Mark Twain wrote that forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it. While this is an achingly beautiful description, the reality is that for many, reaching any form of forgiveness can seem as impossible to reach as the stars.
Hurt can run very deep when it is perceived that a loved one has let you down or has carried out an offence that leaves you feeling betrayed and wounded. When we hold on to this hurt, we can become emotionally blocked and our relationships can suffer. Harbouring the anger and resentment can lead the body to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. Then, whenever the person or the offence comes to mind, a stream of these chemicals can be triggered, leading to stress and anxiety, blocking creativity and problem-solving.
Relationships are hard to do at the best of times, but right now, as the Coronavirus is leading to massive changes in the way we live our lives, taking loved ones from us and placing us all under unprecedented stress and anxiety; the act of being able to let the hurt go and forgive may be something we will all have to battle with.
Studies have shown that an act of forgiveness can elevate mood, enhance optimism as well as guarding against anger, stress, anxiety and depression. It can also help in the recovery of those suffering from PTSD.
If it is so good for us, why then do we find it so difficult to do?
An extreme hurt or attachment injury can create a well of resentment that can linger for years, even though we may tell ourselves we have moved on and forgotten about it. Holding onto this resentment becomes almost a form of comfort and yet it stands between us and our ability to move on. This can be particularly destructive in our relationships with loved ones.
There is a lot of advice out there on how to forgive and let go of resentment. My years working as a Relationship Therapist have shown me that it takes time, sometimes a lot of time, alongside a degree of soul searching. In relationships the hurt is often linked to breaches of trust. Trust is almost ethereal; it is difficult to define and often we are not even aware we have it until it has gone. If not worked through at the time, the resentment builds and can be carried round like a heavy load. The language used to describe these hurts, or attachment injuries is usually very powerful and can colour the whole relationship, words like never, and always will pepper the conversation.
Releasing resentment involves reflecting on why the person may have committed the offence, it will need you to ‘step into their shoes’ to try to understand what might have been going on for them. Psychologist Robert Enright has studied forgiveness for over 30 years, and he says that alongside this you also need to face your own anger; in particular, whether you have attempted to address or avoid it.
Accepting you are holding on to hurt and anger, and that doing so isn’t helpful, is an important step. Enright says you then need to cultivate forgiveness by developing compassion for the other. Reflect on whether the act was malicious or just down to circumstances in their life. The decision to forgive an infidelity, for example, is deeply personal. In order to move on, both of you may need to be honest and open about your relationship to understand why the affair happened and, if necessary, address any underlying problems.
Forgiving another person is one thing, but what happens when we are to blame?
It is important to take responsibility for our own mistakes, but intense guilt and shame can be counterproductive. The process of self-forgiveness can be a painful challenge, especially if you have caused hurt to another, but deeply valuable. The key is to own up to one’s mistakes, understand them and why they occurred and then try to rectify them. By understanding why and how something has happened, you can then avoid doing it again. Once you have done these things, it is time to forgive yourself.
Mistakes often become attached to core beliefs we have about ourselves, such as I always say the wrong thing, or I never get it right. Self-forgiveness requires these beliefs to be identified and addressed first. If you feel you’ve done everything you can to fix the hurt, but you continue to beat yourself up, try a technique called ‘self-distancing’. Switch your internal dialogue from first person to third person and consider how someone on the outside would view the situation. This technique can help cultivate self-compassion and silence the inner critic.
Should we always forgive?
Whether you’re someone of faith or not, the book of Ephesians (4:2) in the Bible has some wise advice and encourages us to always be humble and gentle. To be patient with each other, making allowances for each other’s faults because of love. No act should be considered off-limits for forgiveness. There are many examples of people who have forgiven others for horrendous crimes.
It is worth remembering though that the release of resentment, anger or hurt doesn’t always suggest, or mean you have to accept harmful behaviours. Ultimately though, if forgiving instils peace or healing and allows you to let go of the heavy emotional load you are carrying, then it is probably worth doing.