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Sometimes things happen in our lives that are very painful. A parent may have been abusive, a partner, unfaithful, a good friend may have betrayed us in some way. These kinds of things can shatter our lives. They are very difficult experiences to recover from and some people never do recover completely.
There are also other things that happen in our livesexperiences that are not quite as devastating but are also a source of hurt. For example, a supervisor gave you a poor performance evaluation, your child said something nasty to you in anger, your colleague invited everyone over for a social evening and you did not get invited. These kinds of things do happen sometimes and they can be quite painful.
So, the big question is, what do we do with those painful and hurtful feelings?
Before we answer that question, read the following statements about forgiveness.
- Forgiveness is the experience of peace and understanding that can be felt in the present moment.
- Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or denying that painful things occurred.
- Forgiveness is the powerful assertion that bad things will not ruin your today even though they may have spoiled your past. (Luskin, 2002, p.7)
There seem to be two main ideas within these statements about what forgiveness is:
First, forgiveness is an internal statea feeling inside yourself that you arrive at through a process, and that process does not involve denying or minimizing the hurt that you suffered!
Second, that there is an element of conscious choice involved in the process of forgiveness.
The process of forgiveness isn’t very complicated but it is very difficult to accomplish. So, it seems important to know why we should even bother considering forgiveness, because it is such a hard thing to do.
What does the research say about forgiveness?
Studies have looked at differences between people who are more or less forgiving. They found that, overall, there were less reported incidence of physical illness in those people who were more forgiving. Specifically, people who were deeply hurt by a parent, friend, or romantic partner and forgave the betrayal, had better blood pressure, healthy muscle tension, better immune response, and improved cardiovascular, muscular, and nervous system functioning than others who had not forgiven.
Also, research has found that forgiveness results in less psychological pain, reduced stress, and increases in self-confidence, compassion, quality of life, and hope.
So now, back to our original question…what do we do about those painful and hurtful feelings.
Well, we know that holding a grudge or nursing a grievance is costly. The research is clearly telling us that it is not worth it. Holding on to all of those painful things that happen, replaying it in our minds, going over and over the sequence of events is actually damaging to our physical and psychological health. But, what do we do?
It seems like there are only two options when it comes right down to it. We can hold on to the hurt or we can choose to forgive and let it go.
What we know for sure is that by holding on to whatever it is that has hurt us:
- We are less able to appreciate the good things in our lives. One counsellor sometimes asks people why they don’t dwell on their good fortune with the same energy they invest in their bad fortune. He said it often catches people by surprise. Imagine dwelling on all the wonderful things in life…do we do enough of that?
- Our hurts/grudges can take up too much space in our hearts and minds leading to increased stress and ill health
- And something that we rarely consider is that by holding on to the offence, you are actually giving the offender power to hurt you. Carrying that hurt and pain eats away at you – and so, your offender continues to have power over you.
Sometimes people feel that if they forgive the offender, they are actually saying that what ever was done to them was “ok” that it “didn’t really matter”. That’s not what forgiveness is! Forgiveness is not about condoning the action or the betrayalnot at all. Forgiveness is not really about the offender at all; rather it is about doing something good for yourselfhelping you to achieve inner peace.
One of the leading researchers in this area advocates learning to forgive. It can be a difficult thing to do, but research has found that, as with anything, the more we practice the better we get at it.
What is involved in learning how to forgive?
We think it is important to recognise that some people believe that turning over their hurts to God or Allah or some higher power is the way to begin. And prayer may be something that fits for you. If that is part of your faith or spiritual life, we encourage it.
Whether or not prayer is a part of your life, though, there are steps you can take to adopt an attitude of forgiveness.
Begin by taking stock of your feelings. Recognise that you feel hurt, angry, alienated, depressed, betrayed, hopeless, or whatever the feelings are. You might want to do this through self-reflection, talking with a trusted friend or professional, or journalling, as we talked about in Writing Emotional Expression.
Sometimes, past hurts don’t get resolved and they linger inside you. When you experience another incident, your reaction may be stronger or more severe because of the cumulative effect of past hurts. So it is important to try to separate that out. Acknowledge that your feelings may be linked to other past hurts that you have experienced.
Wonder about the person who hurt you. They also have a past, they have also likely experienced rejection and hurt and betrayal. To be able to turn away from your hurt even for a moment, and consider the other person’s situation, is not saying that their behaviour or what they did to you is justified. It is never justified! What it is saying is that they are imperfect human beings who have more growing to do.
Accept that you cannot change the past but you can choose not to let the pain control you anymore.
Techniques to Aid Forgiveness
Breath of Thanks
- Two or three times every day when you are not fully occupied, slow down and bring your attention to your breathing.
- Notice your breath flows in and out without your having to do anything. Put your attention to your stomach, and as you inhale, allow the air to gently push your belly out. As you exhale, consciously relax your belly so it feels soft.
- Continue breathing this way for about three to five slow, deep breaths.
- Then for the next five to eight inhalations, say the words “thank-you” silently to remind yourself of the gift of your breath and how lucky you are to be alive. Often people have a stronger response if they imagine their experience of gratitude centered in their hearts.
- After those five to eight breaths of thanks, return to the soft belly breathing for another one to two breaths.
- Assume a comfortable position you can maintain for ten to fifteen minutes.
- Gently bring your attention to your breathing as it flows in and out. As you inhale, allow the air to gently push your belly out. As you exhale, consciously relax your belly so that it feels soft. Practice this focus of your attention for about five minutes.
- Then bring to your mind either a memory of an experience with another person when you had a powerful feeling of love or a scene in nature that fills you with beauty and tranquillity. Do not choose someone for this exercise that you are trying to forgive.
- When the image of that experience is clear in your mind, try to re-experience in the present moment the associated peaceful and loving feelings. Many people like to imagine the good feelings are centered in their hearts.
- Hold those peaceful feelings for as long as you can. If you find that your attention wanders, return to step one and the unforced rise and fall of your stomach.
- After ten to fifteen minutes, slowly open your eyes and resume your regular activities.
The following is a guided meditation that others have found quite helpful. It does not mean that you have to forgive someone who has hurt you. That is always up to you.
There are two formats here: one that you can read
and an audio recording of someone reading the meditation.
Read through or listen to the meditation.
If you find it helpful, save it to your computer, so that you can use it as a meditation when needed.
Forgiveness meditation, PDF format
Forgiveness meditation, WMA audio format (822KB)
Suggestions for Channel Changing
(from Luskin, 2002)
Using some of the following exercises to “change the channel” may help you move into forgiveness.
- Walk into your nearest grocery store and give thanks for the abundance of food available.
- When driving, mentally thank the other drivers for following the rules of the road.
- Thank your significant other, or friends, for caring about you.
- Remind yourself of any kind act done by your parents.
- Notice when people do nice things for you, no matter how small, and thank them and think of appreciating them.
- Give thanks for all the labour that went into making your furniture, appliances, food, and clothing.
- When stuck in traffic, notice the beauty of the sky or the remarkable movement of birds or clouds.
- Stop at a schoolyard and observe the delightful play of little children.
- Find a favourite spot in nature that you can go to easily: Remember what that spot looks and feels like.
- Watch nature shows on television.
- Deeply appreciate your favourite piece of music.
- Walk slowly, and absorb the smells and sites of nature.
- Notice how beautiful well-prepared food looks and tastes.
- Go to a zoo and marvel at the beauty of the animals.
- Talk with others about how they successfully forgave.
- Remember when you have forgiven, and remind yourself you can do it.
- Read books about people who have forgiven hurtful situations.
- See if there are any forgiveness stories in your family.
- Practice forgiving the littlest offences against you.
- Practice forgiving for just a minute at a time.
- Forgive a driver who cuts you off in the road.
- Think of times you have hurt others and needed forgiveness.
- Notice whenever someone is kind to you after you have hurt him or her.
- Notice how often you naturally forgive those you love.
- Look for people who are in love, and smile at their happiness.
- Go to a hospital, and observe the love of family who care for those who are ill.
- Remember the times in your life when you were loved.
- Remember the times in your life when you were loving.
- Call up a friend, and tell them you care about them.
- Look for memories of kindness toward you from your parents.
- Ask yourself what you can do to become a more loving person.
- Ask someone about a time when she or he felt really loved.
Much of the material in this section was adapted from:
Luskin (2002), Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness.
An internet video clip by Dr. Luskin, explaining his program can be found at:
Dr. Luskin’s Website: www.learningtoforgive.com
For reading about a similar type of forgiveness program see:
Enright, R. D. (2002). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.