Reclaiming Your Life through Forgiveness

Silhouette of man sitting in grassForgiveness is a word which can evoke conflicting thoughts and feeling. Images of turning the other cheek can arise in ways that keep you stuck in hurtful or even abusive situations, which in turn reinforce your experience of powerlessness and victimization. In light of this, I want to first address what forgiveness does and does not mean.

Forgiveness is:

  1. For your own healing (and not about the offender)
  2. Reclaiming your power
  3. Gaining peace of mind
  4. A choice you can make
  5. Good for your physical and mental health

Forgiveness is not:

  1. Condoning or excusing hurtful behavior
  2. Denying or minimizing your feelings and hurt
  3. Having to reconcile with the offender
  4. Giving up your rights for justice (including legal action)

Forgiveness is a Process

It is important to see forgiveness as a process and not a one-time event. This process is very similar to grieving. For example, if someone is in a marriage or committed relationship and their partner tells them they no longer love them and have found someone whom they do love, the person being broken up with is faced with the betrayal of a promise and the death of a way of life. Initial reactions to this are usually a combination of denial, anger, bargaining, and sadness or even despair. These are also the first four stages of the five-stage grieving process, and it is important to give yourself permission to fully experience the depth of these feelings.

In fact, the first step in the forgiveness process is being in touch with your feelings and clear about the actions which hurt you, and to share this with at least one person who can listen without judgment. This step cannot be skipped. Pretending that you have no hard feelings will not work. It takes courage and support to be honest. Minimizing the actions which hurt you also does not work. It is essential to be clear about the other person’s actions, even though it can hurt to say it out loud. This first step takes time. Acceptance is the final stage of grieving, but a premature acceptance can actually keep you stuck in the hurt and pain. Forgiveness cannot be rushed.

There does come a time, however, when this first step is complete. Although there is no fixed time limit, there is a sense that life has become stuck. The second step, as outlined by Dr. Fred Luskin in his book Forgive for Good, is recognizing when you are no longer acutely grieving but have built up a “grievance story.” A grievance story is when a monument has been constructed to the person and events that hurt us. This is when your life story begins to revolve around the events, leaving you with stories such as “I will never trust again,” “Life is unfair,” “I will make them pay,” “My life is over,” and many more. You replay the events and begin making decisions about yourself and your future because of it. These lines of thinking keep you stuck in the belief that life just happens to you. They also keep you renting out space to the person who wronged you, allowing them to have power over your life.

Along with a grievance story, we often have what Dr. Luskin calls “unenforceable rules.” In the example of a spouse finding a new love, unenforceable rules could include “Commitment vows should not be broken,” or “It is wrong for someone to stop loving me.” By giving up the demand that these rules be met is not condoning the wrong that was done. It does mean that you no longer need to feel powerless as you hand over the other person’s freedom of choice. This is a movement toward acceptance of what you are unable to change—and acceptance is the final stage of grieving.

The third step in forgiveness is asking yourself, “What differences am I demanding are out of my control?” You have the choice to stay in the cycle of suffering by not letting go, or to reclaim your power by choosing to accept what cannot be changed and put your energy toward opening new possibilities.

The fourth step in forgiveness is remembering you have the power to choose where you focus your thoughts and energy. It has been said that the best revenge is a well-lived life.

© Copyright 2011 by Inge Dean, MS, LMFT, therapist in Berkeley, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lillie

    September 22nd, 2011 at 12:15 PM

    There are so many people who move through their lives harping on all of the bad things that others have supposedly done to them in life.

    How can you not realize that you are only hurting yourself when you live this way?

    the other person does not care at all, while you spend your life dwelling on something that in the end only hurts you.

  • Jay

    September 22nd, 2011 at 1:07 PM

    It’s not that easy to just stop feeling that way. If you have been hurt over and over and over again. It’s almost impossible to forgive or even trust another human being. It takes years to get over traumatic things and to heal, so I wish people would stop saying “get over it”!

  • anna

    September 23rd, 2011 at 1:49 AM

    “the best revenge is a well-lived life.”

    loved this line.I have been carrying a lot of hurt for quite sometime now but now after having read this,I think forgiveness is not a favor that you do to the wrong-doer but a kind of treatment for yourself.yes,troubling yourself due to the wrong doings of somebody else is stupid,I just want to get rid of the hurt,it is too much to take.and if forgiveness is the way then I’m ready for it.I think I will be seeing a counselor soon.thank you for the wonderful article, Inge Dean.

  • Tony

    September 23rd, 2011 at 9:54 AM

    Thank you for writing this article, Inge. I particularly liked that you created a list of what Forgiveness isn’t. I found that very powerful and healing.

    I’ve wrestled with the topic for most of my life. I’ve come to realize that at its core, Forgiveness is about not responding in kind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the late German Theologian, warns against a cheap forgiveness where one piously says something like, “What you did was OK.” Sort of along the lines of forgiving and forgetting, which would be disastrous to our spiritual and psychological well being. Lewis B. Smedes has written a really great book on this topic. Also, do you know Walter Wink? He is a biblical scholar who has interpreted the passage of turning the other cheek in a way that totally makes sense. According to Wink, Jesus wasn’t advocating that we lie down like lambs but stand up and resist. It’s brilliant and empowering.
    However,few point out, as you have, that we don’t have to reconcile. And that’s important to state clearly, even though it may be implied.
    Anyway, thanks again.

  • Jennifer G.

    September 23rd, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    I’m very glad you defined forgiveness at the beginning of your article there, Inge! I can see I’ve misunderstood what it is and isn’t.

    I thought to forgive you had to either reconcile with them to help yourself let it all go and/or more or less forget the hurt. That’s not a step I’m ready for and I don’t know if I ever will be.

    But forgiveness that doesn’t have to include that? I think I could deal with that. Thanks for the food for thought.

  • sue

    September 23rd, 2011 at 1:16 PM

    keep beating yourself up about stuff you can’t change hurts both body and mind

  • bryce duncan

    September 23rd, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    I’ve done things in life I’m ashamed of, especially when I was an adolescent. I treated my family bad, I got into trouble, I disrespected my parents…I gave no thought to anything except me having a good time. I hope that one day they will forgive me for that. I can’t force them to and I won’t bring it up and rock the boat, but I hope it happens.

    I’ve carried that guilt around for twenty odd years and I know it’s not my place to ask for it. If it happens, it will be on their schedule, not mine.

    I just wanted those who want to forgive to know that the other person may be seeking that same forgiveness from you and perhaps want the opportunity to say sorry if you’ll give them that.

  • nhb

    September 23rd, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    Before we get all misty-eyed at the scenario Bryce painted there, let’s remember that not everyone is going to apologize if you choose to face them and say you forgive them. Some might. And others might not.

    You could get a testy “for what?” response or a flat-out denial that they have any idea what you’re talking about. They may laugh, get angry, be dismissive, tell you you’re crazy or imagined it, or whatever.

    You have no idea what their reaction would be. Tread carefully.

  • kenneth

    September 24th, 2011 at 5:50 PM

    Lillie, i know people like this, and it is really sad that they are ruining they’re own life because they can’t move on. These people blame others for actions that they can control. Talking to these types of people drives me nuts because all I ever here is things like “I am poor because_______ did this to me” and “Docter ___________ screwed up my surgery so being overweight is his fault”. If that sounds like any of you, please try to forgive and forget! And most importantly move on with your life! The only reason you are where you are is because of you. So stop putting the blame on those who have wronged you and get real. /rant

  • KarlGibson

    September 24th, 2011 at 8:16 PM

    @nhb: I was going to say the same thing. You took the words right out of my mouth. Don’t count on heartfelt apologies falling from their lips, people, because you forgave them and told them so.

    Remember: Forgiveness isn’t about them, it’s about you. This is your healing time, not theirs.

    I think it’s better to forgive them in your own heart and mind and keep it there. Don’t give them the chance to hurt you all over again or derail that by telling them. Their own need for forgiveness is their cross to bear. It’s not down to you to make it easy for them.

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