harm and avoid it.
- Give up need for revenge but continue to seek a just resolution. Anger is not the same as having your hurt understood and validated. Revenge is other-directed. Acceptance is inner-directed. In a journal, work through these questions: In the end what am I after? If I hurt him back how will I benefit? Does what happens to this person affect my capacity to live a good life? What responses will best help me recapture a sense of control over the world? Where else can I go for comfort and support?
- Stop obsessing about the injury and re-engage with life. Remind yourself that you will never have this moment again. So don’t spend your time on the past hurt and the offender.
- Protect yourself from further abuse.
- Read about others who have let go, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Tutu and Martin Luther King.