Forgiveness shaped by the stories of people’s lives

If you had asked me what I thought forgiveness was when I was a young adult, I probably would have said that it is something you do for others—others who have wronged you in some way, to give them a break and let them know that you are no longer angry or upset with them.

As I’ve matured emotionally over the years, my view of forgiveness has evolved significantly. Some of my change in perspective is a result of my own cumulative life experiences, and some of it is from stories of people’s lives I have read about. However, much of the influence has come from working as a psychiatrist and hearing the life stories of my patients.

I hear stories of both failure and success in life. I regularly see people who have been wronged, or even severely violated, by others in ways they would rather forget. None of them forget, but some certainly find ways to more easily move forward in life while others remain “stuck” and in some way immobilized or impaired because of their emotional scars.

Although many of these patients have been severely wronged by others, I believe that we all can learn from their lessons and apply some of these principles to the more mundane but typical daily events where we may need to consider forgiving others.

How would I describe forgiveness today?

  • Forgiveness is a life decision that you make: a decision–not to forget about the event (that usually isn’t possible)–but, to “release” it from your life so that it no longer has power over you. I’ve seen many people successfully “take back their power” and decide that they’ve had enough of living in the victim role.
  • Forgiveness is something you do primarily for yourself. It is not necessarily a kind gesture toward those who have wronged you, although secondarily it could be, especially if you are forgiving someone with whom you wish to remain in a relationship.
  • You don’t need to tell those you are forgiving that you’re forgiving them. Certainly it’s your choice to do so, and doing so may have a healing or closure quality to it for some victims, but it’s still possible to forgive and keep it to yourself.
  • To truly be forgiveness, it is an act that must come from deep within, from an inner knowing. If it’s done out of guilt (“I really ‘should’ forgive them”) or coercion, then it’s not really forgiveness. Saying that you’ve forgiven someone does not mean that you have. Only you know when, inside your own soul,  you’ve truly let the past insult go.
  • Forgiveness can be instantaneous, but for most people it’s a process that occurs over time.
  • Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of great strength and courage.
  • Forgiving yourself can be a monumental life-enhancing experience. None of us is perfect. Continually keeping yourself down or making yourself feel guilty or miserable because of past mistakes does not right any wrongs or improve the universe.

Patients I have seen who truly forgive often heal more quickly from their emotional wounds and are more likely to function better. In my personal experience, I’ve seen patients recover more quickly from conditions such as anxiety, depression, and even PTSD after making the life decision to forgive. Their relationships with others in their lives often improve as well.

Why doesn’t everyone who has been wronged choose to forgive?

Pride is one major reason. Forgiving feels like waving the white flag of surrender to some people. They think that it means they’re giving up or giving in. I often hear statements from patients indicating that those who have wronged them don’t “deserve” to be forgiven. They “deserve” to have others angry with them. Forgiving them would mean letting them off easy.

But there’s a saying: “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”

Exactly.

Remaining angry with someone does not punish him or her. It punishes the one who is angry. And so a wrong from the past becomes a perpetual emotional barrier to moving on in life. The victim remains in an ongoing state of being victimized even though the insults from the past are long over. The one who has been wronged is then at risk of falling further into a victim role, not functioning well or not living life to the fullest. At the same time, the perpetrator has ironically moved on with his own life.

Wallowing in self pity, stewing in anger, holding onto one’s grievances, and even staying in the victim role all have some degree of twisted but seductive appeal. But staying in this low energy state is akin to harboring an emotional cancer that is ultimately self-destructive.

What can people do to get themselves to forgive?

There is no easy answer. This can be a long-term psychotherapy topic for some, some who never find a way to forgive. Yet others simply “do it.”  Forgiveness is a choice, but an admittedly complex and difficult one for many.

For the more minor daily insults we all may suffer from others, people can make the choice to simply let these occurrences go. No, none of us should allow ourselves to be pushed around or mistreated. Being assertive is wise, but holding grudges is not. Especially when it comes to getting along with loved ones, it’s better to remember that each of us is human and therefore fallible. We should choose our battles wisely–when faced with the choice of being right or being kind (or, substitute being right or being at peace), choosing to be kind (and therefore at peace) is the path to forgiveness.

What about for those who have been more seriously wronged by others?

It’s the same idea of eventually releasing what has happened, but it tends to be a much greater decision. Most patients I have seen in this category have simply gotten to the point in life where they have said loudly to themselves, “Enough!” They’ve had enough pain and immobilization–enough of living in their own private hells since the wrongs have occurred. They decide that they do not want to waste one more minute of their days or have one more fretful sleepless night because of what someone did to them in the past. It’s time for them to take their power back.

Jeffrey Knuppel is a psychiatrist who blogs at The Positive Medical Blog, where this post was originally published.

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