The power to forgive

Forgiveness remains a sensitive and controversial topic because many people associate forgiveness with overlooking (that is denying / justifying the event or its consequences) and further tolerating harmful behaviors.

Forgiveness is, in fact, an individual process that has less to do with the person who wronged us than with our ability to heal and free ourselves from certain wounds of the past.

 When we don’t forgive, we remain attached to the past event or situation, investing our energy in reliving that event in our mind, in reliving the painful emotions that we felt back then, in blame, in resentment and, last but not least, in self-blame.

Somehow, we blame ourselves because we think "if I had done things differently / if I hadn't done that / if I had chosen differently... maybe this wouldn't have happened". The truth is that each person acts as they consider appropriate, in accordance with their life experience and the data they have at hand at a given time.

No matter how much we want to change the past (to avoid the suffering we have been through), this isn’t possible, but what we can do is free ourselves from that suffering by rewriting the story that caused us that suffering or simply giving up that story, because many times, our suffering is not caused by the events themselves, but by the story we tell ourselves about those events. For example, "we broke up even though he/she promised me we would live happily ever after" – in this case, the suffering seems to come rather from the fact that reality (the break-up) didn’t correspond to the story we have told to ourselves in our mind or the expectations we had (to grow old together).

If, instead, we see this event as a life experience from which we can learn valuable lessons and we understand that, most of the time, there are no guarantees in life and that at some point we may end up evolving differently or wanting different things, we would no longer be attached to the thoughts that tell us that things should have been different. We would no longer resist the natural course of life and we would no longer continue to live in the past, resisting and not accepting what had happened. We would no longer try to split hairs, looking to blame ourselves or others, or simply trying to find a scapegoat. A relationship is co-created and, indeed, each of the two partners has their share of responsibility. Let's take responsibility for our part, learn what we have to learn and continue our life, giving us a new chance at happiness, freeing ourselves from (self)blame and resentment.

In this sense, self-forgiveness means understanding and having compassion for ourselves, assimilating the "lessons" and allowing to give ourselves a new chance. And forgiving someone doesn't mean to just say we have forgiven (even though we bear resentment against them) because we still feel we can still benefit from that relationship (as is often the case with toxic relationships, when we say we forgive, because we are afraid of loneliness, because we don’t think that we can make it on our own, because we are emotionally, or in any other way, dependent on our partner).

Forgiveness doesn’t mean lying to ourselves that what happened didn’t hurt us (these emotions it’s best to be processed and integrated in order to be released, to be able to heal), it doesn’t mean that we continue to accept the harmful behaviors of that person who wronged us and also shouldn’t be a way to show our superiority - “I forgive you because I’m better than you” (when we say that, basically we want to humiliate and to disregard the other person).

Forgiveness is rather a stage (or a process that we may need to repeat) on the path to our becoming. Through forgiveness we free ourselves from the shadows of the past and we take our power back, while through "non-forgiveness" or resistance and resentment we bring those shadows of the past into the present and we open for them the way to the future, remaining victims in the hands of our aggressors or of those who have wronged us.

Forgiveness is not about others, but about ourselves, and there is no magic recipe that applies to everyone. Everyone may go through this process in a different way, may feel that they need more or less time to accept and integrate what has happened, may feel that they may or may not need outside support or may feel that it is harder or easier to make peace with themselves and to let go of that victim side that still exists within them, that side that feels powerless and that, in fact, wants understanding and compassion, wants to be accepted in order to be transformed, to be able to feel strong again and in control of our lives.

What does forgiveness mean to you?

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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