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  • Heather Towndrow, CH, LCSW

The Process of Forgiveness


I’ve had the concept of forgiveness on my mind a few times in the past month; I wanted to spend a little bit of time piecing together my own thoughts on this subject. However, while I felt it necessary to touch on reasons to forgive, I don’t want to emphasize that notion. I find reasons to forgive to already be well-written about. But the notion of letting forgiveness be a process: that is something I believe needs to be shed some light.

This topic comes up a lot in the world of therapy sessions. Many individuals I work with are in the process of forgiving someone and some are trying to forgive themselves. Forgiveness is a strange but common concept, usually one that is emphasized across many religions. Some religions emphasize forgiveness because of a spiritual figure’s own forgiveness towards man’s indiscretions. Others emphasize forgiveness because in the end, it is a release for the individual so that they may no longer carry toxic emotions from carrying grudges. And yet there may be many other reasons to move toward forgiveness.

Spirituality aside, from a mental health perspective, the second of the mentioned is a main motivation to forgive. Another reason is to allow the relationship to heal and function at its best, letting go of baggage that would otherwise pull it down. Further considerations for forgiveness are to allow an individual to move on, to learn from the experience, to put more energy into other relationships that are important, to feel better, maybe even to give a peace of mind to the individual who caused harm.

Now on the flip side, I understand that some may argue for the many reasons to not forgive. I don’t want to argue about the goodness or the badness of forgiving. I don’t need to put energy into an already common argument. Being accountable, I’ll acknowledge my own attachments to my grudges. When I think from another part of me that comes from self-protection, I think of all the righteous reasons I should be angry, and I could write a lot on that. But here’s why I know forgiveness is the way: I feel a better sense of peace when I think of the path of forgiveness. I feel a sense of unrighteous war when I think of the grudges I could carry, and at times it can feel real icky. If you want to let go of the burdens that were caused to you from the pain of another, do yourself a favor and work towards letting go that forgiveness can offer.

When we discuss forgiveness, it is easy to reason why or the why-nots of forgiveness. But we rarely discuss the issues that prompt the consideration for forgiveness. Having a hurtful statement said of you, being forgotten, not being considered, anger that was hurtful, being lied to, abuse including physical harm, betrayal, and of course many that I am missing. I tried to list what I considered to be the appropriate order from easier to forgive to more difficult. And this is where I want to emphasize that my thoughts on forgiveness are not about whether you should or shouldn’t forgive, but rather that if you would like to move towards forgiveness, the experience may be smoother if you let it be a process rather than something that is forced. When we force ourselves with statements of should, (ex: I should be able to let this go, I should be over it, I shouldn’t have to forgive them), I believe it often complicates the process, therefore creating more stagnation and difficult feelings than if one simply allows themselves to forgive at their own pace.

This does not mean you want to be stuck in the same place with forgiveness for a long time. For example, you find a dear friend had been gossiping about a difficult experience you had been through; you choose to forgive but anger still easily creeps in. Allow it to be a process. But if within a year you are still not giving this friend the time of day, you might be in a place of stagnation. If I were to imagine myself in this position, I would say within a year you want to be on speaking but yet still cautious terms.

I understand forgiveness is complex and covers a multitude of relationships and experiences, that is why I am arguing for the process rather than the forced ideal. My own experiences of forgiveness have been few and where I have needed to forgive, I will own that my pacing is slower. I tend to hold grudges more easily; maybe this is from my own unrelenting standards, another issue I am working on.

Here is what I believe are the steps in the process of forgiveness. 1) Knowing love. When you choose to love yourself, you recognize that you don’t want to hold onto garbage that upsets you. You want to be free of that. You could also argue, “But if I did love myself, I wouldn’t let myself be harmed again.” I am not going to argue against that. Here is where we need to define forgiveness, which is also very broad. 2) Find a definition of forgiveness that works for you. It will work for you if it allows you to let go but still keep yourself smart enough for self-protection.

Loving yourself makes forgiveness of yourself and others more easily. If this is complicated for you, I believe that rather than moving toward forgiveness, it may be best to move toward self-love and then come back to forgiveness. Put your hurt and anger in a box and focus on the one of love. Find someone worthy of love (potentially yourself) and nurture that. Nurture on love for others and when you are able to feel love for yourself, then you are better place to work on forgiveness again.

Once you have love in place, 3) let time do it’s thing. It is not necessarily time that helps with forgiveness but rather what comes with time. Putting your attention into other things, getting your mind off it, learning lessons in between, healing. If I were to give only one piece of advice, 4) don’t force it. It creates a block, confuses emotions, and feels off. Let it feel right and let it feel natural. For your own healing, you will do yourself justice if you let yourself forgive on a genuine level at a time that is right for the healing. Don’t shame yourself for not healing more quickly. If you are further than you were a month ago, even by an inch, you are doing the work. When you are at the place where you are ready to let it go, you will give it the justice that it needed. You may be surprised at how much easier it is to forgive when you don’t force but rather let it be.

And final step, 5) keep coming back to the path of forgiveness. Because you set out to make it a long-term goal, the rest of what needs to happen will come to place. You may have lots of healing to do on your path, therefore the complexity of it gives you a lot of what you are needing. When you get lost, which it will be easy to do, keep coming back to your ultimate goal: letting go (forgiveness).

#forgiveness #process #healing

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