The Importance of Forgiveness and How To Practice It
Forgiveness appears straightforward as a concept, yet it can be one of the hardest acts for us to do as humans. The more I researched into this a few years ago for a portfolio project as part of my positive psychology studies, I realised it was much more of a complex construct than I had originally thought. Forgiveness can be thought of as both art and a science. Forgiveness can be seen as the release of anger or resentment, yet it does not have to mean reconciliation. There are further complexities around forgiveness when it comes to situations of abuse or violent acts, and in those situations forgiveness may not be the best course of action for the individual.
As someone with a lived experience of domestic violence, there is absolutely no way I could forgive the offender for what happened; although over time, part of my healing process to move on, was to be able to forgive myself for what happened. I run a coaching programme for women who have experienced domestic violence and I have heard similar responses.
As the very wise woman Maya Angelou said, “I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes – it is inevitable”.
WHY DO WE FORGIVE?
Whether it is driven by our hearts or minds, what motivates us to adopt a practice of forgiveness? According to the work by Worthington, one of the leading pioneers on forgiveness, there are three purposes for forgiveness interventions:
- To promote healing
- To prevent problems
- To promote flourishing
The premise of forgiveness is to recognise a transgression, acknowledge the hurt caused, and to choose to not seek revenge. Think back to the last time someone harmed you on some level, what was the emotion that arose? Did it feel like anger, resentment, revenge, guilt, anxiety, lack of self-worth or a combination or cycle of emotions? All of these emotions – seen as negative emotions – would impact on our wellbeing. Evidence shows that forgiveness is a form of coping linked to our psychological wellbeing. Therefore unforgiveness plays a part in increasing stress levels. It is not surprising that some mental health professionals support the use of forgiveness interventions. With a correlation around stress and coping, reflecting on your own experience, how were your stress levels at this time? When we are heightened in our stress response with our anger, frustration or wanting to avenge a situation we are increasing the spike of adrenaline within our bodies.
Humans are hardwired to survive. Healing through self-forgiveness means acknowledging we may have made a mistake or did something wrong. This can leave us feeling vulnerable and bruised. It means we have to take our own responsibility and accountability for the part we played. We are not perfect, and like Maya said that if we choose to live, we will make mistakes.
When we have carried out a transgression on someone else, or we blame ourselves for someone else’s behaviour to us, it can start to create limiting beliefs. We start to tell ourselves we were stupid for doing something, or we can’t be that good. We do not choose to adopt a growth mindset which although will have us experiencing those feelings of vulnerability, we are able to move on with more peace. Often a scenario where forgiveness has not played a part becomes more entwined to who we are as a person. We feel if we choose to forgive and move on, then we are in some way letting a part of ourselves fade. The idea is to release that part of the past we need to forgive, but retain the learning, and let go of everything else.
HOW DO WE FORGIVE?
Forgiveness interventions have proven to increase happiness, optimism and hope. They can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression; they may be part of the therapeutic process for post-traumatic stress disorder. In therapy most forgiveness specific techniques are no longer than two hours and often are group led. There are some therapists who have an aversion to carrying out forgiveness interventions.
I created a reminder to allow yourself space to FORGIVE:
F – Find time and space to allow reflection with kindness and non-judgement
O – Open up to a professional practitioner, such as a therapist if you need further support
R – Release what you do not need from your past and keep the learning
G – Growth mind-set is important when it comes to our ability to let go
I – Interventions like journaling your thoughts, talking to the individual, or writing a letter to the transgressor that you don’t send
V – Value the strength and bravery in forgiveness, yet remember this may make you feel vulnerable or raw
E – Everyone is doing the best with the tools they have in the moment, be kind to you
My own forgiveness intervention involved a deep period of self-reflection, followed by writing myself a forgiveness letter. I then spent some time journaling over the days following. I used a scientific scale to measure before and after the process and found a shift in my attitude towards forgiveness. By completing this intervention one thing is apparent, that the act of forgiveness is an extremely very personal intervention; from how you personally define forgiveness, the empathy and consideration required to undertake the task. The decision whether to forgive both the offender and self, and how to reframe the event moving forwards.
My own advice – do not carry around that burning ball of hurt or mistake for a lifetime.
You are human, be kind to you and let it go.
If you have been affected by domestic abuse or violence please contact Women’s Aid for support.
Also, if you feel you need to reach out and talk to someone, you can speak to the Samaritans at any time, 24/7 365 days a year; call free on 116 123 or click here to visit their website.
Ruth Cooper-Dickson is a Positive Psychology Practitioner and qualified Coach, who has studied Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology. She is the Founder and MD of the global mental wealth people consultancy, CHAMPS, partnering with progressive organisations helping them to ingrain a culture of positive mental wealth. Ruth is a passionate runner, an addicted life-long learner and a lover of all things cake!