Processing Pain – The Heart of Forgiving

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I’ve been writing a great deal about forgiveness over the past few months because I believe it’s such an important tool necessary for living a good and peaceful life. Frequently, no matter what someone comes to speak to me about as their therapist, the need to forgive someone for something seems to always come up. In fact, I use the very things we’ve been talking about as part of my daily practice so that I can be a more forgiving person.

So far, I have mentioned the importance of doing several things to be more forgiving. First, forgiveness is a choice you have to make, it’s not a feeling you have about something. Forgiveness is much like love. We can feel we love someone or something but more importantly, we can choose to love someone or something. You must choose to be a forgiving person, how you feel about that is something you work out later. We talked at length about this part of forgiveness in the post called The Choice to Experience Anger – Step 1 of the Forgiveness Process. I have also discussed how forgiving someone who hurt you means seeing them differently. Too often we see our offenders as these powerful monsters who can hurt us instead of the broken and hurt human being they actually are. Changing our view of them isn’t easy to do, so I try and help you with that part of the process in the post I called The Monster Who Hurt You – How to Start Forgiving Them. As part of forgiving our offender and seeing them in a different light, we have to start extending some level of compassion toward them or at least reduce the feelings of anger and hatred the thought of them causes us. Again, I discussed that in the post called Extending Compassion to Your Enemy – The Crucial Part of Forgiveness. I know its not easy, but is indeed part of the healing process that frees you from the past hurt they caused you. These steps are important because they help break key barriers that keep people from being more forgiving. These barriers are:

    • Our sense of justice wants us to see the other individual suffer as much as we have, but revenge seldom gives us the peace we want.
    • Too often people believe forgiveness is the same as reconciliation. You need not reconcile with the person you forgive, nor do you need to allow them to hurt you any further.
    • Sometimes people see forgiveness as a sign of weakness. Forgiveness is not weakness. It takes a great deal of strength to be a forgiving person.
    • People will avoid going through the forgiveness process because it requires you to re-experience the pain and injustice that caused you such difficulty in the first place. However, it’s important you re-experience these feelings in order to reduce their impact on you in the present.

So, if you’ve been able to work through these stages, you’re well on your way to being forgiving. What you need to do next is begin to process the pain you feel. One way I help clients do that is to ask them to make a list of the people who have hurt them. Then, list under that person each incident of interaction they’ve had with that individual that caused them pain. Most likely it wasn’t just one thing they did or said that hurt you, there are either multiple incidents or multiple aspects of what someone did that needs processed. The first step is to write it down. Then, look at each incident. Ask yourself, “why did this person do this?” “What pain or hurt in their lives caused them to act this way?” “What is it about me that makes me hurt because of what this individual has done?” “How might I evaluate this differently and in such a way that I see it as the action of a person struggling in life just like me?” Keep asking questions. If you feel hurt again, it’s okay. Think about the incident and then slowly but surely view the incident as a black and white movie. Shrink it down in your mind and visualize it as a small movie clip in black and white running on a small video screen. Notice how your body allows you to relax more and more as the image of that hurt becomes less and less real and more like a fading memory. Repeat these questions and this visualization over and over again. If you can’t visualize it, think about the dialogue. Soften the dialogue so that it becomes less and less audible and more like a bad recording from long ago. Make the voices fuzzy and difficult to hear.

Do this over and over again for the incident you decided to work on. Keep trying to understand the person who hurt you did so because they are a weak, hurting, powerless human being that found a way to avoid experiencing their weakness and powerlessness by hurting you. Let your mind transform the experience that haunts you in a way that it becomes weaker, more powerless, and more distant from you. Do this again and again until you can say with confidence you forgive the person for that one thing they’ve done to you. It may take days, weeks, months, or years, but do that over and over again until that incident is powerless and gone. Now, repeat this same process for the next incident you have on your list in relation to this person. If its one, you’re done. If you have more, keep moving through the list. Do this again and again until you process the emotions around the hurt you experience. The key to forgiving this individual is forgiving each incident you can recall that hurt you. Once you do that, you have forgiven them.

It sounds easy when you read this but it can cause a great deal of emotional trauma if the incident you’re reflecting on is exceptionally difficult. That’s why sometimes its best to do this with a good therapist. However, there are probably lighter issues that this self-reflective activity may be useful when trying to overcome emotional pain. Use it as you can and if things get tough seek out a good therapist. What is most important is to begin to let go of things that are stuck deep in your emotional self with barbed hooks and metal that just won’t let go. If you can process these feelings you can be free.

In the last post, I will share on the topic of forgiveness in this series, we will discuss how you hang on to that sense that you have forgiven someone when it feels like you never have. Often we go through this process and believe we’ve done the hard work necessary to forgive someone and something reminds us of what was done to us and it sets us off again. I want you to be able to hang on to the forgiveness you experience so look for how to maintain that forgiveness experience in our next blog post.

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