Forgiveness: How to Let Go of Your Painful Past
“Forgiving is not about forgetting, it’s letting go of hurt” — Mary McLeod Bethune
You are not alone in the struggle
I bet you’ve been hurt really bad at some point in your life. So bad that you find it difficult to forgive. You are struggling with letting go of the painful feelings. You want to escape from the hatred, the anger and the resentment that is causing you so much pain, yet you just can’t let go. You are not alone.
I too, just like you and many others, have been hurt and never wanted to forgive. Yet I knew that letting go would restore my sanity, cool the fiery furnace in my heart. It’s not been easy, but I have learned the skill of true forgiveness. And I have seen others forgive and let go of the pain. And I have helped a number of those on their way to forgiving themselves and the people that hurt them.
Do you relate to any of the four questions below?
1. Are you tired of suffering from the burden of emotional pain?
2. Do you need to move on with your life? Let go of a painful past?
3. Do you want to reduce your stress?
4. Do you want to improve your health?
If you do, I want to show you how to let go of the resentment. I want to show you what neuroscience has learned about the benefits of forgiveness to your health. I want to share with you what I have learned about forgiveness from psychotherapy and neuroscience that will set you on the path to becoming whole again.
You deserve to be happy. You deserve to be healthy. You deserve to move on with your life. You are an okay human being — there’s nothing wrong with you. Because another human being rejected you or treated you badly does not mean that you are inferior or defective. Because you make mistakes does not make you defective. When you learn to forgive, you will learn to love your perfect imperfections; you will learn that your worth does not depend on how others think about you or treat you.
A Rare Insight into the Anatomy of Forgiveness
When you hold resentment for a long time, it’s bad for your health. Resentment, anger and hostility are common negative emotions held on to when you are struggling to forgive. When you express these negative emotional states over a long period of time your health is affected.
Unhealthy negative emotions affect your wellbeing in the following ways:
· Decreased quality of life (both physically and mentally)
On the other hand, the benefits of forgiveness include not only positive emotional health but numerous physical and social benefits like lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and decreased alcohol use.
When you fail to forgive you hold on to unhealthy negative emotions whose physiological expression in your body results in poor physical and mental health. When you hold in the resentment, anger and hostility you inadvertently fail to take advantage of your brain to adaptively regulate negative emotions.
What I am trying to say here is that your brain can help you rise from a state of pain to a state of relief. Your brain has an in-built control centre to help you regulate unhealthy negative emotions. This control centre is made up of a brain network that enables you to use cognitive strategies to regulate emotions.
The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is part of this brain network. Neural activation of your DLPFC is necessary if you are to stop suffering from the pain of a hurtful event suffered in your life. You can use cognitive strategies to finally let go of the hurt.
Before exploring forgiveness strategies it’s important to define what forgiveness means. Having clarity on the meaning of forgiveness will lead you to:
· Commit to the path of forgiveness. You struggle with letting go of the pain because of a lack of clarity on what forgiveness means.
· Develop healthy conflict about your interpretation of the hurtful event. You will be able to challenge and discard the notion that you are not a good enough human being. You will be able to develop unconditional love and self-understanding.
· Think creatively and develop new adaptive ways to deal with your emotions.
Understanding the Meaning of Forgiveness … (and What Its Not)
To forgive is to stop being a victim of past hurt by committing to a transformative process in which you change the feelings and attitudes about the wrong done to you, so that you let go of painful negative emotions, while wishing the offender well.
To commit successfully to the transformative process of forgiving, you have to understand what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is NOT:
· About what you say. It’s not a matter of saying “I forgive”. Forgiveness is about what is in your heart. The resentment and anger you carry is deep within you, and to forgive means cleaning it out of your heart and replacing it with emotional healing and acceptance. Forgiveness is therefore not a superficial act; it’s deep stuff of the heart and mind.
· About you. Yes, forgiveness is not about you. Forgiveness is about compassion and humanity — characteristics of a social worldview of “togetherness” (instead of “separateness”). Because of your hurt you feel vulnerable or helpless, which makes you view the world and the self in a negative light.
Yet modern neuroscience shows that living by a “togetherness” worldview promotes effective emotional regulation and optimal health [see, for example, these studies from polyvagal theory or attachment theory]. Forgiveness not only heals your emotional wounds but gets “the self” reconnected to “the world” in a constructive way.
· About Holding on To Unrealistic Expectations. This is one reason that could make it difficult for you to forgive. When you hold on to unrealistic expectations of self and others it becomes difficult for your pain to go away (see this article for elaboration of this point).
The process of forgiveness is about looking at yourself in the mirror and accepting your mistakes while at the same time acknowledging the good in the person who hurt you. Forgiveness is about living successfully in an unfair world.
· About Magic Pills. There is no quick formula to forgiveness. The process of forgiveness, like most personal development processes, is one of reflection, understanding and refining. Forgiveness calls for your active participation in a steady but rewarding process.
You now have insight into the anatomy of forgiveness. And you understand what forgiveness is and what it’s not. I bet you are now asking: “But how do I forgive?” “What are the first steps on my journey to healing?”
The Journey to Forgiveness Starts With 5 Steps
I will now share with you the secret to emotional healing. The road to forgiveness starts with five steps. These are:
1. Story Telling
2. Emotional Acceptance
3. Inference Checking
4. Negative belief Identification
STEP 1: STORY TELLING
Narrate your story from your point of view
a) Go to a quiet place. Write down your story of pain. What happened to you? What did the other person/situation do to you? Don’t edit your story. Tell it as it is. Tell it as you would to a friend who is willing to listen to you without judgement.
b) After your story is done, talk to the person who was unfair to you. You are still sitting alone in your quiet place and imagining that the other person is sitting here with you now. Talk to him/her. Tell the person why you are upset with them. Don’t hold anything back. Write this down.
c) Continue talking to this person. Tell them how you are feeling because of what they are doing/what they did. Write this down. Again, don’t hold anything back. Tell them everything, even when you think it’s “evil”.
STEP 2: EMOTIONAL ACCEPTANCE
Accept the feelings/emotions that come up
a) Narrating your story and talking to the other person is going to arouse strong negative feelings in you. Now is the time to recognize your feelings. Whatever your feelings or emotions are at this time — accept them. Do not — I repeat, do not — judge your feelings. Irrespective of what society might say about some of your feelings/emotions being inappropriate, do not believe this. Your feelings are legitimate. Your feelings are part and parcel of being human. You are entitled to your feelings. Do not feel guilty about having your feelings. It’s true that they may be uncomfortable, but do not feel guilty about them.
b) Accept your feelings. Own up to them and acknowledge that no one can decide how you feel. Acknowledge that you and only you can decide how you feel.
c) Acknowledge that your feelings are the result of how you uniquely interpret the situation.
STEP 3: INFERENCE CHECKING
Examine the inferences you made about the event/s
a) You have told your story. You have accepted your feelings. Now become a fly on the wall.
b) Still in your quiet place, sit down and write down the story from a new perspective. Imagine a fly on the wall. The fly is an uninterested observer of what is happening between you and the person who hurt you.
c) Now imagine you are that fly. Write down the story from the point of view of the fly. Write down only the facts of the story — no interpretations, no emotions. Just plain facts of what happened.
STEP 4: NEGATIVE BELIEF IDENTIFICATION
Identify the negative beliefs about yourself that crop up in the inferences
a) When you are done writing the fly on the wall story compare it to your original story. What do you notice? What new insights do you get about the situation?
b) Underline the negative interpretations that you made about the situation in your original story. These are the negative beliefs you have about yourself. (For example: if you wrote in your original story that “she doesn’t love me” then the negative belief you have about yourself is “I am unlovable”. If you wrote “He thinks I am not worthy” the negative belief is “I am a worthless person”; etc)
STEP 5: REFRAMING
a) You have listed down all instances of negative beliefs from your original story.
b) Affirm to yourself that you are human and that means being imperfect.
c) Affirm to yourself that being imperfect does not mean that you are a lesser human being.
d) For each negative belief you have listed affirm the opposite (for example, if you listed “I am unlovable” dispute this belief and affirm to yourself that “I am lovable”).
e) How do you feel now?
If you are struggling with a clinical mental health condition (e.g. depression or PTSD), the information in this article is not advice and should not be treated as such. Please seek appropriate assessment for your own situation.