It’s impossible to get through life emotionally unscathed. We’ve all been hurt at some time or another – and not just by enemies. Even those close to us, like a teacher, coach, parent, friend, or partner, can inflict pain that leaves lasting feelings of anger and bitterness. But if we stay stuck in these feelings, we may be the ones who pay most dearly. Focusing on anger and bitterness can prevent us from enjoying what’s good in the present and can often lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and meaninglessness in life.
The answer to stuckness is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a process that includes several steps and can take months, even years – and it begins with the conscious choice to change. But making the choice to forgive may not come easily. After being badly hurt, it’s natural to have fantasies of revenge. And when someone you love has betrayed you in a fundamental way, for example by having a long-term affair, the road to forgiveness can be especially difficult.
As you consider forgiveness, it’s important to understand that it doesn’t mean denying, minimizing, or justifying the wrong done to you. Forgiveness is choosing to be free from the pain that the actions caused you. So you wouldn’t say, “I forgive my father for slapping me when I was a kid, because he was very upset and I wasn’t listening, plus he didn’t break the skin,” because that would be excusing your father’s hurtful actions. Instead, you might acknowledge the father’s slap as hurtful and humiliating, but continue by saying “I forgive him, because I don’t want to be caged by my anger anymore, and I deserve emotional balance.” The act that hurt or offended doesn’t go away, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, more positive parts of your life, bringing you peace.
Here are a few guidelines for forgiveness practice. Note that if there has been serious loss, you should allow yourself a period of grieving before starting the journey of forgiveness.
- Encourage thoughts of forgiveness within yourself, but don’t force it
- Start with small things
- Expect no “right” or “wrong” outcomes
- Use forgiveness practice or meditation to explore what is possible in the heart, beyond our habitual ways of perceiving (this meditation practice might be helpful)
- Remember that forgiveness does not excuse, condone, or justify harmful actions
- Remember that forgiveness does not require reconciling or even speaking with the person who has harmed you
Some people feel it’s an act of weakness to forgive, but in fact, it requires a lot of strength. All authentic transformation involves effort and turning toward the difficult rather than away from what is painful. Just going through the motions of forgiveness by simply saying, “I forgive you” can leave residues of resentment and anger. Deeper work is required.
And the payoff? Letting go of grudges and bitterness can make way for happiness, health, and peace. Forgiveness can lead to greater emotional well-being and improved physical health—less anxiety, stress, and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression; improved heart health; and higher self-esteem.
Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy, and compassion for the one who hurt you. Again, this isn’t about papering over real injuries, but because when we let go of resentment toward others, we can begin to heal our relationship with the past and clear more space in life to flourish.