Someone said to me years ago, it is impossible to be truly happy whilst you hold a grievance against another. Having grown up at a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were regularly in the news, I had from a young age thought about forgiveness, wondering how relatives were truly able to forgive the murderers of their loved ones. I had always questioned if I would be capable of this, and all those years ago I doubted it greatly.
Randy Taran, author and founder of ProjectHappiness.org, says that anger begets anger – and long-term anger damages us, not the person who we are angry with. Forgiveness sets us free. And research consistently suggests that with forgiveness comes higher self-esteem, lower anxiety, better moods, happier relationships and generally improved well-being.
This certainly has been my experience of forgiveness. I have been lucky enough to spend almost all of my life feeling like little forgiveness was needed in my close circle of friends, family and loved ones. But there came a time about 6 years ago when I felt with all my heart that I had been truly wronged; that the unkindness and injustice that I experienced could simply never be forgiven. Since anger of this type, resentment and such a deep feeling of dislike were alien emotions to me, I didn’t really know what to do with them. And the more I held on to them, the more I didn’t recognise myself, and the more they ate away at me. I found myself ruminating on these past injustices, playing them over and over again, to the detriment of me, and me only.
And what I can say without doubt is that my pain all came from how I was feeling about these past mistreatments (as I saw them), as opposed to any current hurt. It was as if I was creating my own prison of anger around me, which had zero benefits at all.
Alexandra Asseily says: “Forgiveness allows us to let go of the pain in the memory and if we let go of the pain in the memory we can have the memory but it does not control us. When memory controls us we are then the puppets of the past.”
But how do you forgive? I wanted to, I really did, but I couldn’t work out whether it was my head or my heart, or my damaged ego that was holding me back. Whatever it was, forgiveness simply didn’t seem like an option. It was clearly the best route, but I didn’t know how.
Randy Taran says, “Forgiveness is about you and your healing, not about the person who hurt you”.
It’s not about excusing the other person’s behaviour, condoning it, or denying your own hurt. It’s about changing your outlook, making a decision that the blame or hurt will not dominate you any more. You do not have to reconcile with someone who hurt you. And the process of forgiveness takes time and should only be initiated when you feel ready and have had time to grieve the wrong that was done to you.
Professor Robert Enright has researched forgiveness and has developed a model for how to forgive. He says we need to confront the injustice, look at the consequences of it and then make a decision to commit to forgiveness. We can try to understand why that person did such a thing (without condoning it), and we can try to feel compassion towards that person. We need to work on forgiveness and then deepen our forgiveness so that it can finally, after time, give us release from the bitterness and anger.
For me, I tried a number of paths but struggled to truly, wholeheartedly let go. I think what finally did it (and it was gradual) was shifting my focus away from anger towards love. As slushy as it may sound, the more I filled my life with kindness, love, gratitude and giving, the more it seemed to wash away the negativity. I also think I needed to forgive myself too. That was a big part. I didn’t like the angry person I had become, I didn’t like the resentment that had built up in me, and I didn’t want to be defined by past. So I finally forgave myself too. And forgiveness quite literally set me free.
For a detailed explanation of a number of paths to forgiveness, including that of Professor Enright, as well as further research in this area please click here.