Nelson Mandela once said, “Resentment is like taking poison and then hoping your enemies will die.” This, from a man whose enemies imprisoned him for a good share of his life. If ever a person had the opportunity to learn about resentment and forgiveness, he did. And, apparently he learned that hatred, bitterness and harboring resentment (not forgiving) creates far more pain in us than it inflicts on the person or people who harmed us. Most of us can readily acknowledge the intuitive truth of this. We know that harboring bitterness toward another person causes us pain and suffering. Yet, even when we understand the cost to our own well-being, the process of forgiveness can be difficult and confusing.
What keeps us from forgiving? It is often false beliefs about why to forgive and how to go about it. Here are some examples of ideas that can get in the way.
They don’t deserve it: Forgiveness has nothing to do with the person who wronged us and everything to do with our mental health and ability to move forward in our life. When we forgive we can move on. When we forgive we stop spending mental and emotional energy thinking about, reliving, plotting revenge or building walls of protection. Forgiveness frees us. It is for us. Artist and writer, C.R. Strahan puts it this way, “Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim–letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.”
Forgive and forget: Forgiveness does not mean forgetting what the person has done, or even resuming a trusting relationship with them. There are many instances when to do so would be detrimental to our lives or the lives of those we love and care about. For example, a woman might forgive the step-father who sexually abused her in childhood, but would also need to protect her own children from contact with him. In other circumstances we may be able to forgive and over time rebuild trust and relationship, but it is not required.
I tried and failed: Forgiveness is usually a process that takes time. It often begins with a decision to let go of the pain and suffering caused by resentment, but that decision is rarely the end of it. Sadness, grief and anger may arise again and again. When they do we can feel those things rather than suppress them, and decide once more to forgive. We can recognize forgiveness as often more of a journey than a destination, and be gentle with ourselves as we travel along this difficult path.
Time heals all: Often we have trouble focusing on forgiveness because the wrongs done to us are painful to think and feel about, and so we avoid. We believe that burying memories will somehow bring about healing. Yet, research shows that submerging emotions causes them to increase in intensity. This is where a skilled therapist, loving and safe friend or clergy, or your own journal can offer assistance. Talk or write about what happened, how you feel and what you think. Let yourself grieve. That is the first step towards forgiveness, healing and freedom.