Fun, freedom, fulfillment—“F” words abound. Friendship, family, future. Fancy this, we really need to “F” ourselves and others, if we are to enjoy the other “F” words.
This “F” stands for “forgiveness”—the hardest thing we will ever do. It’s also the first thing we need to do to heal and to be whole. That is because forgiveness is not about the other person, but about our own selves.
The other person may or may not be living by the time we get around to realizing that we need to forgive them. The other person may or may not care, may or may not know, may or may not be interested in forgiving us.
Forgiving ourselves should be even less prone to conditionality, since it’s just us, about us and all it requires is us. It is harder to forgive others, if we have not forgiven ourselves, or at least been humbled by trying to.
The opposite of forgiveness is being stuck in one’s grudges and grievances. Consider that grudges and grievances take mental real estate and require energy to constantly maintain. I may be speaking about myself only, but the older I get, the less interested I am in dedicating mental real estate to things in the past.
As the years roll by, I become more and more interested in what life has to offer now. It is only from a place of gratitude that I look back on the events of my life and enjoy them.
I couldn’t say this with a clear conscience, if I wasn’t able to forgive myself and those who have wronged, offended or hurt me in the past, or at least am willing to imagine doing so.
To forgive means to be able to let go of the scores we are keeping and the stories we are telling about a person, a situation and ourselves. It necessitates being strong enough to continue to love, dream and contribute without holding on to resentment, pain and the suffering that was once our reaction to someone’s actions, or our own.
Ultimately to forgive, we must realize that we hold the key to our own freedom and happiness.
We choose how to treat an event from the past and we can choose forgiveness. This gives us the opportunity to be enlightened from our past experiences instead of growing bitter, holding hurt and blame. The extra mental real estate we can occupy with making friends, learning new skills and enjoying the adventures of life.
We may find ourselves willing to experiment more, play harder, love stronger and appreciate everything. We may discover an increased capacity for empathy and creativity.
Recent studies show that people who are willing and able to forgive are healthier, have a stronger sense of well-being, feel happier, have more fulfilling relationships, experience less depression and anxiety, and have lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse, to name a few documented benefits.
So, what’s stops us from practicing forgiveness? This is also a choice. We choose to hold on instead of letting go. It may be that the stories we tell ourselves have become the basis for who we think we are. It may be that we haven’t taken the time to inquire into our feelings and attitude. It may be that we like the sympathy and attention we receive from others.
Unfortunately, there is an opportunity cost associated with choosing to live with grievances and it is the cost of life of freedom and happiness. Whatever it is that motivates us to maintain our grudges status quo, we need to understand that we are choosing to hold on.
To playfully paraphrase Dr. Phil, you can be happy or you can hold on to your grudges, and how’s that working out for you? If it’s not working, then you may consider the following few ideas.
First, figure out what your actual grievances are. Look beyond the story itself. Stories get distorted over time. Chances are the way you remember something is not the way someone else remembers it. A grievance has to do with how you felt, what something meant to you, and not necessarily the facts alone.
For example, the action may be that he/she cheated, but for you it meant betrayal. Your grievance is not about the action but about being betrayed.
Second, realize that whatever happens to you, you have a choice in interpreting it. We make meaning out of the events in our lives. Yes, some events are horrible and some are insignificant. What is always significant is that we conjure up a meaning that in some way defines us. This is the very definition of taking something personally.
For example, if your mother or father mistreated you horribly, or simply ignored you and did not give you enough attention, the meaning you may make is that you are not good enough, or that you do not deserve to be loved. Divorcing the labels you gave yourself from the historical events of your life turns the historical into a hysterical rather than making it your personal living hell.
Third, practice seeing things from different perspectives. Yes, even the perspectives of those that have wronged you. This is not an attempt to excuse anyone’s actions. This is an attempt to practice compassion by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes so you can see the kinds of struggles and confusions they are having and how it translates into their own suffering.
Very few people are pure evil without suffering. I personally don’t know of any. I do know of a lot of people, however, who have developed very poor strategies to meet their needs and are causing harm to others and suffering to themselves.
Lastly, make a plan and take action. These are the kinds of things you are willing to do to get over your grievances. It could be that you meet and talk with people. It could be that you seek help from a coach or a therapist, that you take a workshop or read a book that gives you tools.
It could be that you simply choose to change your perspective and that you continue to reinforce the new perspective by reminding yourself of it every time it comes up. It could be that you need to make amends. It could be that you need some time alone to process, journal, read and take care of yourself.
Remember that your action plan will be only as good as the strength of your commitment to forgiveness.
If you are going through the motions but deep down inside you are holding on to scraps of your old choices, you will fail and be even more disappointed at the end, not to mention that this will become another thing you can judge yourself over and may have to forgive yourself about later.
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Asst Ed: Judith Andersson/Ed: Bryonie Wise