The freedom that forgiveness brings
by Cheryl Dizon-Reynante
The seasonal change from winter to spring brings with it a renewed sense of beginning. It is no coincidence that at the same time that nature starts a new cycle of growth, people start to clean out their homes and yards, and start spending more time outside. Some organizations start a new fiscal year and even the end of tax season seems to signal the sign of new beginnings.
People who are affected by minimal sunlight in the winter report that they feel a significant improvement in mood. This sign of rejuvenation can lead to an internal “reset” and want for interpersonal growth. One way to improve emotional, spiritual and social growth is to consider the mental burdens that we carry with us. What past events do we keep replaying over and over in our minds that continue to weigh us down? Often, we can dwell on past hurts that result in feeling ongoing resentment, anger and even hatred. But we often don’t consider the personal cost and stress of hanging on to grudges.
A well-known Buddhist quote captures this idea: “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
It can be so easy to think about the times and ways that we have been hurt or disrespected. It doesn’t take much time to list the faults of others. We often think, “What is wrong with them?” “He must be crazy” or “She never appreciates all that I have done for her.”
Some situations can be especially difficult to go through, and sometimes we can take a long time to heal. Examples of such circumstances are when:
- a close friend becomes distant
- a co-worker takes credit for our work
- a child says hurtful things to us
- a spouse or partner has an affair
- someone hurts one of our children
- a parent fails to be on our side
- a confidante tells one of our secrets
- a loved one does not apologize when he or she should
- someone steals from us
- we fall victim to physical, mental, emotional, or other kind of abuse
When another person hurts us, we can feel extreme sadness, shock, disappointment, and anger. When we feel betrayed, it can affect us not only emotionally, but also physically and spiritually. To illustrate, psychologist Elisha Goldstein (2010) asks us to try this experiment:
“Think of someone in your life right now who you are absolutely holding a grudge against right now. There is no way you are willing to forgive this person right now for their actions. Picture that person, and hold onto that unwillingness to forgive. Now, just observe what emotions are there. Anger, resentment, sadness? Also notice how you are holding your body right now, is it tense anywhere or feeling heavy? Now bring awareness to your thoughts; are they hateful and spiteful thoughts?”
Experience how it feels to hold onto this grudge so tightly. Is there an effect on your body; for instance, heaviness in your chest or head? Do you avoid certain places or situations because the person might be there? Do you look for reasons to tell yourself that you are better than that person? Even worse, do you constantly ruminate about how you can get revenge? Think about the physical and mental effort that you are investing and ask yourself: “Who is really suffering here?” Can you imagine the effect this will have if you carry it over weeks, months, even years? This mental stress could be related to future physical illness.
It’s hard to know where to start the road to forgiveness, but it can help to:
Put yourself in the other’s shoes
Think about all the issues that the other has to deal with. Are they stressed at work? Do they have health issues? Also, do you really believe that the person had bad intentions? Perhaps, they were forgetful or simply just displayed bad judgment, but did not mean to be hurtful.
When appropriate, tell the other person about your feelings. If not in person, then try it in written form. Sometimes, writing a letter can give us time to sort out our thoughts. If they read it without you present first, it can give them time to think about their response.
Tell the other person what is acceptable to you, and what is not. For example, if your mother is interfering with how you discipline your children, let her know rather than holding your feelings inside. You may be worried about hurting her, but if said in a kind but firm manner, she may help her to get over any hurt feelings. For example, try saying, “I really respect your opinion because you are a great mother, but I’ve got to parent my kids in a way that feels right to me.”
Confide in one or two people who you trust will not talk about this elsewhere. If you tell multiple people, you may be crossing the line into gossip, which is not far from the act of getting revenge. More often than not, being a gossip will make you look bad also. Find someone who is not judgmental, who may have been through a similar situation. Talk to a counsellor who can help you to see things in a different light, and help you work through the anger, depression or anxiety that you may feel.
Some are reluctant to forgive because they think that it means they are saying the hurtful act was acceptable. This is not necessarily so. More important, it can mean releasing feelings of anger, blame, resentment or vengeance on another person or yourself. One of the most powerful quotes that truly captures the essence of forgiveness was said by Lily Tomlin:
“Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
Looking at the act of forgiveness in this manner provides us with the hope of a better present and future, and frees us from past hurts. But it is not something that is just handed to us. We must work toward forgiveness and truly desire it in our hearts.
Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is a licensed therapist with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.