FORGIVENESS FREES US TO FEEL JOY & LOVE AGAIN
By Carolyn Hobbs, LMFT
Author of FREE YOURSELF: 10 Life-Changing Powers of your Wise Heart
Forgiveness sounds good. But how do I not react personally to my husband’s depression or my own overweight? How do I not take my spouse’s affair personally? How does my son’s school eviction not reflect badly on me as a parent? How does grandpa’s womanizing around town not shame our whole family?
Forgiveness doesn’t happen by deciding in our head to forgive a wrong. It is not about glossing over hurt, dismissing selfish acts, or making excuses. It comes after we stop taking our parent’s unconscious acts personally—even when they impact us very personally. It comes after we name our hurt, fear, sadness or shame triggered by a lover’s actions, even if our anger and resentment feels totally justified. It comes after we acknowledge how hurt and scared we really feel, even if we don’t disclose until years later. It comes after we see that our parents, spouse, children and loved ones all struggle with the same judgment, doubt and fear that we do.
FORGIVING THE UNFORGIVABLE IS A FOUR-PHASE PROCESS
True forgiveness takes time: Time to be honest with ourselves. Time to heal the layers of outrage, resentment, grief, and hurt still pulsating in our tender inner self. Time to realize that—though this hurt, rejection and betrayal feels personal—it is more about the offender acting unconsciously out of their past conditioning than about us. Time to reach understanding, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness.
When I first heard that nothing we take personally is personal, I felt personally offended. After all, my husband divorcing me at age twenty-three to “find himself, throwing me into depression, felt very personal. And my mother’s depression resulting from her unhappy marriage stole my childhood. But however justified our hurt, we still have Conscious Choice: we still choose between righteous indignation, which only perpetuates our own suffering—or the freedom that comes with forgiveness. When we keep chewing on the story of who did what and how it should never have happened, we find other’s painful acts—and life itself—hard to stomach. But once we turn the compassion corner and open our heart to see how another’s reactions are often unconscious habits, forgiveness flows much easier.
Genuine forgiveness unfolds naturally by adopting this four-phase process:
First, We Honestly Face Past Grudges and Resentments.
Rather than wasting years lost in bitterness and resentment, we must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves. We pause, take a few deep breaths, and sincerely ask, “What resentment story prevents my heart from being fully open with loved ones?” Within seconds, we hear that same story in our head we have listened to for years—only this time we see it as an embellished story perpetuating suffering. thought I’d forgiven his alcoholic ways when, as a teen, I refused to see him.”
For example, at forty-two Diane meditates every morning, strengthening her intention to greet life with awareness, loving-kindness and compassion. Twice a year she attends a ten-day meditation retreat to deepen her practice. But despite these daily efforts, she still resents her husband for shaming her five years ago.
“I’d never rafted the San Juan River. I had no idea where the takeout point was,” she said as her voice raised. “But the instant our friends yelled ‘Get out! You’re headed for a fifty-foot falls,’ Ted panicked. He jumped out of the boat to drag us upstream and save our lives. But the whole time, he’s screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘You just about killed us! You’re such a space cadet!’ He never apologized.
In meditation, Diane struggled to forgive Ted. But fear and resentment lingered. Five years later, in therapy, I had Diane close her eyes, locate her fear in her belly and feel how scared she still is of Ted’s anger. Tears trickled down her cheek. “I get that in his terror, Ted lashed out and blamed me,” she said. “But I never realized I had to acknowledge how scared I still am before I can forgive.”
That night, Diane explained to Ted how scared she’s been to fully open and trust him since that incident. He apologized and vowed to voice his feelings in a softer, kinder tone. Once Diane forgave him, her fear and resentment disappeared.
Forgiving those who lose themselves in a moment of panic is easier when we see the whole picture. But forgiving loved ones and strangers who abandon, betray or abuse us, causing untold suffering, requires time, patience and great courage. Such forgiveness comes slowly over time.
Second, We Name those Feelings & Beliefs underneath our Reactions
Achieving the leap into forgiveness is like crossing a stream. The shore we stand on is familiar, riddled with defensiveness, personal reactions and blame. It thrives on frustration, irritation, anger, resentment and guilt.
The journey across this stream, from personal reactivity into forgiveness, is rarely clear. But we do know that endlessly chewing on resentment only holds our guilt, resentment and anxiety intact—and holds forgiveness at arm’s length. By asking ourselves, “Which deeper feeling—hurt, fear, sadness or shame—is triggered by my loved one’s unconscious acts?” we dip underneath resentment and speed up the healing process leading to forgiveness.
Deepening awareness with simple questions uncovers heartfelt solutions.
For example, Jenny found out about her husband’s affair by stumbling upon several emails from his co-worker. She felt shocked, enraged and devastated.
“Damn you!” she told Frank in therapy. “I told you at our wedding forty-five years ago that, if you ever cheated on me, I’d divorce you. Now at sixty-five with five grown kids, I have to grow old alone because you’re a stupid fool. Pack your bags.”
Jenny kept the divorce papers filled out in her top desk drawer. But alone in the middle of the night, her own guilt blamed her for not being sexy enough to keep her man, for not seeing the affair earlier, for not loving Frank good enough. Her friends begged her to file, but Jenny felt torn between forgiveness and divorce.
In therapy, Jenny agreed to identify her deeper feelings and beliefs. As Jenny peeked underneath her rage and grief, she uncovered a buried childhood belief. “I never feel good enough. When I was twelve, mom ran off with her boyfriend, leaving dad to raise me. Now my own husband chases sexual favors elsewhere.”
Frank and Jenny recreated closeness in their marriage. Instead of working twelve-hour days, Frank came home for lunch, helped more around the house and planned weekend adventures together. Jenny shared her mistrust pain rather than keeping it inside and had Frank compliment her when she felt not good enough.
Frank apologized countless times with tears in his eyes, swearing he didn’t want to live if he couldn’t grow old with Jenny. Jenny took the weeks and months she needed to move through her rage, loss, grief and betrayal.
Eventually she said, “It’s your genuine tears of remorse at losing me that softened me into forgiveness. But if you ever do it again, you’re out for good.”
A year later, they renewed their vows on their fiftieth anniversary.
Naming our feelings and beliefs can lead to deeper freedom and inner peace.
Third, We Acknowledge the Truth to our Inner Self
We humans are built to handle the truth. We are built to hear the truth, even if that truth stings in the moment. What we don’t handle well is lies. Left in the dark, we spiral downward into ego’s reactions, stories and fears.
I’ll never forget ten-year-old Denise in my office, begging her father, “I wish you’d told me how bad you were hurting when mom died of cancer. I hurt too. We could have cried together and held each other instead of you working overtime.”
Countless clients, after the initial shock of a spouse’s affair, all said, “It’s not the affair that hurts the worst. It’s the number of years you lied about it.”
Admitting our mistakes is hard for us. We feel embarrassed or ashamed and grow afraid of other’s judgment, but living out of integrity creates suffering until we finally tell the truth. Lucky for us, each moment holds a fresh opportunity for us to bravely be the first person in our family and our work place to speak the truth.
For instance, John turned fifty-eight when his daughter Sara called him on his birthday. Sara had been a challenging child growing up, requiring therapy as a teen for anorexia. Following her divorce at thirty, John helped her financially until she got back on her feet. But nothing prepared him for what he was about to hear.
“You molested me at six and seven, Dad,” Sara accused him. “In therapy I remembered a man touching my genitals and I presume it had to be you.”
Shocked, John took a deep breath. “I’m so sorry that anyone molested you at such a tender age, hon,” he said, “but I guarantee it wasn’t me. How can I help?” Sara hung up. That was their last conversation for twelve long years.
But at seventy, in meditation, images of Sara kept appearing. He knew forgiveness was the next step, but he didn’t know how. In therapy I helped John distinguish between his less mature self and his forgiving heart. I had him first acknowledge the truth of what did and didn’t happen to his young self, who felt hurt.
John closed his eyes and pictured himself at six years old in blue jeans and a blue sweater swinging in the schoolyard. “He looks confused, sad and betrayed.”
“Excellent. Now acknowledge the feelings he felt with compassion.”
“First, I love you. Second, I know what good morals you have. I hear how confused, hurt and sad you feel. But I also love my daughter, and in her pain, she is lashing out at the person closest to her: me. I can hold your sadness in compassion and I also hold my daughter in compassion.”
Two weeks later, John said, “I called my daughter. I apologized for the years of silence and said what a shame it is to let precious years go by without sharing the highlights of our lives.” Tomorrow I’m flying to see her and meet my new grandson.
Speaking the truth to our inner self, soothing our young self’s tender wounds, allows us to forgive other’s unconscious words. This lets the love flow again.
Fourth, We Take the Leap into Forgiveness and Let Go
Even with these first three phases, forgiveness can be hard to swallow. Deep inside the caverns of our heart, devastating loss and pain can feel like a gap as wide as the Grand Canyon between “us and them.” When someone who loves us hurts, betrays or rejects us, we first need to take some space and lick our wounds.
But what we choose next either creates freedom or suffering.
Painful unconscious acts can make us question their love, question whether something is wrong with us, question whether true love exists at all. As we stand bleeding inside, that old adage, “Someone who truly loves me should never hurt me,” sounds true. But the second we devise a clever plan to protect our heart from ever being so hurt or devastated again—we set ourselves up for more suffering.
Freedom comes from leaping across the abyss—from shutting down to being open, compassionate and forgiving. And this happens slowly, as we feel ready. Our forgiving heart knows that moving through our feelings is the short path to freedom.
As Jack Kornfield says in The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness & Peace, “True forgiveness does not paper over what happened in a superficial way. It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore our pain. It cannot be hurried. It is a deep process repeated over and over in our heart which honors the grief and betrayal, and in its own time ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.”
As we take time to be honest with ourselves, time to grieve fully and feel how hurt we really feel, time to feel compassion for our tender inner self, forgiveness sprouts a few buds. At first, we might practice under the covers at night by whispering, “I’m willing to forgive my stepdad for molesting me” or “I’m willing to forgive my spouse for betraying me.” We try it on in a safe space and see how it feels.
If our heart feels ready to take the leap into forgiveness, we know it. If not, we give our heart more time to heal. Eventually as we reach a place of peace with it in ourselves, we might say, “I forgive you” to the violator. Or we may never say it directly. The key is stepping into compassion—for our selves and for the unconscious acts of others that drive them to cruelty.
By the same token, when we have hurt, disappointed or betrayed others, we allow them to move through the four phases of forgiveness in their own timing. We may say, “Please forgive me,” but healing occurs in each of us at our own pace. We must bring patience, kindness and compassion in the interim until they are ready.
Forgiveness changes our rules of engagement. It stretches our hearts to see that true love includes, even embraces, those imperfect acts by those who love us. While mind keeps trying to convince us, “Something is wrong if you ever feel hurt or sad,” love reminds us that we all struggle with fear, judgment, doubt and shame, even those who hurt us. Love holds our ordinary feelings in a warm, loving, embrace, allowing us to stretch and forgive the unconscious acts of others.
As we open our hearts, forgiving others, we remember that each hurt helped brings us to this moment of understanding, compassion, wisdom and forgiveness.
Carolyn Hobbs offers life coaching, videos, interviews and sample chapters on her website, http://www.carolyn-hobbs.com. Her new book, FREE YOURSELF: 10 Life-Changing Powers of your Wise Heart (Wisdom) is available in print, kindle and e-book (and Audio in December) at Amazon.com.