Of course it depends on the situation, some things are easier than others to forgive. I struggle with forgiveness if I feel I'm owed a heartfelt apology and I don't get one, or if I've done something stupid that I regret. Forgiving myself and others can be challenging.
It’s not just as easy as just deciding to forgive is it? It's not as easy as one day just deciding...today I am going to extend forgiveness. Funny thing is, I've tried to do that and the sneaky resentment and anger eventually reared it's ugly head again. Blah!!!
Unforgiveness is classified in medical books as disease. According to Dr. Steven Standiford, chief of surgery at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, refusing to forgive makes people sick and keeps them that way. Forgiveness therapy is being used to treat cancer and other disease patients. Research indicates that of all cancer patients, 61% have forgiveness issues and more than half of them severe.
Over the last two decades, a lot of research has been published about the positive impact of forgiveness, particularly on the forgiver and in relationships. From cancer studies, to studies on depression, health is improved with forgiveness. It’s important to address the issue of forgiveness as we consider our overall wellness and things that might be hindering it and our happiness.
I’ve studied the work of Dr. Robert Enright and use his forgiveness research, knowledge and techniques in my own life and I love to share this information in my happiness workshops. This week and next week, I’ll be taking a deep dive into the topic of forgiveness, sharing some of his work so that we can strengthen our forgiveness muscle. Forgiveness is like a muscle, the more we use it, the more we practice it, the stronger it gets, the easier it gets and the better that we get at doing it.
Let’s start by exploring some of the basics behind the experience of being injured, and then next week we’ll explore things that keep us stuck and what we can do to move forward, forgive and heal.
You face a choice
As you walk your path, remember that each time you perceive that someone has mistreated you that you face a choice. The event occurs and someone has caused you pain. Dr. Enright describes it as though someone has placed a heavy stone in your path and you have two options, 1) acknowledge the obstacle and move around it, or 2) lift the stone and strap it to your back. Making the choice to strap it to your back is exhausting and painful, both physically and emotionally.
You can’t change other people
It’s impossible to walk their path and alter how they treat you. You can’t force someone to feel sorry for what they've done or said. The only thing you're in charge of is your own behavior and your own energy. You're in control of the way you think of yourself and others. You're in control of the resentful feelings you harbor against others. You're in control of having judgmental and negative thoughts.
Facing the pain
It can be hard to face the depth of our pain. It can feel overwhelming, like if we acknowledge it, truly acknowledge it, that we might not be able to handle it. Have you experienced this yourself, I know I have.
Then there’s the added layer of pain that we experience when we give the person "air time in our head". What’s so ironic about this is that we don’t want them near us, and yet not only are they living near us, we are letting them live inside of us.
On a scale of 1 to 10, rate how much pain you have in your heart. The question then is, what are you going to do with that pain? Do you know what most people do with their pain? They pass it on to other people. They pass it on to people in their lives and those people then have to deal with it. We try to get rid of the pain by tossing it to others. Isn’t that what the person did who hurt you? Hurt people, hurt people.
So, the question becomes…are you going to let others inherit your pain, or are you going to change the cycle? Forgiveness is when we begin to realize that we are stronger than the pain. When we stand up, acknowledge the pain and say “I will not let this abuse others, make others uncomfortable, and it’s not going to defeat me because I’m standing with the pain right now.”
Dr. Enright states, "As you stand in the pain, you end up not hurting others and letting others live a less-wounded life. We can’t go back in time and change what happened, it’s part of our history. It happened, you own it and refuse to pass it on to anybody. As you do that you are giving a gift to yourself and to others, including to the one who hurt you."
Taking time to grieve
In our culture, we typically don’t allow ourselves to properly feel and grieve, in part because of our hectic lives, but also, because we are afraid. We’re conditioned to be strong and move on, to sweep it under the rug or live in denial, to numb and self-medicate. How many times have you experienced loss, and when faced with your own grief someone was quick to patch you up with a, “There, there, it’ll get better. No need to cry.” Feelings are often seen as unproductive, so we try to ignore them, or we indulge in them and get stuck in a cycle of self-pity and blaming.
According to Dr. Enright, “This conditioning keeps us heavily distracted, contained, controlled. It is one of the reasons why we keep ourselves so busy and have taxed sympathetic nervous systems and adrenal glands...we are afraid to be silent and still where we can feel and grieve. Without the trauma resolution that grieving provides, our past pain unconsciously seeps into our immediate relationships and systems. Victims of abuse may become abusers themselves, perpetuating the cycle.”
Next week, we’ll pick up with things that keep us stuck and techniques for forgiveness and healing.