By Joeel A. Rivera, M.Ed.
Breaking down the prison and letting the inmate free is one of the best things you can do to truly free yourself and create the life that you want or the relationship that you desire. You may say, “I am not holding any one in a prison,” but in reality everyone creates a prison—and the inmate you are trying to set free is yourself. This prison is created by not forgiving. In fact, many times unforgiveness is the biggest piece of baggage that you can carry. Your baggage could be from a parent, friend, significant other, or coworker—anyone that was not there for you, abused you, took advantage of your trust, or harmed you emotionally.
Often we hold resentments thinking we are somehow getting the other person back; however, they are not affected by our refusal to forgive, we are.
“Resentment is like taking poison and expecting someone else to die”
So what is forgiveness?
Webster’s Dictionary defines forgiveness this way: “To give up resentment against; stop being angry with; pardon; give up all claim to punish; overlook; cancel a debt.” Therefore, forgiveness is releasing the feeling that the other person owes us something. What happens when that debt is never paid or forgiven? Do we just carry it with us for the rest of our lives? Many times we do! Who is it truly hurting? Us or them? US. When we release that feeling we are freeing ourselves from the baggage that we carry.
Forgiveness is an opportunity to start over and refocus your attention on what you desire.
You may believe that forgiveness is challenging, but when you understand who it is truly for—you—then it becomes easier. When you practice forgiveness you will feel empowered. Forgiveness is freedom.
What forgiveness is NOT:
Many people do not forgive because they have a misperception about what forgiveness truly is. Therefore, let’s go over some of the things forgiveness is not.
- Forgiveness is NOT: Reconciliation with the person.
- Forgiveness is NOT: Living in denial about a person’s action(s) and pretending something did not happen.
- Forgiveness is NOT: Allowing the person to do the same behavior over and over again.
- Forgiveness is NOT: Having no consequence for a behavior.
- Forgiveness is NOT: Having the pain magically go away. The pain may take a long time to heal (although it often does go away).
First, Forgive Yourself:
“True justice is paying once for each mistake. True injustice is paying more than once. Animals pay once, humans pay thousands of times. Every time we remember we judge ourselves and feel guilt over and over again.”
- Edgar Cayce
Many times in our lives we make mistakes and we have to forgive ourselves for those mistakes. Most people have more resentment toward themselves than anyone else. There are two things that our minds unconsciously do when we feel guilty. One of them is to try to repay or make right our mistake, often excessively. If we feel that there is nothing we can do to make something right, the second option we choose (unconsciously) is to punish ourselves.
For example: let’s say that we had a great relationship at one point and we did something to mess it up. Then, what we naturally do is sabotage future relationships as a way of punishing ourselves. In my own life, when my brother passed away I felt a deep sense of guilt because I thought there were so many things that I could have done to change the outcome. Because I couldn’t do anything about it and I did not forgive myself, I punished myself unconsciously by not eating, sleeping, or taking care of myself. I developed ulcers, high blood pressure, and other medical problems. Fortunately, when I came to a place of true forgiveness all my medical issues went away, since I no longer had a need to punish myself.
If you feel you are suffering due to an inability to forgive yourself, first ask yourself if there is anything you can do to right your wrong. Often, expressing an apology in any form will help you release yourself from your prison. A person does not have to offer forgiveness in response to your apology.
You hold the key to your prison, not him or her.
Do everything you can, and then let it go. If there is nothing you can do to make it better, you gain nothing by living in guilt and regret. If there is a lesson to be learned from the experience, consciously acknowledge the lesson and implement it into your life. Remember that all humans make mistakes and it does not make you a bad person. Also, accept that everyone experiences lessons in life that are crucial for growth. Any “wrong” that you experience was obviously a lesson for you and was most certainly a lesson for the other person(s) as well.
Effects of Non-forgiveness:
Non-forgiveness is like having a resentment virus that slowly eats away at our core, desires, belief systems, and our ability to love. This virus affects every aspect of our lives, including career opportunities, relationships, and even our mental and physical health. In fact, people that have problems with forgiveness tend to have more physical maladies such as high blood pressure, migraines, anxiety, and even heart disease, to name a few.
It’s believed that about 80 percent of illness can be cured or changed mentally, and forgiveness is a major part of this process.
For example, I once new a couple that had marital issues that were, in part, due to the husband’s resentment of his brother. Several years back he had loaned his brother one thousand dollars with the understanding that he would be paid back in a couple of months. Unfortunately, his brother did not pay him back. This made him bitter and the effects where clearly seen in his relationship with others, including his wife and coworkers. The mistrust caused by one thousand dollars was going to cost him his marriage and several promotions at work.
Don’t let resentment hold you back. What person is worth sacrificing your happiness or success for? No one! The following activity will help you let go.
Steps to Forgiveness:
Write it down: Make a list of people you need to forgive and what you want to forgive them for. Include what you need to forgive yourself for.
Reflect: Acknowledge the pain that the lack of forgiveness (on your part) has caused you and how it currently impacts your life. Is it more painful than the actual experience?
Apologize: Express your apology through a letter, email, phone call, or in person. (Remember not to be attached to the results since this is about you, not them. Do not expect to be forgiven.) In the event it is not possible or appropriate to communicate to the person, write a letter expressing the grievance and use it as a symbol of expression for yourself. You can even burn it as a way of releasing it.
Express grievances: If there are items on your forgiveness list that you have never addressed with the person, approach them about it. There may be a misunderstanding behind the situation, or you may receive an apology. (Again, do not be attached to the outcome. Express yourself for its own sake.) As with apologizing, even if you cannot express the grievance directly, do something symbolic for yourself.
Learn the lessons: What are some things that you can learn from the situation? Are there any positives that have or can come out of it? What lessons could the other person(s) have learned?
Let go: Release any expectations from anyone else. This includes expectations of forgiveness or apologies from others or changes in others’ behaviors. Release the feelings of needing something in return. You don’t need anything.
Forgiving doesn’t mean accepting unacceptable behavior, but if the person does not change it is your responsibility to do what’s right for you, even if it means cutting ties with the person.
Reprogram your mind: Create an action plan for how to shift your resentful thoughts when negative feelings come up. Even once you forgive, old mental patterns may be re-triggered. Write yourself a reminder in chase you forget what it feels like to have forgiven this particular situation. Write down what it feels like, how the burden was harming you before, and how much better you feel. This way, should you ever get “triggered” back to the resentful feelings, you can more easily forgive again.
Forgiveness is a process, not a one-time event.
Live and be free! Forgiveness is about personal power. A life well lived is your best revenge; therefore take your power back and focus on your desires. Don’t do it because, “You’ll show them,” do it because you want to live your life with freedom and passion.
Forgiveness is often an opportunity to learn, grow, and heal. We may even find that the negative experiences were blessings in disguise if we can create a space for forgiveness and acceptance in our hearts. Remember forgiveness is 100 percent your responsibility. Only you can unlock the door to your prison and shift your life from limitation to freedom.
Joeel A. Rivera, M.Ed.