Einstein said the most important decision each of us will ever make is: ‘Do I live in a friendly or hostile universe?’ But, it doesn’t always seem so straightforward. We want to see the world as kind and safe but the evidence points to something more ominous. We are seeing life through filters put in place by our most challenging moments. Sometimes, to get to a place of empowered decision-making, we must first heal the wounds of the past.
Forgiveness is the final step in the healing process. Whether we are overcoming childhood trauma or releasing resentments, when we learn to practise forgiveness in our daily lives, everything in life transforms. We become capable of seeing the world as a gentler place rather than something from which we need to be protected.
Most of us recognise that this is true. We know we need to forgive to be free from the emotional attachment we have to our most difficult experiences. Yet, we don’t do it. There are three primary reasons for this:
We don’t understand the benefits of forgiveness
Once forgiveness becomes a part of who you are, you have a constitutional understanding of the power of forgiveness. You know that to not forgive is to limit your potential. Like most virtues, however, a true appreciation for its favourable impact is hard to know until you’ve experienced it.
Here are just a few of the well-known and researched benefits of practising forgiveness, or letting go of resentments.
- Breaking the cycle of dysfunction in a family and modelling a new way of being for our children or other family members. Our children learn how to navigate life from us. If we choose to harbour resentment and hold on to anger or shame by blaming others or not taking responsibility for our experiences in life, they will do the same.
On the other hand, if we choose to cultivate compassion and empathy for the world around us and stand fully accountable for our lives, they learn that they, too, can experience life with tenderness and curiosity. They learn they have power over their lives. This creates a sense of security and empowerment the alternative does not.
- Learning to trust ourselves. When we approach life with the multitude of filters we put on to protect ourselves from harm, we make it impossible to see the world clearly. When we misinterpret what is happening around us, we find it more challenging to make the best choices. This teaches us we cannot be trusted to navigate life effectively. We begin to believe we are so fundamentally different or flawed, we must rely on external input to survive. When we forgive, the filters are removed. Suddenly, we see the world with clear eyes.
We learn to trust ourselves, as we begin to respond in ways that help us achieve the outcomes we desire. This shift changes many aspects of our lives, including transforming our relationships with others, because we no longer feel the need to defend. We cultivate more intimate, trusting relationships, and become more present. We find the empowerment we have always sought.
- Experiencing more compassion for ourselves and others. This change quite literally transforms the world in which we live. With compassion comes an experience of connection we may have never felt. This is the source of our ability to feel we are contributing to the world in meaningful ways. Expanding our outlook on life by responding to both challenges and rewards with optimism and a positive attitude. Suddenly we see the universe as a friendly, supportive force for our betterment and evolution. We begin reinforcing our understanding of our inherent value.
We innately begin to experience more joy in our lives. John Hopkins University, The Mayo Clinic, and other research institutions have demonstrated that the physiological benefits of forgiveness include: a) lower cortisol levels, leading to better stress response; b.) lower blood pressure; c.) stronger immune system response; d.) more energy and focus; and, e.) improved heart health.
We don’t know how to forgive
Forgiveness gets a bad rap. We are told that to forgive is to get over it. Or, let it go. But, these are the outcomes of the process, not how to heal. Healing mandates that we actually do some things to get better. First, we must acknowledge and embrace our suffering. Rather than deny or repress, we allow the feelings to move through us. We do this by learning to have compassion for our pain and empathy for others. We do this by choosing forgiveness over judgement.
We don’t want to feel the pain of our suffering. Who does? It is, after all, uncomfortable. This is unfortunate, however, because it is the only way to wholeness. We are taught from an early age to deny our negative emotions. We are indoctrinated to believe that no good can come from allowing ourselves to feel the anger, sadness, resentment, or shame associated with painful experiences. If we understood how damaging this is we would not teach our children to deny their anger and hide their shame.
The first step in the process is to acknowledge our pain. We must admit we have work to do and choose to do whatever it takes. From here, we get present to the pain and respond with tenderness and compassion. Next, we search for a reason to release our judgements about the person or situation by building empathy. Then we forgive. (Read: The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness for the complete 8-step process).
We get something out of not forgiving
We might not be consciously aware of it, but there is always a reason behind the things we do. It may be a terrible reason but there is a reason nonetheless. One of the most powerful inquiries one can make when considering why, despite the evidence, we still choose to hold onto resentments and shame, is: ‘What am I getting out of holding onto this?’
Perhaps being a victim has become a part of your identity. It is not unusual, when sustaining injury, to recognise our best coping mechanism in the moment is submission. This is especially true in ongoing relationships in which there is an abusive power dynamic. What we learn from these experiences is how to covertly use power to get what we want. When we play the victim, we do not believe we can directly access what we want, so we choose to instead manipulate power out of those around us. But this is not an authentic expression of who you are.
Sometimes, withholding forgiveness gives us a reason to hold on to anger, which helps us get what we want. Anger is probably the most common symptom of non-forgiveness.
We realise using these negative feelings to get what we want from others is easier than using negotiation or compromise. This may be true for a period in our lives, but our anger eventually leads to poor health and unhealthy relationships. As we embark on our healing journey, we need to be willing to let go of anger.
We might have learned we get attention from our story. This attention gives us a superficial sense of value to sustain us for some time. However, suffering will inevitably arise because we are relying on external forces, such as someone else’s attention or sympathy, to give us value. We have not yet offered ourselves the healing of self-love and self-compassion, which encourages us to distinguish between the story of what happened to us and who we truly are.
I’m stubborn. I don’t want to do what I don’t want to do. I would not have forgiven the people in my life who hurt me the most if anything else I tried to do to quell the existential suffering I felt worked. I tried drugs, and thrill-seeking. I tried to die for years. It wasn’t until I was on my knees that I finally listened to all those voices out there telling me I needed to forgive.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose to heal the past; to empower ourselves fully to create a life that is about more than managing our psychological pain and perceived wounds. When we learn to forgive we clean the slate. It is the most singular form of empowerment you can give to yourself.
Emily Hooks is an author, speaker, and founder of the Forgiveness Academy. She is the author of The Power of Forgiveness: A Guide to Healing and Wholeness.