Why Forgive and How to do it?

by Feb 4, 20190 comments



‘Man receives only that which he gives.  The Game of Life is a game of boomerangs.  Man’s thoughts, deeds and words, return to him, sooner or later with astounding accuracy.’


Florence Scovel Schinn, The Game of Life and How To Play It

I remember watching a TV programme some time ago on couples who have been together for decades.  They were each asked, ‘What makes a good marriage last?’  Almost every couple answered, ‘Forgiveness.’  That’s quite interesting when today we are fed that marriage lasts because of your good looks, good humour, ability to remain stimulating and mysterious and so on.  Like so many things in life, having successful relationships often boils down to your ability to forgive.

I found in working with clients that forgiveness has a variety of challenges.  It’s sometimes really hard to forgive – especially when an offense is big and seems to have repercussions, we can be biased because of past hurts and having difficulty separating what someone has done currently with similar experiences in the past – they seem to feed off each other, we feel those we want to forgive will see us as ‘weak’ and do it again if we let them off too easily, we feel as if it’s not possible to forgive sometimes, we believe we have to reconcile if we forgive or sometimes we just don’t know how to forgive!

Why should we forgive?

Psychological research has uncovered numerous benefits stemming from forgiveness:

1. We experience lower levels of stress, anxiety, sadness and anger.

This makes sense as if we are unforgiving, we often come across reminders of our hurt and when thinking of it, we feel anger, stress, sad or anxious.

2. We have lower levels of anxiety, depression, PTSD and other mental disorders.

If we aren’t forgiving regularly, there is a build-up of these memories or the memory and more hurts can pile up.  Eventually it becomes quite difficult to sort through all the angry, hurtful, sad and anxious emotions.

3. We feel less in control

We can often end of feeling like a victim with all the things that one person, or many people, have done to us.  It hurts and we feel powerless to stop it.  However, when we forgive, we take back our power to feel happy and let go and can even build our self-esteem in the process, feeling like we are more in control of how we feel and feel we are ‘good people’.  We let go and move on and didn’t allow others and their opinions and behaviour toward us to dictate how we feel.

4. Forgiveness improves not only our mental health but also our physical health.

People who forgive experience reduced stress levels and physical symptoms of stress, less health problems and even reduced mortality rates!

(Touissant, Worthington, and David R. Williams, 2015, ‘Forgiveness and Health’)

So How do we Forgive?

In my personal experience, as well as my experience with others, it can be challenging.  Often, you decide to forgive, do a bunch of work to forgive, and find that two days later you are ruminating on what someone did and mad as hell again!  This is a normal experience – believe it or not.  The fallacy is that forgiveness is a one-time event and that’s what keeps tripping us up.  For people with a propensity to forgive or those who have practiced the skill and developed it well, or in certain situations, where the offense wasn’t that big or there was a lot of good as well, you may forget once and move often but most often this isn’t the case.

Here’s a suggested plan, from a compilation of ideas to tackle forgiveness.

1. Face it head-on – write or meditate about the offense and don’t sugar coat it.  Face it for what it was – someone completely invalidating your experience or feelings, an abuse, a betrayal, deceit and so on.  Be aware, however, they you may assign malignance or motivations from your perspective that weren’t actually there!

2. Write down how you feel about it – angry, fuming, fed up, sad, hurt, unable to recover or communicate about it, overwhelmed, deeply disappointed and so forth.

3. Write down or think about this person/these people and their behaviour with compassion, empathy, and understanding.  Are they ignorant and oblivious of real depth of emotion and struggle, have they been forced to cut off from emotions, were they deeply hurting, have they been wounded in ways you can’t imagine that have affected their developmental abilities, were they terrified or scared? If you can, try to recall times you may have treated others in a similar manner.  (This is not always possible if someone has committed a crime, but I remember one lady sharing how she worked with rape perpetrators and looking at how, more metaphorically perhaps, she could have ‘raped’ people of their dignity, privacy and so on.  It was quite enlightening!).

4. If you are dealing with something of a serious nature such as a rape, maybe enlist the help of a professional in this process, as the feelings can be over-whelming and you can carry some self-blame that isn’t valid.  Most victims of crime tend to feel this way! (I believe this is because we want to feel some level of control, as feeling helpless is terrifying.  However, there are more useful and accurate ways to feel that control and it is not your fault if you have been in a hi-jacking or some other crime.  Often we know this consciously but still feel if only we have done something different.)

5. Decide to forgive and say it out loud, write it or see the words or decision in your head.

6. Forgiving someone does not mean you have to reconcile.  If your spouse has beaten you for the 50th time (or even the 2nd), or you’ve been sexually or physically abused as a child, protecting yourself and your heart from further pain is a priority and if you do not think they person will truly change or repent or really see the damage they have done, protect you first.  You also don’t have to reconcile in person if there is any danger in that such as they will ridicule you, make you feel like there was nothing to forgive, or harm you again. 

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean forgetting.  The Holocaust, Apartheid and various other personal events are better remembered so that we can learn and grow and change as societies. However, if that remembering comes with anger, intense bitterness and other negative emotions, forgiveness may not yet be accomplished or it may be useful to think of it less often.

1. Some things you can forgive in a heart-beat, others take a while.  Just keep going and keep trying to let go.  Sometimes you can do this exercise for 6 months before you can truly let go.  Distract yourself from negative emotions or seek help if they threaten to overwhelm.

2. Pray. Sometimes we need a little extra help to let go of things that have hurt or harmed us.

Two things I have found is that people struggle most to forgive themselves (even when they weren’t really to blame).  Focussing on forgiving yourself for your own reactions and how you have hurt others is just as important an exercise as forgiving others.

Also, I have often seen people only begin to heal when they own their anger.  Many try to be benevolent and pretend it didn’t matter but only when acknowledging the anger do we really see the offense.  That is because anger is a reaction to our boundaries being crossed and often if you don’t own the anger, you can’t own that your boundaries were violated. 

As in the quote above, how we treat others somehow comes back to us.  I want to be forgiven when I’ve messed up and I don’t always want to face the consequences.  Most of us want this most of the time.  Forgive – we owe it to ourselves and our society.  Justice can be served if we forgive – they are not mutually exclusive – but forgiveness is the only place where we are truly set free emotionally and physically.