If you’ve decided you want to be more forgiving you need to be patient with yourself. forgiveness is a process and one that requires several steps, stages, and tasks to complete. It’s important to remember forgiveness does not come naturally, it’s something we grow into. We struggle to be forgiving because of that deep sense of justice I described in my previous post. However, like other virtues, you can practice numerous behaviors and thought processes that help you become more forgiving. Forgiveness is like love, it’s not just a feeling we have, it’s a decision we make. Love is a choice and sometimes we choose to love difficult people. Forgiveness is a choice and sometimes we choose to forgive someone who seems unforgivable for treating us in an unforgivable way.
If you look at the numerous studies and theories published on forgiveness in psychology journals you find most identify three primary components as part of the process. These components are 1) changing your perspective of the offending party to be more balanced and realistic, 2) decreasing the negative feelings toward the offending party and attempting to increase some level of empathy/compassion for them, and 3) letting go of the idea the person who hurt you should pay you back for what was done or receive the justice they deserve. I’m going to address all three of these components at some point, but in this post, I want to start with the fact you need to decide if you’re ready to exercise forgiveness in the first place. I’ve said forgiveness is a choice, and you need to really ask yourself if you’re ready to make that choice. One way to come to that conclusion is by assessing how not being a forgiving person is impacting your life. Simply put, how is your unwillingness to forgive a particular hurt and pain you experienced keeping you from being the loving person you could be?
The basic consequence of not forgiving someone who hurt you is living with anger. Anger is a natural response to being treated unjustly and when someone hurts you anger emerges as a response to that unjust act. Maybe you were treated as if you didn’t matter, you were never listened to in your family, or you were treated as the family servant and everyone walked all over you. These actions are unjust and when you realize how you’ve been treated, you get angry. However, recognizing anger in ourselves is often a very painful experience. So, instead of acknowledging we’re angry because we’re hurt (Some people don’t like to do this because they believe it makes them weak or a “bad” person) we find other ways to express that anger. No one likes pain. Emotional pain, like physical pain, is something we will do almost anything to avoid. Robert Enright writes in his book, “Forgiveness is a Choice” the following regarding acknowledging anger:
“Realizing that you are angry can be very painful, but forgiveness is not about pretending that nothing happened or hiding from the pain. You have suffered and need to be honest with yourself about that suffering.”
So, before you go through any of those three previously mentioned components in the forgiving process, ask yourself if you’re ready to acknowledge your anger and experience the pain it has produced in its most raw form. Instead of shoving it deep down inside, ignoring it, transferring it to other people, and letting it destroy your relationships, ask yourself if you’re brave enough to acknowledge how avoiding anger has negatively impacted your life? If you are ready, ask yourself these questions to assess how much anger has spread into the physical, emotional, mental, relational, and transcendent aspects of your life. Enright lists these questions as tools to explore your anger:
- How have you avoided dealing with anger?
- Have you faced your anger?
- Are you afraid to expose your shame or guilt about a situation?
- Has your anger affected your health?
- Have you been obsessed about the injury or with thoughts about the person who hurt you?
- Do you compare your situation with that of the offender?
- Has the injury caused a permanent change in your life?
- Has the injury changed how you view the world?
This is where I want you to start. Take a week or so and think about these questions, journal about them, meditate on them, and ponder them. Do whatever works for you but assess as best as you can how anger, caused by your unwillingness to forgive a past hurt in your life, has spread through your world like cancer and negatively impacted your potential to live well. Once you do that, you may feel more motivated to start the forgiveness process.