Forgiveness: A Closer Look
Were you bullied for being gay as a child and it’s still impacts you as an adult? Has your partner cheated on you? Has your best friend forgotten your birthday? Did you hear things in the heat of a fight that you just can’t seem to get out of your head? The answer is probably yes. And, for most of us, these transgressions are really, really difficult to forgive.
We are all fallible humans, so the hurt we cause one another is inevitable. The legendary porcupine story captures this well. The story goes that it was a brutal winter (Feeling familiar already, Chicagoans?). Many of the porcupines were freezing to death because of the harsh cold. The porcupines started to come together to consider ways to survive; and when they did, they noticed that their mere proximity provided the warmth they needed to survive. They needed one another. But, there was a problem.
As they huddled together, their quills began to poke one another. Sometimes these pokes were intentional, but most of the time they were simply an unintentional byproduct of having quills. The pokes were irritating and hurt. So, some of the porcupines decided to avoid the pain and leave the group. This caused them to freeze to death. Other porcupines realized that, if they could learn to tolerate the pain of the quill pokes, they could survive. The porcupines have a lot to teach us!
In my practice as a Lakeview psychologist, I frequently meet people who are struggling to forgive. This lack of forgiveness can lead to depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and general stress. Forgiveness is hard! But, that doesn’t mean we have to live forever with anger, resentment, and pain from past transgressions. Unfortunately, it’s all too common that we do.
If you’d like to free yourself from the burden of anger and resentment, consider this exercise.
Forgiveness occurs in stages, like grief. Take yourself through each of these stages, revisiting them if helpful!
Stage 1 – Identify the perpetrator and the transgression. You can’t begin to forgive until you know who has hurt you and exactly what about their actions hurts. Consider writing the story or series of events out on paper. Then, read what you’ve written and pay attention to who affected you negatively and the specific behaviors that have been physically, emotionally, or spiritually damaging to you.
Stage 2 – Emotional processing. What exactly are you feeling? Use emotional labels to describe what you’re feeling. Try to pay attention to identifying thoughts about the situation instead of feelings. Re-attend to the feelings. It can be helpful to use a list of emotions and even notice physical sensations in your body to more accurately identify your feelings.
Then, allow yourself to experience and process the emotions. If it is safe to do so, speak with the person that hurt you about the adverse effects that you experience because of their behavior. If it isn’t safe to do so, consider processing your emotions with a trained therapist. With your therapist, you can use various CBT, Adlerian, and other techniques (such as role playing, exposure in your imagination, an “empty chair” technique, and others) to experience and process the feelings.
Stage 3 – Set clear boundaries. Consider what your limits are with your perpetrator. Sometimes people hurt us in ways that require an absolute boundary in which you refuse contact with the person. Sometimes the boundaries can be more subtle, such as not disclosing as much personal information to the person.
Remember that you have a right to protect yourself. Practice setting the boundaries in your head, so that you build competence to keep yourself physically and emotionally safe in the future.
Stage 4 – Commit to forgiveness. This step is often the most difficult, so don’t be surprised if it’s tough for you. It’s valuable to frequently remind yourself that your forgiveness doesn’t have to be for the benefit of the person that hurt you; it’s for you! You are the one being freed from the emotional burdens of anger and resentment and, possibly, anxiety and depression. Consider reframing your forgiveness as an act of care for yourself.
In our Chicago psychotherapy practice, therapists often use a metaphor to represent the power exchange in forgiving or not forgiving. When you refuse to forgive, you have passed the metaphorical “power ball” to the person or behavior that hurt you. When you forgive, you hold the “power ball.”
Stage 5 – Integrate. Allow yourself to fully accept the wrongdoing and forgive. Focus on building a meaningful life for yourself, despite transgressions having been committed against you.
Don’t forget the lessons from the porcupines – we need each other; we will inevitably hurt one another; learning forgiveness allows us to free ourselves from burdens and take the power back from those that have hurt us.