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Exploring Forgiveness

Exploring Forgiveness

“Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.”

-Martin Luther King

Forgiveness is such a personal issue that brings up so many feelings for people.  I am writing about it because it has been coming up in so many of the sessions I have been doing with people lately.  I would feel much more comfortable having this discussion on forgiveness face to face with you.  To be able to hear your words, listen to your heart and be able to feel what you are saying you need in order to forgive.  I do this so much better face to face than trying to write about something as personal as forgiveness. I am offering this so you have some different ways to explore a variety of ways to look at forgiveness – not as the only way to look at the issue. Okay, so here goes.

Physical wounds are seen and healing is evident.  Physical wounds leave a scar so we have definite proof our bodies are doing what they are supposed to do.  Emotional scars, however, are not as easily seen and often go unacknowledged.  Because of this fact, they can stay hidden,  grow and fester, even without our awareness.  We become aware of these unfelt, unacknowledged wounds when another situation comes up and we feel the pain, anger, sadness that comes from an unresolved, hurtful situation.

Over the years, doing relationship work, the issue of forgiveness has come up often.  Not only in regards to current hurts, but in relationship to past wounds.  Questions such as, “How do I forgive a parent who hurt me, physically, sexually, emotionally?  How do I forgive heinous acts?   What does forgiveness really mean? What does it take to actually heal?  And how do we move on from something we may not even exactly remember?

The dictionary definition of forgiveness is: “to give up resentment; to cease to feel resentment”.  A tall order, indeed.  For many, forgiveness means we must let the person off the hook for their actions.   “If I forgive, he has gotten by with what he did, and that is entirely unacceptable”, one woman says, tearfully.  Her husband of 25 years had been having an affair for several years.  She was struggling to forgive him.  He wanted to come back, was remorseful for his transgression and had promised not to ever do it again.  Her question to him and to herself was, “How do I know he will never do it again?  Good question.

Such an act is an act of betrayal.  To “let go” of the pain of betrayal is often out of the scope of what many are actually willing to do.  Compounded by the fact that often exactly what happened is seen differently by the persons involved.  In my experience in my own life and the lives of the many people I have worked with over the years, it is the unacknowledged wounds that are most difficult to forgive.   When two people see the same incident differently, that makes the act of forgiveness more difficult.  When the person who we feel hurt us denies, or dismisses our wounding, or makes excuses for their behavior, then the act of forgiveness is much more difficult.  These unacknowledged, disowned wounds breed anger, hurt, resentment that can stay buried for a long time.

So, why forgive in the first place?  Forgiveness is not for the other person.  Forgiveness is for ourselves.  Only through forgiveness can we truly move on; can we find freedom.  Having said that, forgiveness is tricky.  We rarely just “let go”.  So, how do we forgive?

First of all, we must be willing to acknowledge what hurts.  What is it, or who,  needs our forgiveness?  Are we willing to look at our part of the wound?  What have we been unwilling to acknowledge or what have we disowned in ourselves that adds to the wounding?  Did we not speak up when we could/should have?  Did we not ask for our needs to be acknowledged and valued?   What are we really forgiving?  And what do we  do if the other party never acknowledges his/her part?

We know when a wound is unacknowledged or dismissed, it festers and grows. It often becomes hidden and we can fool ourselves into believing that we have “moved on”.  The way we know if that is truly the case, however, is if the issue/ the wound resurfaces.  If we find ourselves in the same place; different people, different circumstances, but the same old pattern.  When these old patterns resurface, we can be sure that we have found yet another layer  and we have not finished  forgiving.  Holding these old hurts, patterns deep inside, teaches us to protect our heart.  By holding ourselves tightly we believe we won’t be hurt again.  Each time we do this, we keep ourselves unable to open to love when it is offered.  Protecting or closing our heart never really protects us.  It only feeds the hurt and the resentment.  As long as we resent another, we continue to re-feel the pain and hurt.  Our story becomes one of us against them, instead of learning what forgiveness means to us and learning to forgive.  When our heart is broken, it gives us a chance to feel our heart growing.  By our willingness to learn what we need in relationship and speak up, tell our truth, we can find strength, courage and eventually resiliency.

Each time we are  unwilling or unsuccessful at forgiving, we feel shame. And with each unresolved relationship, we experience a sense of failure.  The longer we go on without resolving these hurts, we begin to experience hopelessness.   To break the cycle, we must find our own internal source.  What sources us from the inside?  How do we find the way through our pain and be willing to risk again?  The only way I know to accomplish this is to feel our pain and hurt.  Acknowledge ourselves and get to know what does and doesn’t work inside us.  Then we can know what it will take for us to forgive someone who has hurt us.

Finding forgiveness for ourselves is an important aspect of forgiveness.  When we understand what we are holding onto that we feel ashamed about, we can begin to work toward forgiving ourselves.  Forgiveness begins with us.  Just as we need the other person to acknowledge what they have done and accept responsibility for their actions, we must be willing to do that for ourselves.

An important aspect of this issue of forgiveness is trust.  Trust cannot be built within a relationship if a person does not feel they have been heard, validated and that ownership has taken place.  The most important aspect of forgiveness is the act of ownership.  NOT excuses, but taking complete responsibility for one’s actions and the impact on another.  We must do this for ourselves and for anyone we want to forgive or ask forgiveness from.

Find a forgiveness formula that works for you. One way is to use a visualization where you picture the person you want to forgive and say what you feel and what you need from them to heal.  Picture them taking in what you are saying; feel them owning it, taking responsibility for their actions and saying they are sorry for the impact of their actions on you.  The most powerful form of forgiveness is face to face if possible. There is such healing in the process of being heard, being met and fully embraced.

You can use this process for working with self- forgiveness as well. The important thing to remember is that as long as you carry this unwillingness to forgive, it owns you.  And you will stay a victim to your past.

Allow yourself freedom, healing and love by the process of forgiveness.  Honor your own life and work with forgiveness in whatever way works for you.  You deserve this.   You deserve to be free and to feel the mastery that comes from taking charge of your life, choosing you and allowing yourself to be free.

Blessings to you,

Ann Sheppard