Posted on December 27, 2013 | 2 Comments
by Linda Herman, LMHC
In Part One of this piece, I introduced “forgiving” as an active experience, one in which the person doing the forgiving is letting go of his or her pain. We looked at what forgiving is and is not: e.g. that it may not mean that reconciliation will take place; that it does not mean tolerating or excusing hurtful behavior. Because of the scope of this topic, I have chosen to break the subject into three parts.
Forgiving is not necessarily an easy or even possible task. You may wonder if it is worth your time, especially if you will not have contact with the person (or if the person is no longer alive.) The answer to that is an emphatic “Yes!” One of the pioneers in researching forgiveness, Robert Enright, says that anger is the initial “and in many ways proper response to injury.” He distinguishes anger from resentment, saying that resentment “involves re-feeling the original anger. We remember the injury and re-feel the emotions…Anger is like a flame, resentment like a hot coal.” (Robert Enright, Forgiveness is a Choice, 2001 as quoted in Parents to the End. )
Research from as early as 1939 links deep passive anger and physical symptoms such as high blood pressure. Fred Luskin cited studies at the University of Wisconsin which show that the more individuals are able to forgive, the fewer heart problems they report. (Fred Luskin, Forgive for Good, 2002, as referenced in Parents to the End.)
I especially love this quote from Lewis B. Smedes author of The Art of Forgiving, who says, “When we forgive, we set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner we set free is ourselves.”
So, if it is so healthy to forgive, what stops us?
- We may think that it means having positive feelings for the person who has harmed us. The truth is that there are going to be some people towards whom we cannot feel positive.
- We may think it means disregarding the past. It does not. In the realm of parenting adult children, a mother may forgive her son for stealing from her, but change the locks on her home and not allow him in without being present.
- We may think that it leaves us open to future injuries from the offending person. It will only if we allow ourselves to be victimized. Some parents who have been repeatedly abused by an adult child choose to severely limit (or even sever) contact with that child.
Before going further, let me make this point: No one has to forgive. Understanding that you have the right to not forgive can be the first step in allowing yourself to do so. People have a “right” to their angry or resentful feelings and these feelings will cling to them all the more if we tell them how they “should” feel.
In order to begin the process of forgiving, then, we must first face our feelings. That means taking full ownership that you have been hurt or wronged. Identify and express your emotions fully to yourself and someone you can trust.
I will elaborate on the components of forgiving in Part Three next week. Thus, if you are wanting to work at forgiving someone, you can begin by taking an honest appraisal of your feelings and the situation about which you have difficulty letting go.