Forgiveness can be a difficult process, not because of what it costs us but because of the way our hearts and minds work. In upcoming posts I’m going to talk in more depth about the connection between our body and brain, specifically how that relates to our faith and relationship with God.
But for the time being I just want to acknowledge that forgiveness is not simply an intellectual exercise. Choosing to forgive is a decision, but actually forgiving is a process. Why? Because it involves our hearts, more specifically it involves our emotions and feelings, which are far more complicated. We don’t have the power to shut down or shut off those emotions.
The following 5 guidelines come from my years of clinical experience and my own struggles in this area
It’s a Process-
The hard part about forgiveness is that it is a process. It takes time, primarily because anything involving emotions and feelings require time to move through and process. The first thing that you can do as you begin down the road of forgiveness is exhibit self-compassion. Avoid beating yourself up, getting frustrated with yourself, or judging yourself for not being farther along. Remember that forgiveness is a process for you, not the other person. Forgiveness is a letting go of the thoughts and feelings that cause us pain and infect our hearts. It’s not a gift to other person.
Splitting is a very powerful psychological process that “splits” people either all good or all bad. What makes this so powerful is that it is not simply an intellectual experience, but an emotional and perceptual one. When we split someone our memories instantly pull out every bad memory associated with the person or event. We remember every time this person has hurt us and in some cases every time we’ve been hurt by someone. The interesting thing about our brains is that when we feel a particularly strong emotion those memories containing the same emotion become readily available while other memories require significantly more energy to pull up. When we split someone we see only the worst person in front of us. For some people that may be fairly accurate, but for those trying to forgive friends or family it’s a caricature. Splitting is actually a painful experience, particularly if it is involving someone we care about- there is no hope, no release from anger, no letting go when the person that we experience is “All Bad.”
One of the things that makes forgiveness difficult is the ruminating thoughts that occur. What’s rumination? It is those endless thought loops where we replay what happened and/or replay what we would have liked to do and all it really does is get us more angry and more upset. There is something very seductive about reliving these events much like the way we continue to poke at a bruise wondering if it will hurt this time.
Just the other day I was driving and thoughts came into my head about a contractor that did a horrible job on my house. I began to get angry and I began to play scenarios in my head where I am really telling him off. Then I realize, even after all this time I got sucked into a ruminative cycle. I stopped the thoughts immediately, reminded myself that it was over, there was nothing to be gained by revisiting it. Then I focused on my driving. Realizing again that forgiveness is a process that can go on for some time.
Mindfulness is the art and science of being present in the moment. When we ruminate we are drawn into thinking about the past or what we wish could happen in the future. Think of these thoughts as logs upon the fire of bitterness and anger. When you stay present you avoid stoking those flames and over time the fire begins to die.
There is a great deal of writing and research regarding mindfulness, it is a literal retraining of the brain. To sum it up briefly, take an activity and get lost in it. If you are washing the dishes, focus on the feeling of the water, temperature of the water, how the sponge feels, how the plate feels, the sound of the water, the smell of the soap, watching as the plate gets cleaner, etc… It is a full emersion into the activity. As any other thought enters your mind (particularly ruminations) refocus on the sensations- don’t just refocus your thoughts but your entire bodily awareness.
Consciously focus on things that make you feel good. Tenaciously list out what you are thankful for. Don’t do this simply intellectually or because you think you should but because you know that thankfulness feels better, seeing the fullness of your life is much more freeing and hopeful. If you remember earlier, I wrote that your brain will struggle to connect with these emotions. The more you do, the more freed you are from that emotional cage and the better able you are to see clearly, avoiding the splitting. The more you do so, the stronger your connection to those emotions.
Rumination and holding on to anger/bitterness is actually an avoidance of the underlying pain and hurt. Think of forgiveness as a type of grieving. Allow yourself to feel the hurt, disappointment, loss, and injustice. Accept that there is nothing you can do about it. Allow yourself to feel these emotions and then slowly let them fade away.
When we forgive, we must do this bodily- meaning we need to acknowledge the emotions we are feeling, recognize their impact and work through the grieving process of letting it ago. If you make it an intellectual exercise you have to deny or bury your feelings, which is not forgiveness but avoidance.
As you begin to work through the emotions, you can begin to explore the meanings and beliefs that prompt us to hold on to the emotions that bring us pain. Does letting go mean that I don’t get justice? Does letting go make me feel weak? Or as I stated in number 5, does letting go mean that I experience the feelings of hurt or helplessness? Exploring these blocks are part of the forgiveness process and challenging them can help move us along to the place of peace.
Remember that forgiveness is for your healing, no one else’s.
Please feel free to share your triumphs and disasters along the forgiveness road. I’d love to hear them.