“When you forgive, you in no way change the past—but you sure do change the future.” – Bernard Meltzer
Research shows that forgiving others is linked to improved mental health. Forgiveness has had mental health outcomes that have reduced anxiety, depression, and other severe psychiatric disorders.
Not only does forgiving others improve mental health, but it is also linked to fewer physical health symptoms. Because the mind and body are connected, stress causes physical symptoms to occur. Poor immunity, headaches, and exhaustion are some of the few physical symptoms from mental stress. That said, forgiveness can improve our physical and mental health – now that is pretty powerful.
Misunderstandings about Forgiveness
I find often that clients I work with do not truly understand what forgiveness really even means, what it looks like, and what steps they need to take to get there. Because of the common misunderstandings about forgiving others, people often avoid practicing forgiveness as a part of their lifestyle.There are so many misconceptions about what forgiveness is. People often state that they feel like forgiving others means allowing the person to get away with what they have done, like it is a free pass the offender receives. Forgiving does not mean you approve of what the person has done to you. Instead, forgiveness means not letting what they did have a hold on you.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, and it does not mean you have to reconcile the relationship. Forgiveness does not even have to mean telling the person that you have forgiven them. It could be a choice that you made without even speaking to your offender.
Knowing that forgiveness is not forgetting and it is not stating the offender’s actions were just, what is stopping you from moving forward? I encourage you to make a list of what is holding you back. Take a look at your list. Is the hurt you are experiencing worth the reasons why you have not taken the steps to forgive?
Now answer this: Which is harder to do — carry around the negative emotion, stress, and physical symptoms you are experiencing now and continue it into your future, or take steps to heal and forgive?
Forgiveness is often not easy and sometimes it may take quite a while to be able to come to the place where you are able to forgive. Forgiveness does not have to be an immediate reaction.
I think often times people have trouble forgiving others because they cannot justify the person’s actions. The person’s actions were not and are not justified. It does not make sense why this event happened. It is not comprehensible. Their actions were so cruel and unfathomable.
I believe to be able to understand why these things were done, you have to look at the person who has done them. Look at the family dynamics, their relationship with others, and maybe even genetics. You have to rewind into their past and see what has shaped them toward their faulty thinking and horrible behavior.
What is Forgiveness?
Therapist Aid, an online tool, describes what forgiveness is and what it is not.
a) the decision to overcome pain that was inflicted by another person;
b) letting go of anger, resentment, shame, and other emotions associated with an injustice, even though they are reasonable feelings, and;
c) treating the offender with compassion, even though they are not entitled to it.
Forgiveness is a choice. It is deciding you have been hurt enough and you are ready to feel different. It is a decision to heal.
Forgiveness is not:
a) reconciliation/repairing or returning to a relationship;
b) forgetting the injustice;
c) condoning or excusing the offender’s behavior;
d) granting legal mercy to the offender; or
e) letting go, but wishing for revenge.
Four Phases of Forgiveness Therapy
A therapeutic intervention used with forgiveness therapy involves the following four phases: the uncovering phase, the decision phase, the work phase, and the deepening phase.
The Uncovering Phase
During the first phase, the uncovering phase, the client takes a look at the injustice and evaluates how it has affected their life. What areas has it interfered with and in what ways has it immobilized you?This phase can open an individual’s eyes to how not forgiving can continue to keep you immobilized, stuck in the role and mindset of a victim. You at one point were victim to wrongdoing but you are not defined by that moment. Instead you are shaped into someone stronger. You are a survivor.
The Decision Phase
The second phase, the decision phase, educates the client about what forgiveness is and what it is not. It allows you to choose whether you do or do not want to forgive. This shows that the model does not force forgiveness, but instead gives freedom to choose.
Someone may not be ready for this second phase at the time, and that is okay. The client may just need to process more of their past and revisit this stage at another time.
The Work Phase
The third phase, the work phase, places an emphasis on understanding the offender, giving a new perspective, and allowing empathy to transform. This is the phase where your heart alters, and suddenly things are seen in a way that they have never been seen before.
The Deepening Phase
Finally, the last phase, the deepening phase, allows the negative emotions to decrease, finding meaning in the experience and identifying how growth has occurred because of it. This final stage allows this new outlook to transform the negative thinking into a more positive way of seeing things.
What Happens When We Don’t Forgive
Forgiveness provides a weight of anger, hurt, and pain to be lifted. It is not choosing to forget, but choosing to move forward. The emotional hurt that is carried around everyday is exhausting. It adds to stress and increases anxiety, and it interferes with relationships and the ability to be the healthiest and happiest you. You are held captive to a moment and you are frozen, unable to move to see the present.
Some people wear their hurt on their sleeve, pushing people away because of the trust that has been stripped from them. Others may push forward wearing a mask, pretending these emotions are not there, continually fighting negative thoughts and past memories. They work hard at appearing to everyone else that things are fine, hiding behind a fake smile and fighting every day to pretend. That mask is heavy and the fight gets harder every day.
Think about the last time someone hurt you. What did that look like emotionally? Did this emotional hurt spill into your physical health? What symptoms were you able to identify? Did it affect your sleep? What about your eating habits? Perhaps you had continual headaches. How much time did that hurt occupy in your mind? Did it affect your day-to-day functioning? How about your mood?
Now imagine the deepest of all hurts, a hurt that has been carried around for years. Think of the amount of time and the damaging emotion that would have developed because of this. The effects are monumental. They certainly have changed you. It has caused you stress and anxiety; it has tainted how you view people and the world.You no longer invest in others and you certainly do not trust those around you. When you hold onto something that is so damaging to you, there is not room for much else. It occupies your thoughts and time and keeps you from creating new memories; present memories and moments that are worth remembering and cherishing. Memories that will tell you, you are not what your hurt tried to make you. These moments will diminish the hurt that tried to hold you captive.
Often people think by not forgiving their offender that this will be a punishment to the offender – but really, all it does is punish the person holding onto the grudge. It keeps you connected emotionally to the offender. Your thoughts are occupied by the offender and your hurt and anger deepens because of the consistent emotional connection.
Can you think of any advantage to holding onto hurt? You deserve the stress relief and happiness that forgiveness can provide. Stop letting the offender win and take hold of joy.
By no means am I saying forgiveness is easy and that it is supposed to be done as quickly as the time it takes to say the words, “I forgive you.” Clarissa Pinkola says it best when she says, “Many people have trouble with forgiveness because they have been taught it is a singular act to be completed in one sitting. That is not so. Forgiveness has many layers, many seasons.”
Forgiveness is challenging. It can be messy. Raw emotions and pain arise. Things forgotten may surface and processing through the past may feel as if it is the present again.
Processing the Pain
The pain is hard, and processing through it may seem even harder, but it is worth it. I want a life of freedom for my clients. I don’t want the past to be the present. I don’t want memories to hold them captive. I want peace, happiness, and joy. I want them to see that they do not have to be the victim anymore; instead, they can be the survivor. The offender has not won!
If you are struggling to forgive, I challenge you to pray to God about your hurt. Ask God to show you how to forgive those who have negatively impacted your life. The biggest challenge is to pray for your enemies.
Be honest with God. He knows your heart. You may initially find it hard to say anything positive while praying, but that is okay. Keep praying anyway. With time, He will change your malice into compassion and understanding, giving you the ability to forgive those who have hurt you. May you see the enemy as God sees them.
As a therapist who is a Christian, it is hard for me to understand forgiveness without knowing Christ. I know a God who forgave me at my worst. A God who knew not all of those He would die for would live for Him. He knew their future, He saw the pain we would cause to Him and others, yet He still chose forgiveness.
He died for those who would rebuke Him, hate Him, and not even acknowledge His death on a cross. He knew my mess-ups, He knew my heart and how many times I would fail, but through all of that, He had compassion on me and chose to die for my imperfections. This gives me the ultimate and perfect example of what forgiveness is. I know that because God did this for me, I too should do this for others.
I believe compassion and empathy are big pieces of forgiveness. In fact without these elements, forgiveness seems quite impossible. Understanding the offender’s heart, understanding their past, and extending compassion can create a way for forgiveness to occur.
In Ephesians 4:31-32, it reads, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
If you have a way to listen to the song, “Forgiveness,” by Matthew West, I encourage you to meditate on the lyrics, soaking up each word and sentence. Ponder the song’s message and ask God for help to forgive those who have hurt you.
Christian Counseling to Help with Forgiving Others
If you feel you need someone to guide you through the bitterness and hurt you are holding onto, please seek out therapeutic guidance. I say this often and mean every word: you do not have to face this alone! Someone wants to walk alongside you and help you find the peace you deserve. Please do not hesitate to reach out, I would love to provide the support, comfort, and direction you need.
“Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” – C.S. Lewis