The Power of Forgiveness: You Decide When the Harm Ends

Woman at sunsetIn the largest context, forgiveness has the awesome power to stop the cycles of revenge and violence that drive egregious abuses of power. Dr. Frederic Luskin, author of Forgive for Good, says, “By choosing to forgive, we stand in awe of the horrors that can happen to people in this world, and we decide neither to participate in them nor to repay them. It’s not a matter of whether or not we will have conflict; it’s a matter of what we do with that conflict.”

Forgiveness is often misunderstood. It does not require forgetting or condoning or even reconciling. Luskin, as quoted by Vesela Simic in an article titled “The Challenge of Forgiveness” (Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness, Issue 13, pp. 32), defines forgiveness as “the ability to make peace with your own life by no longer arguing and objecting to the way it unfolds. It means that difficult things happen in life, and first you have to grieve them, then accept them, and finally move on. … Forgiveness means that unkindness stops with you. … This is not a one-time response. … It’s about becoming a forgiving person.”

Simic adds, “Forgiveness is a pro-social change in someone’s experience after a transgression. When people choose to forgive, they change.”

Forgiveness is the end point of a process of coming to terms with enormous harm and with the reverberations of that harm. Forgiveness is ultimately liberating and life-restoring. Although it is about a relationship, forgiveness is for yourself. “Instead of letting the person who caused the harm ‘off the hook,’ forgiveness is about taking the hooks of hurt, anger, and helplessness out of our aching hearts so we can grieve and heal and let go of destructive feelings,” as longtime Boulder, Colorado-based psychotherapist Jack Lavino puts it.

Lavino describes several stages of forgiveness that are best worked through with the support of a therapist or other professional. The first is to break the silence and tell the story to someone who is safe. Next is to allow yourself to feel and grieve. Next is to take responsibility for your reactions to pain. And the last stage is to accept the humanity of your abuser.

By forgiving the seemingly unforgiveable, you gain freedom from responses of revenge, further suffering, martyrdom, rage, helplessness, and retraumatizing. The energy that has held the pain and anger is released, and you can move on. The cycle stops.

“Forgiveness is not for sissies,” Lavino writes on his website. “It is the Hero’s Journey.”

For therapists, the ethical consideration in working with forgiveness is in understanding that getting to forgiveness is a long and deep engagement with Self that can’t be pushed or forced. There is a moment when forgiveness feels possible and right. Pushing for it before there has been adequate grieving, expressing of anger, and understanding of the beliefs, habits, and addictions that have resulted from the wound can have the unintended effect of increasing shame and anger and decreasing trust.

A Story about Forgiveness in Therapy

Carla—not her real name—was angry with her father for being so selfish and “crazy” that he expected her from the time she was a small child and her parents divorced to take care of him and make him happy. He frequently threatened to kill himself if she didn’t do something for him. She was upset that as a child she had decided that it was her life purpose to take care of her father.

Sessions cycled through anger and grief. Her insight that in her adult relationships she was either a resentful caretaker or withdrawn and unavailable gave her strong motivation to get out of this endless cycle of hatred. In one session, I asked her to select something in the room to represent her dad. She found a jar and placed it in the room at a distance that felt right. At first, she was so angry that she couldn’t even look at the jar. We acknowledged this reaction and let it be.

The next session, the jar was still there. But now she was ready to look at it. “I am thinking to go and pick it up and hold it,” she said. “But I can’t do that.” There were tears and then a profound realization: “It’s not ME. He’s not me. His life is not mine. It belongs to him.” In that moment, he became a very wounded, separate human being instead of her life’s purpose. She could forgive him and take back her life.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Maliah

    March 27th, 2015 at 10:29 AM

    Over the years I think that this is the one thing that I have continually gotten wrong. It took me a very long time to understand that I was the one holding back on how much I could heal because I was the one who had to decide to no longer allow that hurt to weigh me down. Forgive and accept and move on.

  • Gregory

    March 27th, 2015 at 11:01 AM

    It can be very powerful for you indeed once you can take control back over your life again!

  • Harold

    March 27th, 2015 at 2:32 PM

    Those ghosts of the past can only haunt you for as long as you let them

  • dean

    March 28th, 2015 at 4:47 AM

    Forgiveness can be such a powerful thing. It doesn’t mean that you are giving up or letting yourself be run over but it does mean that you will no longer accept that you have to let the actions of other people control you. It can be such a release to finally let go of those feelings of animosity that you have held toward someone because while they may feel that this is giving them the power, in reality you are the one who becomes stronger for doing so.

  • Armand

    March 28th, 2015 at 1:27 PM

    I know that the RIGHT thing to do is to forgive and forget but how do you find it in you to do that when you have been wounded so terribly?

    I am just not sure that I have that ability to do that in me

  • Nadja

    March 4th, 2017 at 10:49 AM

    I agree’ I’ve been hurt physically and emotionally so often! I left a very abusive relationship a year and a half ago and it took my oldest son to speak to a teacher at school saying ‘I’m worried about my mom and my brother & myself because dad hits us and screams and shouts all the time’ I’m still frightened off him and I live in Africa (millions miles away from home) so financially we depend on him! I will never forgive or forget what he’s done to me and his sons! Yes I’m angry but leaving such an abusive relationship was the best thing I could’ve ever done!

  • eugenie

    March 29th, 2015 at 5:18 AM

    I am not that sure that there are that many people who see this as something that they hold the power over, you know? It’s like this one thing or combination of things has held such power over them for so long that it feels impossible to loose themselves from those tentacles. It would be nice if we could all understand that yes, this is in our control, but I think that we all know that this is something that is far easier said then done.

  • delia

    March 30th, 2015 at 11:33 AM

    I wish that it was as easy as saying that you forgive someone and poof! the pain goes away but it is not quite that easy. It can still take some time even after you resolve to offer that forgiveness before you can truly get past what harm has been done against you. But it is better this way, so much better for the mind and body ad spirit to let go of all of that negative energy that anger leaves in your life. It is better to offer that forgiveness, work on letting that consume you instead of letting the anger eat away at you instead.

  • AL

    March 30th, 2015 at 1:03 PM

    You will feel like a brand new person when you can learn to forgive!

  • Melissa F

    March 31st, 2015 at 10:49 AM

    I do strongly agree with the statement that forgiveness is not this one time thing that you do. You actually have to open yourself up to being a forgiving person to find all of the peace on life.

  • Jackie

    May 21st, 2015 at 4:53 PM

    I have to forgive other’s even though it has been a difficult task for me. My spiritual life suffers when I hold onto anger, hatred, gossip, and believing that I am a part of the chosen group.
    I forgive for personal reasons I want a life that is fully functional and spiritual.

  • Orphan Izzy

    July 6th, 2015 at 8:50 AM

    I just don’t know how to do that in a situation that is ongoing and that involves people I simply can’t walk away from because that’s just the reality. It’s much easier to forgive someone about a situation it’s not on going.

  • Bobbie

    July 26th, 2015 at 9:27 AM

    Thank you so much for this article. I have had the opportunity to meet you in person and got the Right Use of Power training. Yes forgiveness is needed for peace. Revenge leads to violence, aggression, abuse… Whereas forgiveness gives peaces. It is actually more powerful than anything. We get mental peace and I personally seen whom I forgave have had realised their misdeeds.

  • Angie

    July 26th, 2015 at 9:31 AM

    A powerful description of forgiveness, and how it can transform my recovery process and stop the cycle of harm. I study Nonviolent Communication, and feel this is right in line with what I’m learning. Thank you for an empowering post.

  • Wendy

    May 6th, 2016 at 10:25 PM

    This article finally helped me to understand the difference between forgiving and forgetting. So, if I understand correctly , forgiving is not obsessing, not in active retaliation and being able to move on with your life ( actually moving on is another whole problem in itself, correct?) .
    What do you suggest, if you think you have gotten to this point and no longer wish this person who hurt you harm, and are able to get through days actually being happy again, until the person repeats the offensive over and over? I can see as I am writing this, that this is a cycle I must break. But how is the question?

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