When you’ve been wronged, feelings of anger and a sense of injustice can run deep – and can be hard to shake. Even if you know that forgiving could help, doing it sometimes seems impossible. But the truth is, forgiveness has helped many people to move on from similar situations. So, it’s worth considering.
To be clear, forgiveness has nothing to do with forgetting the past. It is also not about letting someone off the hook for the consequences of their actions. Whether you forgive or not does not have to change your efforts to seek justice through the legal system, if that’s relevant to your situation. Instead, forgiveness is about freeing yourself from your struggles and finding peace.
Dr. Robert Enright offers a good model for doing this in his book Forgiveness Is a Choice. Though there is more to his 20-step model than can be addressed here, these four phases can provide some basic guidance:
Uncovering negative feelings: The first step in forgiveness is to honestly examine (as objectively as possible) the true nature of the offense and who is responsible, the direct consequences of the offense, and the various ramifications of the offense. It can take a lot of work to acknowledge and process feelings, such as anger, betrayal, hurt, fear, or guilt. Other issues you may need to consider are how the offense has affected your life, your sense of safety in the world, and your perception of justice.
Deciding to forgive: This decision will probably only come after you realize that your current reactions are hurting you and that you want to stop the pain. Then you must be open to the idea that forgiveness offers a way out of that pain. So, you need to ask yourself, “Am I ready to begin the path of forgiveness?”
Working toward understanding the offending person: You can start changing how you feel by learning to see the person who hurt you differently. The more you can understand their experience, the more you will see that person as a person – not just as bad or mean.
This can be extremely uncomfortable, to say the least. The more awful the act, the more likely that the offender was driven by pain or emotional distress. Understanding and relating to that experience is itself painful, so many people retreat to simply seeing the offender having malicious intentions, or even as a monster.
In addition, working toward forgiveness means that you need to fully face your own experience of how the offending act has harmed you. This takes great courage, emotional strength, and commitment.
Discovery and release: Once you can truly understand the offending person as a human being with human flaws, then you will experience empathy and even compassion. You may also find meaning and purpose in having unjustly suffered. For instance, some women who were victims of domestic violence have found meaning in being advocates for others in such circumstances. Importantly, in this phase, you will realize you are not alone in unjustly suffering, and you will find that forgiveness gives you a sense of freedom.
In going through this process, you may feel compelled to face the person who harmed you. This is not necessary for everyone, but if you do decide to make it part of your path, it’s important to think through what you would like to get from such an encounter. Be sure to tie your healing to what you do or say, not how the other person responds.
The more effort you give to forgiving, the more powerful effects it can have. But it can also be a rough road. So you might want to seek the help of a professional, particularly if you feel you have been traumatized. Ultimately, though, forgiveness can release you from anger and victimhood to a happier life.
Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.