10 Steps on the Path to Forgiveness

Forgiveness is only one part of a larger process of working through a painful event, trauma, or loss, and it generally comes at the tail end of that process, after a lot of work has been done. As I explained in the previous post, it is a choice not an obligation. When our hurts have been many and encountered over a lifetime, it sometimes takes years to get to forgiveness. There are no rules. Each of us must come to the decision about whether or not to forgive for ourselves and on our own time–much to the dismay and worry of our friends and family.

Consider the reasons why you might choose to forgive someone who did you wrong. Forgiveness usually is accompanied by a lifting of depression and anxiety and an increase in physical health and well-being. Forgiveness also brings a lessening of suffering and offers a newfound peace that helps you go on with life.                                                          

What is forgiveness, exactly?

In the effort to define and describe it, researchers have differentiated between “decisional forgiveness” and “emotional forgiveness”. Decisional forgiveness is having the thought or intention to stop an unforgiving stance and to respond differently towards the person who violated you. Emotional forgiveness is actually replacing negative unforgiving emotions with positive more empathic emotions.

Most of us start with the desire to forgive someone (the decision) and then have to do the emotional work to finally let go. It is a two part process. The first step is the decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.  The second step, when it is completed, brings newfound feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you. (Reminder: You can forgive the person while still condemning the act).

What are the Steps to Forgiveness?

1. One way to begin is to recognize the value of forgiveness and its importance in your life at a given time. Imagine how you will feel without the bitter feelings you have been carrying around. Make a list of all the advantages of letting go versus holding on.

2. Reflect on the facts of the situation and how you reacted, and how this combination has affected your life, health and well-being. Write a letter to the person or people who have hurt you. Write it for yourself so you can be excruciatingly honest. Write about it as much as you need to for as long as you need to. Stop in the middle if you need to cry about what you are writing. Notice how the letter changes each time you write it. Eventually, you may choose to share your letter with the person who hurt you.

3. Allow yourself to have ALL the feelings that you have without judging yourself. You will most likely (depending on the size of the trauma) have to cry buckets of tears, shake with fear, and scream in rage to let go of all the feelings inside. (If expression of feelings is difficult–if you can’t express them or if you are exploding all over the place, please check out books and blogs on this topic first).

4.You may want to talk with someone who is wise and compassionate, such as a spiritual leader, a mental health provider, or an unbiased family member or friend if the pain is too much to handle all alone. Just knowing that others have faced  similar challenges can make you feel less isolated. You don’t need to go it alone.

  5. The process often involves forgiving yourself as well. Write a letter expressing compassion and love for yourself, describing what you have learned. Reflecting on times you’ve hurt others and on those who’ve forgiven you may help you if you get stuck.

  6. Think about the expectations you have of others. Are you expecting too much or too little? Since we cannot change anyone but ourselves, as much as we would like to, try to put your energy into setting positive goals for the future. Instead of mentally replaying tapes of your past traumas, seek out and practice new ways to get what you want.

  7. Remember that a life well lived is proof that no one can rob us of our humanity. Your courageous act of forgiveness will give you back your power.When you focus on your wounded feelings, you continue to give the person who caused you pain power over you.

  8. When you’re ready, actively choose to forgive the person who’s offended you. This is often strengthened through creating a ritual. Go to a sacred space in nature and burn the letter that described the pain you suffered. Say out loud “I forgive you.”

9. Usually there is a gift that has come through your wounding–things like learning to have more empathy for others, discovering a renewed commitment to help those in pain, or feeling more gratitude for the good things in life and the friends who have supported you. Find a symbol of your gift and carry it with you or paint it or keep it on your bedside table.

  10. Find some way to celebrate yourself when you complete your journey to set yourself free from your past. Throw a party, light a candle, jump in the ocean, plant a seedling–even howl at the moon. You have arrived to yourself and the present moment. Yes.

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