A powerful healing medicine called ‘Forgiveness’
There are a few really powerful interventions and concepts I have come across in my own life and psychology practice that really jump out at me. Sometimes these practices are right in front of us, and yet we may struggle to understand and apply them fully in our own lives. One of those practices is Forgiveness. A practice that everyone knows of, and has probably been faced with at some stage in life. But here’s the big question: have you really considered how incredibly beneficial practicing forgiveness is to your mental, emotional, and even physical health?
One could even view it as a form of ‘inner medicine’ for things such as lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; reducing pain, blood pressure, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age. The John Hopkins medicine team report that ‘chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response. Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.’
Makes sense right? Yet how often do we struggle to actually apply forgiveness fully in our own life when we’ve been deeply hurt? In today’s blog, I want to share with you a misconception about forgiveness and how we can move past it in order to reap the powerful benefits of applying this practice regularly in our own lives.
The greatest misconception I hear from my clients is that by forgiving someone who has deeply hurt them, they believe they are letting that person ‘off the hook’ and making their behavior acceptable. That misconception can have us holding onto negative emotions such as bitterness, resentment, anger, and pain for most of our lives, continually allowing that person to make us feel negative every time we think of them, or the event that caused us so much pain. So let’s look at what forgiveness REALLY is.
Forgiveness is an act of self-love. It frees you from the negative emotional charges that stay stuck within you when you choose to hold onto resentments and pain. When you hold onto this pain and bitterness, you are continuing to feel like a victim whenever you think of this person. And thereby you continue to re-create the emotional reality that you are a victim. You continue to give your power away to this person, waiting for them to make amends. But what if they will never make amends? Will you allow yourself to feel powerless and angry by the mere thought of them? By choosing to let go of the pain, you are freeing yourself and them from the burden of ill will. Not only does this resolve the negative emotions that have been stored within the body, a chemical cascade effect takes place whereby your stress levels reduce, blood pressure drops, immune function goes up, and a host of other beneficial physical health benefits arise as your body is no longer in the fight/flight stress mode.
So how do you move through the process of forgiveness?
It all begins with compassion and understanding. Understand that if you were harmed, there is a high chance that person was projecting their own inner pain and ignorance onto you. You may have triggered their own pain and insecurities which they then proceeded to protect themselves from by making you to blame for their emotional upset. Think of a time when you may have hurt another person — maybe you said something hurtful or acted in a negative way. Do you remember what was happening for you and why you did it? Most likely you were feeling pain, anger, or a similar emotion which took over and you acted from this place projecting that emotion onto another person. When we are stressed, irritable, angry, worried, vulnerable, we are more likely to lash out at others. So be aware that we all have wounds and scars that we carry with us and when those wounds get touched, we will feel the pain and want to protect ourselves from getting hurt.
Another common reason why hurt people hurt other people is because of transference. This means that your perpetrator may have been carrying unresolved anger towards another person that you have triggered, and it got ‘transferred’ onto you. Their unresolved anger could be towards a parent, a partner, or a friend, and because they never stood up to that person out of fear, they are still carrying that unresolved pain within. There is a good chance therefore, that the unresolved pain will come out onto another person such as you, whom the perpetrator feels more comfortable to project onto, because they don’t fear you. So out comes all of their unresolved anger towards their father for example, that has been building up over the years onto you. Why? Because you may have said or done something that triggered their pain of being rejected by their father, and when they feel rejected by you, it will trigger those same intense emotions that are now coming out.
With a deeper understanding that ‘hurt people may hurt other people’, you can begin to see that negative behavior towards yourself may have nothing to do with you really. You most likely have received a projection of someone’s inner pain, whether that was from a parent, a friend, a partner, or colleague. Similarly, if you are holding anger towards yourself for hurting someone else, begin to see your own behavior with compassion and understanding, knowing that you most likely were hurting, and that pain came out onto another because the emotion was so intense. When we are in an intense emotional state, we are not always thinking logically about the consequences of our behavior, and so we are reacting emotionally to everything around us.
Forgiveness also does not mean accepting bad behavior. It is important to assert your boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable with other people so you don’t feel taken advantage of. When someone’s behavior is not okay, you have a right to vocalize and let that person know. At the same time, you can choose to understand that person’s behavior with compassion and move towards forgiveness. The irony is that the people who need the most love are the ones who are the most guarded and protected, often times pushing people away for fear of rejection and abandonment.
When you are ready to move towards letting go of toxic emotions you are holding onto towards yourself, another person, or situation, create a ritual that allows you to move through the process of forgiveness with closure. Here are a few you can try:
1) Write a letter to the other person expressing your emotions about what has happened and the impact it has had on you. Close the letter by expressing your choice to forgive and the reasons why you are choosing to do this.
2) Have an imaginary role-play where you imagine the person you want to forgive sitting across from you. Express to them everything you feel and your desire to forgive them. State the reasons why you are choosing to forgive them.
3) You can also close your eyes and visualize the person in front of you. Imagine having a conversation with them, expressing your emotions and closing with an expression of your choice to forgive them. A powerful statement can include something like ‘To the best of my ability, I now choose to forgive you for all these hurts. I release my burden of ill will toward you now, and free you and me to live’.
Whatever your ritual may be, rest in the knowing that once completed, you have given yourself closure on this event and let go of negative emotions that have been weighing you down. Many people report feeling like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders and a lightness has emerged within their hearts.
I’d love to hear your experiences with forgiveness and what it has brought you. Please feel free to leave a comment and share your own insights on forgiveness.
With much love,
Dr. Kasia Wilk; CPsychol; DCounsPsych; M.Sc; B.Sc (Hons)