Whether we need to forgive someone else or ourselves, the action of forgiveness can be incredibly challenging.
Many years ago because of my ego’s desire and need to be right in a very complicated and deeply personal situation, caused me to inflict a lot unnecessary pain and suffering on a close friend. It was never my intention to hurt her, at the time I simply justified my behaviour as a natural response to something she had done. I was like a wounded animal lashing out from anger and fear.
Over the years the rift between us grew, it became a ping-pong game of accusations and blame. All of which came from our mutual deep rooted sense of hurt, fear and resentment. It was a very dark and sad time in my life. To the outside world I probably looked as if I didn’t care, but inside I really struggled. I had never really fallen out with a friend before, and certainly never to such magnitude. Half of the things I was suddenly being accused of simply weren’t true. The more other people got involved in our feud the more it spiralled out of control. I just couldn’t see any end to the situation, ever.
Then one day I couldn’t take anymore, I possessed enough self-awareness to understand the constant stress of the situation was beginning to affect my health. Emotionally exhausted and full of regret I drove to my spiritual tutors house and burst into tears as soon as she opened the door.
And so my healing began.
The practice of forgiveness.
First and foremost I had to learn to forgive myself. My spiritual mentor encouraged me to sit with the elements surrounding the situation that I found really uncomfortable. I held a huge amount of regret and embarrassment around some of the things I had said. I had always tried to be a very calm and considerate person, but the situation had caused me to say some things during moments of anger that I really wasn’t proud of. Sitting with these feelings and exploring my shame and guilt, was really difficult. I had to face the fact I had been mean and unkind, which was something my spiritual practice I had always taught me to be wrong. Following a hurtful experience, we often try and move on without resolution, determined to leave it in the past. We often choose to suffer in silence, even telling ourselves we don’t care. But burying such feelings only causes us further pain and suffering. Over time I learned to stop punishing myself, punishing myself for being human. Forgiving myself didn’t come easy and it didn’t mean I was justifying my actions, it was simply allowing myself to understand that as a human being I will sometimes make mistakes. I was encouraged to practice awareness for all of the experience, including recognising what I could have done better. And then I was encouraged to stay in the present moment, to move away from the space of guilt. All guilt tends to do is keep us connected to the past, and it encourages us to magnify our regrets. Inflating those regrets actually keeps us in a self-centred state.
I then had to view the situation from a less personal perspective. Whatever myself or my friend had done, I had to come to realise that neither of us had done those things to intentionally hurt the other. I had to learn to stop reviewing the story of how I had hurt her or how she had hurt me. Keeping our stories alive actually encourage us to chose the past over the present. Sometimes our stories are comforting to us, they help mould our identity.
If you are in need of forgiving someone who has hurt you, lied to you or even betrayed you, it may seem like the hardest thing in the world. Quite often we prefer to hold onto our suffering, justifying our unwillingness to forgive as we have been so wronged. We may feel like the other person doesn’t deserve our forgiveness, we want them to suffer as we did, they need punishment for their actions. Of course it may be appropriate to feel all of these things when we are hurt and suffering, but still identifying with such feelings a year or 15 years on is not helpful to our emotional state. Allowing oneself to carry such feelings for any length of time, is in fact allowing our negative thoughts patterns surrounding a situation to become habitual. We then justify our habitual negative thoughts by blaming someone else for them. Blame is a choice and a trap, it keeps us enslaved to our pain, and allows us to no longer take responsibility for our reactions.
Forgive without pointing fingers. True open-hearted forgiveness comes without blame or restrictions. In my early twenties I had a flat-mate who I eventually discovered had a gambling problem, one that became out of control. In order to feed his habit, he would regularly lie to me and steal from me. It became one of the most stressful and exhausting times of my entire life. It put a huge amount of pressure on my relationship with my partner, and even my job. Although at first I wanted to help this person, over-time I realised the magnitude of the situation was out of our control. And the more he lied and stole, the more I resented the entire situation and him. Thankfully for his own sake and his wellness he managed to get help, but I won’t deny that the whole experience had left me feeling emotionally drained, stressed and bitter.
Once he was well all I wanted was an apology, or at the very least a thank you for the financial support I had given him whilst he was trying to get help. Neither ever came. I didn’t need him to explain his behaviour to me, or explain why he had done what he had. I just wanted some acknowledgement for the lengths we went to help him. The longer I waited, the more I resented him. Overtime I realised I had a choice, I could either remain in a state of bitterness and resentment, or I could search deep, deep within the corners of my heart to simply forgive him. He was no doubt full of guilt and embarrassment, and it was obviously a very dark time in his life. Sometimes we have to step into a deeper sense of compassion and truly let go. Forgiveness doesn’t hinge on the subsequent behaviour of the offender. When we suffer a wrong, we choose to forgive and live in the freedom of forgiveness, or we refuse to forgive and live in bondage to bitterness.
Acknowledge that you are not perfect, and we all make mistakes. All of us have been on the receiving end of self-centred, cruel or selfish behaviour. And all of us have also behaved in that way. At some point in our lives we have hurt others, unintentionally or not. When we remain bitter about how someone has treated us, we are actually failing to acknowledge or remember the times we too could have behaved in a kinder or more thoughtful way. Our ego’s are simply justifying our resentment and hurt. True forgiveness is an act of acknowledging our own humanness and our own mistakes. When viewing a situation from this mindset, we may even come to realise we actually played a part in what happened, enabling us to objectively consider the other person’s point of view with a greater sense of understanding and compassion.
When we feel wronged we often choose to cling onto the victim mentality, justifying our bitterness because of how someone else has treated us. Bitterness is characterised by intense judgement, hostility and unwillingness to move forward with open-heartedness. It is toxic behaviour, self-destructive and will ultimately impact our close and wider relationships. When we remain in this toxic state we may continue to act in an unkind way towards the person who caused us pain. We may tell ourselves we are allowed to be judgemental and unkind because of what they have done, they did it to us so it’s o.k to do it to them. This behaviour is never justified, it’s born from our own ego’s need to be right and our own need to cling onto the past and our hurt. This hostility is simply proof that we are trapped in a cycle of feeling sorry for ourselves, we are comforted to be seen as the victim. It also allows us to make sure others understand we have been deeply wounded. Unfortunately a victim mentality not only magnifies our own bitterness and our unwillingness to move on, but it also shows the outside world that we are stuck in our pain like a wounded child.
You cannot force someone to step into a space of forgiveness and healing. When I reached out to my friend with an apology it was rejected. Of course I felt disappointment that she was still stuck in a place of hurt and anger, but my spiritual mentor taught me that my disappointment was partly my own egos desire to want to help heal her pain. And it was neither my place or my right to try and force her into a healing place, only she herself had the right to do that. It was a light bulb moment for me, and it prevented me from developing any further guilt over a situation that happened so long ago. If you finally find courage to apologise for something and your apology isn’t accepted, that’s perfectly o.k. Refrain from stepping back into something you cannot change, the past. Within your heart wish that person well, for the highest good of everyone involved and simply move on.
Forgiveness is empowering. A forgiving attitude allows you to soar above painful memories and live your life fully in the present. When we are able to forgive ourselves and others it teaches us compassion and gifts us with emotional freedom to our hurt. A forgiving nature also nurtures greater authenticity in our friendships and intimate relationships, which in turn leads to more joy and happiness. Buddhist Tutor Pema Chodrom teaches when we choose forgiveness – “We will discover forgiveness as a natural expression of the open heart, an expression of our basic goodness. This potential is inherent in every moment. Each moment is an opportunity to make a fresh start.”