Creating Freedom from the Past
Any journey of inner healing and integration requires understanding and practicing self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others. It is an essential component of inner emancipation and creating freedom from the past.
Forgiveness is the opposite of punishment or retribution. Forgiving someone means you have granted them a pardon for a past mistake or failure and have absolved them of the harm they have done to you or someone else. Implicit in the act of forgiveness is the assumption that you have intentionally ceased directing negative thoughts toward yourself or the person who has wronged you.
Forgiveness starts with a declaration, rather than a feeling. If we waited until we felt forgiving, chances are we would be waiting forever. The declaration usually comes first, and the feelings come after.
Forgiveness is an extremely powerful tool for getting free of the past, releasing built-up constrictive emotions, and healing old wounds. It is an intentional and voluntary process of changing your feelings and attitudes regarding an offense that has occurred.
Forgiving another person is not the same as condoning, forgetting, or excusing the transgression. This would require failing to notice, or being in denial about, the offensiveness of the behavior. Justice being served and choosing to forgive are separate issues and can occur independently of each other.
Forgiveness is a conscious intention to let go of any fear-driven, defensive needs of the negative ego that might be activated: the desire for revenge or retribution, the need to control or to look better than, the impulse to be right and have others be wrong, wanting to be superior to, and so on. In other words, you have ceased blaming others or yourself, and they (and you) are now pardoned.
When someone wrongs you, they are directing negative energy at you. This energy usually originates from their negative ego and a sense of being wounded that they are unconsciously trying to compensate for or off-load onto you.
Forgiveness is a way for you to release that negative energy, rather than absorbing it permanently. It is a purposeful way to get free of negative thoughts that are self-blaming or blaming toward others, as well as any emotions that are attached to feeling like a victim, such as self-pity or self-loathing. As a result, the constrictive feelings you have been harboring, such as resentment, pain, hatred, or anger, can be processed and begin to recede.
Forgiving for Your Own Good
There is a common misunderstanding that we need to forgive for the sake of the person who has wronged us. We feel conflicted and resist forgiving because we don’t want them to reap the benefit of our largesse, and yet we might judge ourselves as a petty and terrible person if we don’t.
However, forgiveness benefits the forgiver as much or more than it benefits the one who is being forgiven. This is because carrying around repressed feelings of hurt, anger, hatred, and resentment are toxic to your mind, body, heart, and soul. Although these emotions are legitimate responses to having your needs disregarded and your boundaries violated, if left unprocessed they can become stagnant and bitter.
Forgiveness is something that you do first and foremost for yourself. In other words, do it for your sake, not theirs. Do it because you refuse to continue being psychically bonded with another person’s negative energy or punishing needs. Refuse to allow their transgressions to continue to take up valuable space in your psyche. Refuse to stay stuck in the past, constantly reliving old, painful experiences and feeling not OK inside.
Will they receive benefit from your forgiveness? Yes, certainly. Do they deserve it? Maybe. Maybe not. But that is incidental to the benefit that you give yourself.
Taking Back Your Power
Another reason to practice forgiveness is that you don’t want to stay stuck in self-pity and feeling like a victim. Demand of yourself that you take back your power. Own any part that you may have played in the transgression and make amends if necessary.
Refuse to accept any shame they have tried to cause or off-load onto you. Using your imagination, give it back to them. That is their shame, not yours. Whatever they did may have been denigrating, but you can refuse to let it be a commentary on who you are or your self-worth.
Humans have a basic need for self-acceptance and for acceptance by others, and this requires being forgiving toward yourself, forgiving others, and being forgiven. Forgiveness is an essential component of growth, and it requires that we learn how to acknowledge our missteps and inadvertent offenses, experience remorse about them, and make amends.
Being able to forgive yourself for any past mistakes or perceived failures is essential to your growth and to healing any old wounds you might be carrying in your subconscious.
Embracing Remorse and Ending Guilt
Feeling genuine remorse empowers you to learn from your mistakes and failures and strive to be and act in ways that are more consistent with your best self. Remorse is an uncomfortable but empowering emotion. It is directly connected to your conscience, which is an aspect of your superconscious self. It is one of the emotions that is most closely connected to your sense of self.
The purpose of remorse is to nudge you toward more fully expressing your best self through your thoughts and actions. By allowing yourself to experience remorse, you can discover your motivation to make amends. In the process, you will discover that you are forgivable and that it is okay to make mistakes and to fail sometimes.
Guilt and remorse are two things that often get confused; the distinction between them gets collapsed. For the purpose of self-empowerment, it is useful to draw a clear demarcation regarding what they are. Guilt is a negative mindset that has various emotions attached to it, while remorse is a very real emotion.
We use guilt to punish ourselves and others, and to manipulate people into doing what we want by guilt-tripping them. We also use guilt to avoid having to take responsibility by dramatizing how terrible we feel about what we did. In other words, guilt has us operate below the line and engage in losing games.
Genuine remorse, on the other hand, has us be more of our authentic self and operate above the line. A useful self-empowerment guideline to follow is to allow yourself to fully experience remorse while refusing to indulge in guilt. Remorse works; guilt doesn’t.
“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh
Often, the key to finding the compassion necessary to fully forgive someone (or yourself) is by deepening your understanding of what might be driving the hurtful or destructive behavior. It can be helpful to remember to disidentify the transgressor from whatever they did. Remind yourself that they have a worthy inner being, even if they aren’t acting like it, and that their behavior is not who they really are.
Dig deeper to see if you can imagine and understand what sort of woundedness they may have that is driving their defensive losing behaviors. What pain might they be carrying around, most likely unconsciously, that would motivate them to act so reprehensibly? Chances are they are unconsciously attempting to off-load some of their woundedness and shame by lashing out and hurting others.
Often perpetrators have been abused in some way. The parent we haven’t forgiven might have been acting out unresolved pain from their childhood, and it ended up getting all over us. According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, fully 50 percent of all children in the United States have experienced some form of abuse.
Many children suffer from toxic stress and will continue to when they become adults. This does not excuse anyone’s behavior or absolve them from responsibility, but it can be helpful to understand the dynamic that is driving abusers to act out in inappropriate ways. This is summed up by the expressions “hurt people tend to hurt people” and “victims create victims.”
Asking, “What happened to them?” can be more empowering than thinking, “What a terrible person! How dare they act this way!” A helpful way to gain access to your compassion is to imagine how awful it must feel like to be in their shoes. How terrible, how not OK, would you have to feel inside to treat others that badly?
It can be helpful to remember that when someone projects onto you it is a direct reflection of what is going on in their inner world. Although their actions might feel very personal, in a certain way almost nothing they are doing is personal to you or about you. Chances are they are so caught up in their inner drama and pain that they are unable to see you clearly or feel any connection and empathy.
It might even be possible for you to feel some gratitude that you aren’t in their shoes. Bottom line: you may not be able to forgive someone for what they did, but you may be able to forgive them for why they did it.
Forgiveness is a Process
Having your boundaries violated can be painful, even traumatizing. You will need to recognize and own your pain to process and heal it so that you can move on.
A successful forgiveness process usually requires that you forgive yourself first before you grant forgiveness to anyone else. Any self-forgiveness process will be composed of at least some of the following key elements:
Taking responsibility for the situation in any way you can.
Ceasing to beat yourself up for any part that you played in the situation (making the decision to forgive yourself).
Accepting that whatever happened is now part of your life story.
Giving back any sense of shame the transgression has caused you to the person from whom it originated, through meditation, journaling, or other method.
Reaffirming your self-worth. Reminding yourself that who you are inside is deserving and that you are a whole and complete human being with an innate sense of integrity.
Discerning how you can integrate the experience and use it to strengthen your sense of self and your resilience.
Integrating any life lessons you can take from what has occurred.
These steps can be taken no matter where the other person is at in terms of feeling remorseful or making amends. Sometimes, reaching any sort of external resolution in a situation isn’t feasible, which is why finding internal peace is so important.
There are additional steps that can be taken for a forgiveness process with others. These steps depend upon what the specific dynamics are that are at play. Often it is helpful to have an experienced third party facilitate.
Without forgiveness, there can be no real reconciliation. This is especially important with the people closest to us. Everyone makes mistakes, and without forgiveness we are unable to sustain our loving connection with ourselves and with others.