The Healing Power of Forgiveness

A hiker overlooks the sunset. Text "Not all classrooms have four walls" appears on the graphic.

Life may not be perfect, but you can learn to suffer less.

You can learn to forgive, and you can learn to heal.

- Dr. Fred Luskin

“Hurt people hurt people.” I don’t know how many times I have heard this quote from Will Bowen. In my work over the last few years presenting numerous, ‘From Bitterness to Betterness’ workshops, I’ve come to realize that people often hurt others because they themselves are hurt. They have deep wounds that have not healed and so they continue to pass on pain patterns sometimes even from generation to generation. Their reactions stem from past experiences that lead them to certain beliefs that they have accepted as truths. I have observed that hurt people are sometimes self-absorbed with their own pain and in most cases, are totally unaware they are hurting others. Perhaps it’s time to unlearn the things we have learned from wounded people.

People who have been hurt deserve compassion. I’ve read recently where compassion has been defined as “a keen awareness of the suffering of another coupled with a desire to see it relieved.” Note that compassion is an internal process, an understanding of the painful and troubled road experienced by oneself or another.

You are the only one responsible for giving yourself the life you want.

Let’s walk this journey together and see if we can develop a perspective of what forgiveness really means; let’s begin to break those old chains and beliefs. Be kind to past versions of yourself that didn’t know the things you are learning now. Dale Halaway writes, “We heal and grow to the exact degree we step into that which is uncomfortable in our lives.”

A man was walking with his best friend, someone he had known for a very long time. As they walked, they began to argue about some trivial issue. As they argued, they began to get very angry at one another. The more they argued, the angrier they became. They got so angry at each other that one of the men lost his temper and shoved his friend away from him. His friend stumbled back and fell upon a board, which had a loose rusty nail sticking up from it. The nail pierced the man’s friend in the back.

The man, immediately sorry for what he had done, picked his friend up and took him home to wash his wound and to remove the rusty nail. “I’m so sorry,” he kept apologizing. “I don’t know what came over me. Please forgive me!”

“That’s your problem,” his friend said. “You’ve always had a bad temper. I’m going to teach you a lesson. I’m going to leave this rusty nail in my back so that every time you see it you will remember what your bad temper did to me.” Even when the rusty nail eventually began to infect the wound in the friend’s back, the friend refused to remove it and continued to remind the man what he had done and how wrong he was, right up to the day that the infection from the nail finally killed him.

Would you ever deliberately poison yourself? Unforgiveness has been defined as the regular and ongoing maintenance of an old pain. If someone hits us with a stick and we then pick up the same stick and strike ourselves with it many times, who has hurt us the most? It should be obvious our own action is hurting us the most. An inability to forgive almost always leads to bitterness, and bitterness leads to a hardened heart, where one cannot love or trust anyone; it keeps the pain alive; keeps it as an open wound.

Dr. Fred Luskin writes in Forgive for Good, “Do you ever get tired of the amount of time you spend thinking about things from the past.? Do you get tired of listening to other people repeat their same stories over and over again? If you can view your mind as a house, how much space do you rent to your wounds and grievances. You are the proprietor, and you set the rent. Each of us decides who our tenants are and the conditions of their lease. Just because bad things happen does not mean you have to dwell on them. I regularly ask people why they do not dwell on their good fortune with the same energy they invest in their bad fortune. This question always catches people by surprise. Do you or someone you know rent out more space to what is wrong than what is right?”

In an article from Walk the Earth, writer, Nikki adds, “You are the only one in charge of your destiny. Unfair things may happen to you, unfortunate times my come to you, but you always get to choose how you respond. You can live in frustration and bitterness, or you can be the bigger person and just play the cards you are dealt. Because the truth is in this world, not a single person chooses the cards they receive, but every single person chooses how to play them.”

What are the costs of holding grudges? Holding a grudge has been described like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. When we are in the state of unforgiving, we are holding a grudge; they develop as we replay our hurt repeatedly in our minds, leaving us overwhelmed by a sense of injustice. Refusing to let go of a painful experience causes our bodies to relive it. The physical impact is the same whether the event is recent or took place years ago. The question you need to ask yourself is, “Am I going to continue placing my attention on what I do not want in life?”

Forgiveness is a strange thing. It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends and family. It can be often be even harder to forgive people we love. And in some cases, forgiving oneself can be the most difficult of all.

Even friends do disagree and argue sometimes. We are all sometimes subject to one or more of the 8 hurts: disappointment, abuse, ridicule, abandonment, deception, rejection, humiliation and betrayal.

Rick Warren writes, “We are the products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” Never be a prisoner of your past. It was just a lesson, not a life sentence. You can’t have a different past but you can sure have a different future.

Why is forgiveness so hard?

Forgiveness is really difficult because it contradicts our human concept of fairness.

We are often reluctant to let go of anger. We may even want to satisfy our sense of justice. Forgiveness would call on us to relinquish any hope of getting revenge.

I personally think one of the major reasons we overlook forgiveness as a cure for personal bitterness is the inability to recognize the need for it. Bitterness can creep slowly into our lives, until, eventually, it becomes an integral part of our personalities. A thorough understanding is necessary for one to effectively practice the art of forgiving. I have found working with people over the last few years, that the major obstacle is a lack of understanding just what forgiveness is and isn’t. We really need to clear up some false notions about forgiveness.

Forgiving oneself can be the most difficult of all.

Forgiveness does not mean that you are condoning the hurtful behavior of another person, nor does it mean that you’re letting the person ‘off the hook.’

Forgiveness does not mean that you have to pretend that everything is fine. Pain is real and forgiveness takes time.

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; we can forgive without forgetting.

Forgiving does not mean being a weakling. Forgiveness is a sign of strength; real forgiveness requires both character and courage.

Once upon a time there was a mother who had two sons, aged 9 and 7. There was a teacher development day at school, so she decided to take the day off to spend some quality time with the boys.

Unfortunately, there were severe thunder storms that day with sporadic power outages and the internet had been down off and on. The boys had been very restless, fighting with each other and were driving her crazy.

Let’s flash forward to bed time. As was her custom each night, she would sit with the seven-year-old first, read him a short story, say their prayers together, and tuck him in for the night. Then she would quietly close the door and go to do the same routine with her nine-year-old.

When she sat down on his bed, she said, “You’re the older brother. Why don’t you guys make up and forgive each other?”

“No way,” he replied. “He started it and it’s all his fault.”

Deciding to approach this from another perspective, she continued. “What if you woke up in the morning and found out that your brother had died during the night. Would you be sorry that you had not made up with him and apologized?”

He thought for a minute, then said, “You’re probably right. I’ll go and patch things up.” Then he paused for a minute at the door of the bedroom and said, “But if he is alive in the morning…!”

How many of us have ever struggled with forgiveness?

Hal Urban writes, “The truth is, everyone struggles with forgiveness. Some understand the benefits of it, work at it, and master it. Others try, but they just can’t seem to let go of their hurts, and continue to suffer. Regardless of the person, the circumstances, or the degree of pain involved, forgiveness is a challenge. It’s not something that comes naturally to us. The starting point for forgiveness is reminding ourselves that, because we’re human, and because we have feelings, we’re going to get hurt from time to time. Everybody does. We also need to remind ourselves that we’ve hurt others from time to time. Everybody does that too. Pain happens. There’s a simple reason why it happens: We’re flawed, and you either get bitter or you get better. It’s that simple.”

Lewis B. Smedes chips in, “Deep hurts we never deserved flow from a dead past into our living present. A friend betrays us; a parent abuses us, a spouse leaves us in the cold-these hurts do not heal with the coming of the sun. There are some hurts that we can all ignore. But some old pains do not wash out so easily; they remain like stubborn stains in the fabric of our own memory. Most of us find that the pains of the past keep rolling through our memories. One of God’s greatest jokes on us was to give us the power to remember the past and leave us no power to undo it. There is no delete key for reality. It would give us some comfort if we could only forget a past that we cannot change. But the ability to remember becomes an inability to forget when our memory is clogged with pain inflicted by people who did us wrong. Forgiving does not erase a bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope of the future.

The only way to remove the nettle is forgiveness.”

Dr. M. Scott Peck adds in The Road Less Travelled, “Sooner or later, if people are to be healed, they must learn that the entirety of one’s adult life is a series of personal choices. If they can accept that totally, then they become free. To the extent that they cannot accept this, they will forever feel themselves victims.”

Let’s consider some of the benefits of forgiveness:

  • It helps you let go of toxic anger.

  • It brings an end to self-defeating behavior.

  • It brings relief from depression and resentment.

  • It provides perspective.

  • It frees you from the emotional pain of the past.

  • It strengthens your character.

  • Forgiveness makes you more compassionate.

  • Learning to forgive now can help you cope with difficult people or situations in the future.

How do we define forgiveness?

Dr. Fred Luskin writes, “Forgiveness is learning to make peace when you didn’t get something you wanted in life. There are other ways of dealing with life when it turns out different than you wanted by staying bitter.”

Katharine Piderman adds. “Forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge. It is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that bind to you to the offense committed against you.”

Oprah Winfrey defines forgiving as giving up the hope that the past should have been different and moving on from there. It is not saying that what happened was okay, just that it was past.

Accept yourself and your humanness.

Various sources from the internet say it means to pardon, to cease to feel resentment, to excuse, to let bygones be bygones, to bury the hatchet, to make allowances, to release, to allow room for error or weakness. All these words tell us what it means to forgive, but actually doing so is often a whole different story. We often have difficulty forgiving others, but often we find it even more difficult to forgive ourselves.

I really enjoy the writings of C.S. Lewis. He shares this quote, “Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing a monkey bar. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.”

Why do people not forgive?

The following are some of the reasons that people may not practice forgiveness:

  • Forgiveness requires a healthy dose of bravery.

  • An inability to take personal responsibility for re-shaping our own lives.

  • The thought that by holding a grudge against someone you are making them pay.

  • People have the belief that it is easier to avoid than face life’s difficulties.

Let me ask you a simple question: “How important in life is having a positive mental attitude?”

Attitude defined: a mental position relative to your way of thinking or being: an inclination towards that which you believe. Keeping a positive attitude helps you to be optimistic, and have a hopeful state of mind ‘most of the time’ as well as enhancing mental and physical health. How we respond to life’s events or hassles as well as our own thoughts can dramatically impact our well-being.

I highlighted ‘most of the time’ because we will all be facing life challenges from time to time. Sadness is a characteristic of grief and unfortunately grief visits everyone’s house at some point. I’m not so naïve to believe that attitude is simply a choice between is the glass half-full or half-empty. I understand the concept; I could write a whole blog on that topic alone. Life has its complexities and hurts. I hope you are generally optimistic with a touch of pessimism to effectively evaluate situations. There is a place for both, balance is essential. Again, it’s not that simple. The better question would be, “Are you a realist?” It is really critical that people develop what I call a ‘reasonable tolerance’ for themselves, for other well-meaning people and for the world in general.

Hal Urban writes, “Once we’ve accepted that there are some harsh realities in life, it helps to learn some specific strategies for dealing with these hurts. For lack of a better name, one I’ve used and taught for years is called ‘Flip the switch.’ It came from three major points I made regularly as a psychology teacher:”

  • Attitude is the starting place for everything we do.

  • We’re always free to choose an attitude that works for us or against us.

  • A good attitude beats a bad attitude every time.

Emily Willmot shares this wonderful example of a positive attitude and reasonable tolerance, “Once my dad, a gravedigger, was told to prepare for a funeral. But on the day of the service, he accidentally dug up the wrong plot. Luckily for him, the deceased’s daughter was very understanding. “Poor Dad,” she lamented, “He always complained he could never find a parking space.”

In addition to attitude, let’s look at some other basic characteristics of forgiving people:

  • Accept the difficulties and challenges of life.

  • Show compassion and empathy to others.

  • Unlikely to bear grudges or seek revenge.

  • Give others the benefit of the doubt.

  • Have an ability to give and receive an apology.

  • Manage minor irritations and frustrations effectively

  • Demonstrate patient commitment to ongoing tasks.

Think of someone you want to forgive, but have not been able to do so. What at you gut level stops you from doing so?

Forgiving another person is one thing, but what happens when we commit the offense ourselves. Sometimes forgiving ourselves is far more challenging than forgiving someone else because you must live with yourself and your thoughts 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

C.S. Lewis writes:

There is someone that I love,

even though I don’t approve of what he does.

There is someone I accept,

Though some of his thoughts and actions revolt me.

There is someone I forgive,

though he hurts the people I love the most.

That person is me.

When you forgive yourself, you are not pretending as though the offense never happened. On the contrary, you are acknowledging your actions have consequences. It’s always important to take responsibility for mistakes. Not forgiving yourself is like picking an open wound; you are only making a bad situation worse. If you forgive yourself when you make a mistake, it’s easier to address the consequences of your actions in a productive way.

If you are looking at self-forgiveness, begin by acknowledging that you are at fault and take responsibility for the hurt you have caused. Then reflect on why the event occurred. Which forces were within your control and which were outside of your control? Extract the lessons you learned and identify how to avoid committing a similar offense in the future. After such reflection, forgive yourself by focusing on the thought, saying it aloud, or even writing it down.

Accept yourself and your humanness. Know that despite your flaws, you are okay as you are. We are all card-carrying members of the human race. You are not perfect; you make mistakes. Because you are on a path of growth, you must accept yourself, flaws and all, if you are going to make progress in your life. You can do something wrong while still being a good person. Even when you do something that you regret, you most likely had a valid reason for doing it at the time. In the words of Bill Gates, “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

What at you gut level stops you from forgiving someone?

It is also important to realize that you did the best you could at the time. The way we respond depends on the skills we have, and how we perceive the situation at the moment. Maybe we’d let stress build up, which puts us at a higher risk of responding poorly. Maya Angelou adds, “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” As a lifetime learner, whatever factors, were involved, give yourself a break. If you learn from it, it was never in vain. Do the best friend test. Imagine your best friend had done exactly what you did and then came to you for advice. What would you tell them? You would probably reassure them and tell them not to be so hard on themselves. You would tell them that everyone makes mistakes. You would tell them that they deserve to be forgiven.

Gordon B. Hinkley writes, “The willingness to forgive is a sign of spiritual and emotional maturity. It is one of the great virtues to which we should all aspire. Imagine a world filled with individuals willing to apologize and to accept an apology. Is there any problem that could not be solved among people who possessed the humility and largeness of spirit and soul to do either or both when needed?”

In Tim McGraw’s country song, ‘Live Like You Were Dying,’ he describes some of the exciting ‘bucket list’ things a man did after receiving some bad news about his health. He also chose to love and forgive people more freely-speaking to them more tenderly. The song recommends that we live well, as if knowing our lives will end soon. This song reminds us that our time is limited. It’s important for us to not put off for tomorrow what we can do today, because one day we’ll run out of tomorrows.

Lewis Smedes adds, “Forgiving is the only way to heal the wounds of a past we cannot change and cannot forget. Forgiving changes a bitter memory into a grateful memory, and enslaved memory into a free memory. Forgiving restores a self-respect that someone may have killed. And, more than anything else, forgiving gives birth to hope for the future after our past illusions have been shattered. When we forgive, we bring in light where there was darkness. We summon positives to replace negatives. We open the door to an unseen future that our painful past had shut.”

Food for Thought

Are you as forgiving as you would like to be?

What do you need to forgive yourself for?

Do you hold grudges against others that could be let go? What is your motive for holding on to them?

When you hold onto a grudge, who really suffers?

Do you believe that people deserve a second chance?

Who do you need to forgive today?

Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

Forgiveness is a trainable skill just like learning to throw a baseball.

- Dr. Fred Luskin

There is no normal life that is free from pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.

- Mister Rogers

Our brains are wired for connection, but trauma rewires them for protection. That’s why healthy relationships are difficult for wounded people.

- Ryan North

Forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself.

- Larry James

When you forgive, you in no way change the past-but you sure do change the future.

- Bernard Meltzer

The difference between holding on to hurt or releasing it with forgiveness is the difference between laying your head at night on a pillow filled with thorns or a pillow filled with rose petals.

- Loren Fischer

Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we are all in this together.

- Brene Brown

We heal and grow to the exact degree we step into that which is uncomfortable in our lives.

- Dale Halaway

Know that people are doing the best they can from their level of awareness. Accept people for who they are. And always be ready to forgive.

- Deepak Chopra

Life is an adventure in forgiveness.

- Norman Cousins

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

- Mahatma Gandhi

Being human means you’ve made mistakes. Being humane means you forgive others for the one’s they’ve made.

- Susan Gale

To get to forgiveness, we must first have to work through the painful experiences that require it.

- Christiane Northrup

Fearless is living in spite of those things that scare us to death.

- Taylor Swift

Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond who you are.

- Cherie Carter Scott

A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.

- Ruth Bell Graham

We are all mistaken sometimes; sometimes we do wrong things that have bad consequences. But it does not mean we are evil, or that we cannot be trusted afterwards.

- Alison Croggon

We cannot change our memories, but we can change their meaning and the power they have over us.

- Barbara Kingsolver

To carry a grudge is like being stung to death a hundred times by one bee.

- William H. Walton

I don’t hold grudges. I have a brain that retains nothing.

- Bette Midler

Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a constant attitude.

- Martin Luther King Jr.

Forgive yourself for not having the foresight to know what now seems so obvious in hindsight.

- Judy Belmont

To put your things in order means to put your past in order too.

- Marie Kondo

Next Lesson: Decluttering Your Life

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