How To Forgive
Forgiveness: How to let go of grudges and bitterness (Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D.)
When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge or embrace forgiveness and move forward.
But when you don't practice forgiveness, you may be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Here, Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., discusses forgiveness and how it can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
What is forgiveness?
There's no one definition of forgiveness. But in general, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that bind you to the offense committed against you. This can reduce the power these feelings otherwise have over you, so that you can a live freer and happier life in the present. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.
* Stress reduction
* Less hostility
* Better anger management skills
* Lower heart rate
* Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
* Fewer depression symptoms
* Fewer anxiety symptoms
* Reduction in chronic pain
* More friendships
* Healthier relationships
* Greater religious or spiritual well-being
* Improved psychological well-being
When you experience hurt or harm from someone's actions or words, whether this is intended or not, you may begin experiencing negative feelings such as anger, confusion or sadness, especially when it's someone close to you. These feelings may start out small. But if you don't deal with them quickly, they can grow bigger and more powerful. They may even begin to crowd out positive feelings. Grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility take root when you dwell on hurtful events or situations, replaying them in your mind many times.
Soon, you may find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice. You may feel trapped and may not see a way out. It's very hard to let go of grudges at this point and instead you may remain resentful and unforgiving.
How do I know it's time to try to embrace forgiveness?
* Dwelling on the events surrounding the offense
* Hearing from others that you have a chip on your shoulder or that you're wallowing in self-pity
* Being avoided by family and friends because they don't enjoy being around you
* Having angry outbursts at the smallest perceived slights
* Often feeling misunderstood
* Drinking excessively, smoking or using drugs to try to cope with your pain
* Having symptoms of depression or anxiety
* Being consumed by a desire for revenge or punishment
* Automatically thinking the worst about people or situations
* Regretting the loss of a valued relationship
* Feeling like your life lacks meaning or purpose
* Feeling at odds with your religious or spiritual beliefs
The bottom line is that you may often feel miserable in your current life.
Forgiveness also means that we change old patterns of beliefs and actions that are driven by our bitterness. As we let go of grudges, we'll no longer define our lives by how we've been hurt, and we may even find compassion and understanding.
It may also be helpful to reflect on times you've hurt others and on those who have forgiven you. As you recall how you felt, it may help you to understand the position of the person who hurt you. It can also be beneficial to pray, use guided meditation or journal. In any case, if the intention to forgive is present, forgiveness will come in its time.
On the other hand, if the hurtful event involved a family member or friend whose relationship you otherwise value, forgiveness may lead to reconciliation. This may not happen quickly, as you both may need time to re-establish trust. But in the end, your relationship may very well be one that is rich and fulfilling.
So how do you handle this? First, remember that you do have a choice whether to attend or not attend family get-togethers. Respect yourself and do what seems best. If you choose to go, don't be surprised by a certain amount of awkwardness and perhaps even more intense feelings. It's important to keep an eye on those feelings. You don't want them to lead you to be unjust or unkind in return for what was done to you.
Also, avoid drinking too much alcohol as a way to try to numb your feelings or feel better — it'll likely backfire. And keep an open heart and mind. People do change, and perhaps the offender will want to apologize or make amends. You also may find that the gathering helps you to move forward with forgiveness.
Also, remember that forgiveness often isn't a one-time thing. It begins with a decision, but because memories or another set of words or actions may trigger old feelings, you may need to recommit to forgiveness over and over again.
Forgiveness takes away the power the other person continues to wield in your life. Through forgiveness, you choose to no longer define yourself as a victim. Forgiveness is done primarily for yourself, and less so for the person who wronged you.
But if this seems unwise because it may further harm or distress, don't do it — it's not about making yourself feel better by apologizing. You don't want to add salt to a painful wound. Also, keep in mind that you can't force someone to forgive you. They will need to move to forgiveness in their own time.
In any case, we have to be willing to forgive ourselves. Holding on to resentment against your-self can be just as toxic as holding on to resentment against someone else. Recognize that poor behavior or mistakes don't make you worthless or bad.
Accept the fact that you — like everyone else — aren't perfect. Accept yourself despite your faults. Admit your mistakes. Commit to treating others with compassion, empathy and respect. And again, talking with a spiritual leader, mental health provider or trusted friend or relative may be helpful.
Forgiveness of yourself or someone else, though not easy, can transform your life. Instead of dwelling on the injustice and revenge, instead of being angry and bitter, you can move toward a life of peace, compassion, mercy, joy and kindness.