The way that you define a problem and its solution can make the difference between success and failure.
Often, someone will tell me, “I thought I had forgiven this person, but I haven’t. I’m still angry at them.” Another person might say, “My husband encourages me to forgive them, but that would mean that what they did was OK—and it wasn’t.” Sometimes, I hear “I should forgive them, but then I would have to let them back into my life.” Religious and spiritually-based people have told me, “I know I shouldn’t judge them, but I can’t help it.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines “forgive” as follows:
- Stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake. “I’ll never forgive David for the way he treated her.”
- Cancel (a debt) “He proposed that their debts should be forgiven.”
- Used in polite expressions as a request to excuse one’s foibles, ignorance, or impoliteness. “You will have to forgive my suspicious mind.”
Lots of “forgiveness” definitions
Personally, I find it difficult to wrap my brain around some of the definitions of forgiveness I’ve heard. Some of these seem to make excuses for the offender’s actions. Other definitions require the wounded person to practically be a saint and become open-hearted and loving towards the offender. Many of these definitions come dangerously close to suggesting that harmful or abusive actions are justifiable because of the abuser’s own history of being harmed, and therefore the actions are forgivable.
For myself, having an understanding of someone’s history helps me understand him or her. This gives me the reasons for their behavior, but it does not excuse their behavior, or “let them off the hook.” They are still responsible for their choices and actions.
I believe that judgment is different than evaluation. Judgment tends to have the qualities of anger, authority, or an assumption of holding the moral “high ground” inherent in it. Evaluation does not. Evaluation simply looks reality in the eyes and, as dispassionately as possible, says, “OK, what is there? And, who is that person right now?” Using evaluation to protect yourself is just common sense. If you’re dealing with a scorpion, then you must behave in a way that doesn’t allow it to harm you!
So, I came up with my own definition of forgiveness based upon my experience, observations, and healing process.
My “forgiveness” definition
Forgiveness is the process by which a person cleanses their own heart of anger, hurt, rage, sadness, fear, and incorrect evaluations. It is not easy to achieve this, because it requires emotional skills a person may not have and will therefore need to learn.
Complexities of forgiveness
People often make decisions based on a painful event that does not apply to the situation at hand or other subsequent events. Those decisions have to be re-evaluated or re-decided. Decisions like, “I will never be in another relationship” that were based on past, painful failed relationships can be a major block when you want to be in a relationship now (and of course cannot find one). Our brain records these decisions and puts them on “automatic replay.” They wind up influencing our current decisions, and therefore current outcomes. So, making an intense and committed re-decision that is more appropriate for present circumstances is essential in order to move on.
Skills in communication are required in order ensure that unpleasant events do not repeat themselves. The ability to set limits on other people and to say “no” are critical in deciding what is in your life. Communication, emotional and assertiveness skills take time to learn, but the payoff is amazing. It just takes the same kind of patience anyone uses in learning a computer program, tennis or how to drive.
The payoff in having learned the skills necessary to create forgiveness are touted in many books on psychology and spirituality. A study in the 2005 Journal of Behavioral Medicine called The Unique Effects of Forgiveness on Health: An Exploration of Pathways (by Lawler, et. al.) explored these benefits. They looked at five dimensions: physical symptoms, the medications people were using, the quality of sleep, levels of fatigue, and any physical complaints. The most crucial skills required were being able to resolve negative emotions, then being able to reduce stress by learning how to resolve conflict. Spirituality assisted in providing a good context for these skills. Learning these skill led to reduction in the use of medication, increased deep sleep, increased levels of energy and reduced physical problems.
There is indeed a relief in “letting go.” Energy that was being used in emotional fixation can now be used for creating the results you want in your life. Stress is relieved and sleep improves. Current relationships also improve because you are no longer dragging your emotional baggage from past relationships into your current ones. If any financial fund had a payoff that was this high, everyone would sign up!
Elizabeth Brandon, LMFT, CACII, CHT