How do you forgive someone who did something you deem unforgivable? Have you ever experienced anything that made you so angry, sad, or frustrated with someone that you promised yourself you would never exonerate them from it? When you think about forgiveness, what is it that you think about?
This week I had a very difficult conversation with my father, who called me crying because he felt that no one cared about him. He claimed that my little sister treats him like he’s a “piece of sh*t” and that he’s not worthy. After listening to him for about 20 minutes, I felt sorry for him despite the fact that he wasn’t a great father and destroyed our family. Once I hung up the phone, I called my little sister to share the story.
A few minutes after I told her, she called me back saying she had called my father and he denied saying anything about her and how upset she made him. My first reaction was to call him and say, “what the f*ck?” But I resisted my urges and reminded myself that he’s almost 80 years old and is likely not mentally or physically in a place to hear what I had to say. Part of me wanted to blame him for all the horrible things that he had done over the years, but then I realized that I have already invested so much time and energy being angry and blaming him, so at this point all I had left to do was to forgive him.
Forgiveness isn’t just something that sounds nice. There is actually a lot of research that suggests some pretty incredible health benefits. Everything from lower stress levels to less toxic anger, decreased substance abuse problems, and improved heart health have been linked to forgiving other people.
Personally, I can attest to the fact that forgiving my father felt so good to do, which is why I'm sharing the following 6 steps to forgiving someone with you. My hope is that if you are carrying a heavy load, forgiveness can help you let go, experience liberation, and ultimately, improve your mental and physical health.
Step 1: Acknowledge the hurt.
Try as hard as you can to answer as many questions as possible about the situation. What happened? Why, in your opinion, did it happen? How did it make you feel and why did it affect you in such a way? Consider why the other person might have behaved in such a way. Writing these answers down has helped me but, alternatively, you can just spend a few minutes answering these questions in your head. Once you have answered the questions, ask yourself if you feel better or worse. It is important that you validate yourself and let go of any judgments regarding the feelings that you may be experiencing. Congratulations! You can now graduate to the next step.
Step 2: Forgiving is NOT forgetting.
It is important to realize that when we forgive others, it doesn’t mean we forget. As in the example above with my father, while it took me many years to forgive him, I did not, and will never, forget what he did to our family. Knowing that can help you take an important step towards being able to forgive, and will allow you to release a lot of uncomfortable thoughts and feelings from your mind.
Step 3: Forgiveness is an action not a feeling.
If your goal is to forgive someone, then it is important to focus on the act of forgiving instead of allowing your feelings to get in the way and prevent you from taking steps towards achieving your goal. Feel what you are feeling, acknowledge those emotions, and set them aside. Focus on giving that person your forgiveness, even if your feelings are prompting you otherwise. This is a crucial step to forgiveness that will bring you closer to accepting that you cannot change the past. In order to graduate to the next step, it is important to accept that whatever happened is in the past. Moreover, in order to release your related feelings, it is important that you take the action of forgiveness.
Step 4: Forgiveness is a process.
This is the most important thing to understand when trying to forgive. If we try to force ourselves into hastily forgiving someone, it will most likely be very challenging. Forgiveness takes time and practice. Because this is a process, it is important to remind yourself to be kind to yourself, to be patient, and to believe that forgiveness is possible. If you find that you have moved through the steps and you are not ready to forgive, don’t push yourself or be too hard on yourself. This might mean that you need some more time to process whatever it is that happened — so give yourself that time. Whether or not you forgive doesn't matter at this point. Focus on the fact that you are doing the best you can to try to forgive and give yourself credit for that.
Step 5: Determine and Repair.
In this step, you have to decide whether you want to forgive the other person. If the answer is no, you will park and lock what happened somewhere in your head for a little while (or maybe forever). When/if you decide that you are ready to continue working on forgiving, you will take the steps above again and maybe surprise yourself. If you decide that you do want to forgive, write it down on your phone or on a piece of paper and sign your name. Now, be proud of yourself and make the commitment to repair the relationship.
Step 6: Learn and Forgive.
Now that you have done most of the work, it is important that you learn what forgiveness means to you now versus what it meant to you prior to taking these steps. For many people forgiveness is done for the benefit of the other person, but if you own up to your part and focus on what it is that this brought up in you and why it affected you that way, you will find that you actually have an incredible opportunity to learn so much about yourself. Make it more about you than the other person so you can take the last step and forgive!
How do you feel now? Just check in with yourself and remember that life is short and if someone is very important to you, then it is worth it to do the work and focus on building that relationship and investing more.
Finally, remember that forgiveness is challenging. If you find yourself stuck on any of these steps, it can never hurt to reach out.
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With lots of love,