When you feel like you’ve been wronged by the people in your life, it’s not always easy to let go of the hurt they’ve caused you. But holding onto grudges can turn into a battle with yourself, making you a prisoner of your own mind and emotions.
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is an important process of releasing your anger and turning it into compassion. It means letting go of your judgments towards the person that wronged you and giving up any desires for revenge. It means no longer wishing badly on them and letting go of emotions that keep you stuck in pain.
It is a huge act of self-love, as it involves letting go of something that is no longer serving you. Something that can have a negative impact on your mental and physical health – resentment.
Why is forgiveness so important to your wellbeing?
Resentment can take on the form of bitterness, sadness, anger and hatred. It can lead to low self-confidence, poor wellbeing, anxiety and even depression. Wallowing in it leaves you stuck in the past and unable to move on.
Forgiveness, on the other hand, comes with feelings of liberation, regained freedom and peace.
What forgiveness IS NOT
It’s important to remember that forgiveness is NOT something that you do for the person who hurt you. It’s certainly not something that you owe to anybody else but yourself. And it should be done out of pure kindness and love for you. In the words of Lewis B. Smedes:
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you”.
Making the choice to forgive doesn’t mean that you have to forget what happened and never feel any negative emotions or pain associated with this person. It doesn’t mean that you have to include the person in your life either. Forgiveness is a journey, not a destination and sometimes your feelings will rise back to the surface again.
Now that we’ve discussed what forgiveness is and is not, here’s a 4-step exercise to help you let go of resentment and forgive:
Step 1: Define the damage
Take a piece of paper and write down the name of the person who hurt you as the headline (at the very top of the page).
Jot down everything that this person has done to hurt you – knowingly or unknowingly. Be as detailed as you can, and try not to omit anything, no matter how small, silly or irrelevant it may seem. If you still carry it with you, it belongs on the list.How did it all make you feel? Remember, be detailed.What effect did it have on your physical and mental health?How did you grow as a person as a result of what happened? What did you learn – about life, yourself, what you want? Are you stronger now than you were before?
Step 2: Grieve and accept
When we hold on to grudges from the past, we often bottle up our own feelings as a way of self-defence. We don’t allow ourself to wallow in our sadness. We don’t allow ourself to grieve or to cry. This task is your opportunity to let it all out. Read over your list from Task 1 and really allow yourself to feel what it felt like to be hurt this way. How have your feelings changed since then?
Next, you’re going to have to really accept what happened. The person came into your life and they’ve hurt you. It was real. The feelings that followed were real too. In order to move on, you need to accept that there is absolutely nothing in this world that you can do NOW to change what happened BACK THEN. Really let this sink in.
Step 3: Change perspective
This may come to you as a surprise, but most of the things that other people do to us (when they hurt us) are not personal. They usually have nothing or very little to do with us, and everything to do with them. People behave in certain ways and act in order to get their own needs met. The victim is often just an easy target for a deeply flawed person to get their needs met, e.g. in the case of bullying.
You might find that the guy who bullied you in high school was actually bullied, abused and constantly emasculated by his own father. At home, he felt weak and faulty. As the attacker, he was in control.
Understanding what made the other person behave in such a way can help you move on. You may even begin to empathise with them. Know that this isn’t intended to excuse the person or their actions towards you. What they did WAS wrong. It’s simply intended to help you understand how they came to be this way.
Write down everything you know about this person’s life story. Where did they grow up? What kind of childhood did they have? What were their parents like?What difficulties did they have to overcome in their life, e.g. bullying, poverty, domestic abuse, alcoholism? How do you think they may have suffered? Did they develop issues as a result of their hardships?Try to decide what was the reason for their behaviour towards you (if there was one).
Step 4: Write a letter of forgiveness
This last step can be difficult. Especially if you’ve been holding onto your grudges for a very long time. In this case, you might want to take a few days to yourself before writing the letter. Just to really digest it all. You need to 100% ready to forgive, as you will treat this step as entering into an agreement with yourself:
That by choosing to forgive you will no longer seek justice or revenge. You won't wish badly on the other person or speak badly of them. You’re releasing them and as you do so, you’re also releasing yourself.That you’re giving up the ‘right’ to hold their actions against them and bring it up in the heat of an argument, e.g. cheating.
When you feel ready to take this last step, begin by writing “Dear [name]” at the top of a new page. Next, pour out everything that you want them to know, based on the previous tasks you’ve completed and the things you’ve learnt so far. You can tell them that:
You understand them. You know it wasn’t fully about you.You feel pity for them. Explain why.You forgive them.
At the end, say goodbye and choose to let them go.
Life after forgiveness
Know that you don’t have to show your letter to the person that you’re writing it to. It was written for you and for the purposes of forgiveness only. Don’t use it as a weapon against them – showing it to them with the hidden intention of hurting them and making them see how badly they’ve hurt you. You can burn, shred or dispose of the letter in a letting go ceremony once you’re done with it. It can also help you to read the letter out loud to yourself.