If you heard that it was possible to forgive someone in an instant and let go of long-held anger and resentment, you would probably be skeptical. It would be hard to believe because you’ve dealt with those feelings all of your life and you know how long they can linger. But what you may not realize is that there are reliable, predictable and teachable components to the forgiveness process–and they have nothing to do with the person who hurt you. They’re all about you and the story you tell yourself.
Let’s try an experiment. Think of two people in your life: Someone who made you angry but you’ve since forgiven and still like and someone who has hurt you that you don’t like and haven’t forgiven. After identifying these two people, think of them at the same time. As you see them in your mind’s eye, notice how you represent them differently.
First, look at your mental pictures. One image might be larger, brighter, farther away, or in a different location, etc.
Second, take note of any sounds associated with these two people. Are there voices with one image and not with the other? Do you notice a difference in volume or quality of sound?
Lastly, notice the differences in your feelings as you think about these two people. Do you have a hot or cold sensation with one or both of them? Do you notice a smoothness or roughness associated with either person?
After you have made a mental note of the differences in how you represent each person, swap the locations and pictures of these two people and notice how your feelings change in response to this.
People who have done the above experiment often report feeling uncomfortable, unsafe and want to rearrange the images and sounds back to their original locations. The reasons for this response are the same reasons people find it difficult to forgive quickly. You have legitimate objections that must be satisfied before you would be willing to forgive the offending person and you would need to feel safe and comfortable with your decision to forgive.
Here are some common objections to forgiving others and a “hack” to get around them.
They don’t deserve to be forgiven! This may be true but forgiveness is not for the other person, it’s for you, so that you can live in your body comfortably and according to your highest values.
Revenge is sweet! Some people feel that when they get hurt they become less of who they once were. It’s assumed that getting even will build them back up again, both in their eyes and the eyes of their friends and family. Simply put, people want revenge so they can feel good about themselves again. But getting even every time someone hurts you keeps you enslaved to other people’s whims and bad behaviors. There are many more powerful ways of feeling good about yourself that’s not dependent on hurting other people who’ve hurt you.
I can’t forgive or I’ll be unsafe. Forgive and remember. Remember what happened to you, so that you remain alert to similar situations in the future in order to keep yourself safe. Instead of feeling angry and resentful, forgive the person so that you can focus on being strong and staying in touch with your choices and resources.
Forgiving them means giving permission to keep doing it. Yes, the offender needs to know what they did was wrong. That message needs to be clear but anger tends to muddy that message. When we speak with anger, the other person we’re trying to relay the message to becomes defensive and stops listening. Being able to communicate calmly and effectively puts you in the driver’s seat, enabling you to deliver a powerful message.
After dealing with your objections to forgiving someone who hurt you, try swapping the mental images of the two people again. How do you feel about the person who hurt you this time? If something still isn’t quite right, you may have more objections that need to be dealt with.
Feelings like anger and resentment become our allies when we pay attention to the message they are sending us; to value ourselves by stopping mistreatment and setting clear boundaries. Once we realize that forgiving others really depends on satisfying our objections, we can easily and safely let go of the “negative” emotions and realign with our values and resources.