Forgiveness is hard. It is hard to do and it is hard to write about. Most wisdom and spiritual traditions promote it as a necessary practice for salvation (in this life and/or the next). Yet, we hang on to our angers, resentments, and traumas, turning pain into suffering. There is even a point of view that we shame people for not forgiving soon enough, for example, see: 6 Reasons Not to Forgive, Not Yet, David Bedrick J.D., Dipl. PW (especially the comments section).
I am definitely in the camp that holding on to our pain until it becomes suffering leads to all kinds of behavioral problems that continually interfere with our relationships, success, and experience of joy in the present. I can speak from personal experience on this. I also know in recovery, as in life, it is critical that we forgive ourselves, the goal is progress, not perfection. Like all practices, what we are able to do for ourselves, develops and helps us grow in what we are able to do for others.
At the same time, I do recognize that some people have suffered traumas that are not easily healed. I would definitely recommend that people suffering significant trauma, seek out specialized trauma treatment. I also recognize that we should validate people’s feelings, even as we encourage them to heal. In recovery, we support other people in a non-judgmental way, on their path of healing.
Below discusses how I come to a view that forgiveness is an important practice, and an important capability to develop, both during recovery, and beyond:
- We accept imperfection in all things, ourselves, others, the universe.
- We identify and accept all our emotions: anger, pleasure, retribution, etc.
- We communicate directly and set boundaries.
- We become the independent observer of our ego
- Neuroscience shows that forgiveness is good for us
- Trauma is traumatic
We accept imperfection in all things
A source of suffering is attachment. A common attachment people in recovery have is an attachment to perfectionism: there own, others, and the world they live in. Every little imperfection is in invitation to nail biting, anger, yelling, agitation, relationship discord, and other unhealthy physical and mental behaviors. In recovery, we learn emotional regulation, and we learn to accept imperfection in everything. We cannot even control every random thought in our consciousness, generated by our seemingly independently acting playful minds, let alone control the minds and actions of others. We learn to be “codependent no more” and improve the manageability of our lives by letting go of what we cannot control and not allowing others to control us. We learn not be controlled by our wounded past or our fears of the future, neither of which we can control. We accept imperfection and our powerlessness. We learn to go with the flow. We learn to forgive ourselves, we learn to forgive others, we learn that everyone is doing the best that they can with what they have learned from life, we learn to be compassionate towards the imperfections in others that may have been caused by their own traumas. We are enough, we have enough, and we are right where we need to be.
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” – Martin Luther King
We identify and accept all our emotions and feelings
An important foundation of emotional regulation is identifying and accepting our feelings and actions. We become the independent observer of life. What would someone else say to us if we told them about a situation? We learn to become our own best friend. We learn to sooth ourselves with acceptance, patience, forgiveness, kindness, compassion, and love – for ourselves and others. We learn to resource our wounds in multiple ways.
If someone has hurt us, we do not deny our anger, we identify and accept it. But we also regulate our response. We return to our breathing, or some other reminder of our center, of our true self, and we give ourselves the opportunity to experience joy in the present. By holding onto pain until it becomes suffering, or pleasure until it becomes addiction, we deny ourselves the opportunity to experience joy in the present. It can feel good to hold on to anger and resentments, but we have to ask “is that serving us well”, is it helping us find joy.
“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship. Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning.” – Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King’s words are especially important for our relationship with ourselves, but also with others. We identify, accept, and validate all our feelings, whether they be anger or love. But we also seek emotional regulation, and the opportunity to experience joy in the present, the only place we actually live. Sometimes the people who hurt us are people we do love and we want to love. This is of course a painful conflict not easily resolved, but often we do want to reconcile this, and get to a state of love and peace.
We communicate directly and set boundaries
Forgiving does not mean forgetting or being passive – sometimes we must act. It means letting go of the toxic emotion that is preventing joy in the present. In Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) we learn to communicate directly and effectively, and this means learning to communicate with people in way that they still respect us and/or like us, this includes uncomfortable discussions.
However, if we determine that a relationship or request is harmful to us, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, we learn to set boundaries. We learn to say “no” either to a specific request, or to the relationship.
In recovery we learn that we are lovable, just the way we are. We learn that we are loved. We learn to love our selves, and take care of ourselves. We learn effective communication, boundary setting, and to ask for help when we need it. We can forgive in addition to communicating directly, setting boundaries, and asking for help (which sometimes may include the police and community support groups).
We observe our ego non-judgmentally
We learn to appreciate our true self and observe our ego. We learn that our ego is focused on the “I”. The “I” of achievement, vindication, resentment, vengeance, justice, etc. We learn to listen to our true self. What are the loving, patient, kind, and compassionate words and actions our true self desires to become external. What are the impulsive actions and words our ego wants that will cause us suffering and regrets. Our true self understands the oneness of all life and the vicious circle of retaliation caused by the ego in ourselves and others. With consciousness of oneness, we develop compassion for ourselves and others, which begets forgiveness. With consciousness of cycles of retaliation and hurt, we use our wise mind to act and speak in ways that will serve us, not further our suffering.
‘In truth, our grudge, and the identity that accompanies it, is an attempt to get the comfort and compassion we didn’t get in the past, the empathy for what happened to us at the hands of this “other,” the experience that our suffering matters. As a somebody who was victimized, we are announcing that we are deserving of extra kindness and special treatment. Our indignation and anger is a cry to be cared about and treated differently—because of what we have endured…The path to freedom from a grudge is not so much through forgiveness of the “other” (although this can be helpful), but rather through loving our own self. To bring our own loving presence to the suffering that crystallized into the grudge, the pain that was caused by this “other,” is what ultimately heals the suffering and allows the grudge to melt.’
Our ego drives us to hold on to hurt until the hurt is resourced, by ourselves and/or others. By resourcing the hurt, by healing the pain, forgiveness may flow as a natural outcome of letting go.
Neuroscience: Forgiveness is good for us
“Continuing to feel judgment, blame, resentment, bitterness, and hostility against those who have caused us harm can cause us pain and suffering ourselves. The same can be true if we haven’t been able to forgive ourselves for harm we have caused others or ourselves. In order to rewire the behaviors of complaining, criticism, disgruntlement, and contentiousness we can so easily get stuck in, we can use deconditioning to open ourselves to the genuine understanding, compassion, grieving, and forgiveness that are needed to move into resilient coping and relational intelligence. When we drop below the level of story, below the level of our personal emotional pain, into the deep inner knowing of our own goodness, we can remember the inherent goodness in all human beings, regardless of the conditioning that overlies and obscures it. In the mode of defocusing, where deconditioning takes place, we access inner states of kindness, compassion, and goodwill; we evoke the state of processing in the brain from which it is possible to forgive.”
Life is beautiful and we are beautiful. But the opportunity to experience this beauty comes with its fair share of pain as well. We want to develop an approach to our mental health that reduces this pain, and reduces the frequency with which this pain becomes ongoing suffering.
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else—you are the one who gets burned.” – Buddha
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” – Nelson Mandela.
Trauma is traumatic
If we are letting every little slight and grievance become anger that we cannot let go of, then perhaps that is one of the reasons we are in recovery. Perhaps that is an issue that needs to be addressed in therapy and/or with medication.
Trauma treatment is a specialized area of therapy. Some people’s wounds are so deep, that ordinary therapy, medication, or other techniques may not be providing the relief desired. The wounds of war, physical abuse, sexual abuse, some forms of verbal abuse, other PTSD, etc. People who are dealing with trauma may take longer to get to a point of healing, and it may be more complicated. But we wish healing and recovery, in time, for these people as well. We hope they get the trauma treatment they need. We hope that mindfulness, living in the present, meditation, medication, neuro rewiring exercises, and therapy will provide some relief until they can complete their journey of trauma treatment.
We learn that many of us walk through life with wounds and challenges that impact our thoughts and actions. With this awareness, we learn to be kind, compassionate, patient, forgiving, and loving to ourselves (essential for recovery) and to others (important for building and maintaining relationships).
We learn to make our lives more manageable by:
- not being codependent (having our joy and suffering determined by the feelings, words, and actions of others),
- communicating effectively (being direct but respectful)
- tolerating stress (identifying, accepting, and surfing cravings and emotions in the moment; increasing our stress tolerance bandwidth, etc.)
- regulating our emotions and responses (engaging our wise mind)
- being mindful (staying in the present)
- Setting boundaries (saying no to hurtful requests/actions/behaviors/words and/or relationships – with help and planning where needed). We learn that we are loved, we are lovable, and we deserve the boundaries we set and enforce.
As our capacity for forgiveness towards ourselves and others increases, our self-esteem and self-worth also increases, as we become more aware of our essential goodness, and we become more aligned with our true self. We let go of suffering and we open to joy. When we need help, especially when wounds are deep, we ask for help. Forgiveness is not easy, but if we do not practice it towards ourselves and others, then our lives become unmanageable. Forgiveness stems from the same source of compassion, our true self, that aids both ourselves, and others, in healing.