Throughout history, forgiveness has been a theme of the arts, religion and philosophy. According to 18th century poet Alexander Pope, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
Although some of us are quicker to forgive than others, most of us recognize that holding grudges over small things makes life more difficult than it needs to be. In these cases, forgiveness serves a practical purpose — it allows us to get on with business as usual.
Finding forgiveness in our hearts for others’ life-changing transgressions against us is another matter entirely. John, 47, is a successful art dealer. He looks perfect on the outside, and had what appeared to be a sunny disposition. Below that façade, however, was a cauldron of rage. He’d never gotten over the fact that while growing up his father beat him harshly and often, while his mother stood on the sidelines. As a result, his relationship with his parents was perfunctory, at best.
John felt unable to forgive his parents. To complicate matters, he felt guilty about his unremitting anger toward them. The more his wife, friends and clergy insisted that it was time to forgive and move on, the angrier and guiltier he felt. It was a vicious feedback loop he couldn’t seem to escape.
John burst into tears of relief when I explained that, given his current circumstances and level of understanding, he was reacting to his abuse in the only way he could. In other words, he was not a bad person because he hadn’t been able to find forgiveness in his heart. I said that what he needed now was education, support and understanding.
Here are some steps to forgiveness that I shared with John in psychotherapy:
The first step in John’s healing process was to learn that, despite their good intentions, friends and family didn’t have the right to tell him how he should feel, or whether he should forgive his parents.
His second step was to allow his feelings of anger, sadness and hurt to just be, without censure. I explained that the more we try to control our feelings the bigger they become. Paradoxically, however, when we give permission to our feelings, they lose their power over us. I even suggested he write about his feelings to understand and experience them more fully.
The third step was to notice how much lighter and more present he felt as he addressed his long-repressed emotions head on. He hadn’t realized just how much psychological and emotional space they’d consumed.
Finally, John needed to forgive himself. As we talked, he realized that he was doing what most of us do without realizing it — beating himself up for his seeming inability to forgive, and holding himself responsible for having been mistreated in the first place.
Only after having taken these steps was John in any position to decide whether or not to forgive his parents. And once you’ve gone through this process yourself, understand that there’s no right or wrong answer to the question of forgiveness. Some life events are so damaging that you may feel as though only a higher power can forgive the perpetrator. In many situations, however, we come to realize that by holding on to old pain we only serve to sabotage ourselves, and in the process give power to the very people who caused it.
Please be patient with yourself as you go through this process. Once you’ve done so, I trust that you’ll know what’s best for you. If you don’t, seeking professional help is the healthy next step. In any case, you’re not doomed to live in the emotional trap initially created by someone else’s wrongdoing.