Forgiving someone who has wronged or disappointed you can be incredibly difficult. Forgiving yourself? Even harder. But it’s essential to learn how to do it.
Research shows that clinging to bitter, resentful feelings about past events has a negative impact on your health, while letting go creates a number of health benefits. (As just one example: People who learn how to forgive unconditionally tend to have longer life spans than people who don’t. Unable to forgive? You could literally be shortening your life.)
It’s always the “right time” to let go, lighten your emotional load and move on. I noticed on a “special events” list that June 26 was Forgiveness Day. Maybe I’ll mark it in my calendar next year, but until then, here are three important lessons on forgiveness:
1. Remember that forgiving doesn’t mean “it’s totally cool if this happens again.”
You can forgive a partner for cheating on you, for example, while still making it clear that this behavior is not acceptable. You can forgive yourself for missing a deadline at work, while simultaneously taking action to make sure that you get back on track.
Many people are unwilling to forgive because they think that “forgiveness” is like issuing a free punch card to engage in inappropriate behavior again … and again … and again. It’s not.
Forgiveness means that you are choosing to let go of negative emotions that are burdening you, because you recognize that carrying this emotional weight is unhealthy and unhelpful. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean “This can happen again.”
2. Remember that forgiving is a process, not a one-time deal.
If someone has hurt you, deeply, it’s unlikely that you will mull it over for five minutes and poof! You’re over it.
Think of it like carrying around a backpack full of heavy, unnecessary items. You might be able to unload a few items today, a few more tomorrow, a few more next week.
To accelerate the “unloading process,” try a forgiveness meditation, work with a psychologist, punch a pillow and cry, write a forgiveness letter (you don’t necessarily have to send it) or get inspired by true stories of incredible forgiveness and compassion.
Keep unloading, little by little, as best you can. You will feel progressively lighter and freer, and eventually, your backpack will be empty again.
3. Remember that forgiving is a gift from yourself, to yourself.
Many people think, “Why should I forgive so-and-so for such-and-such? They don’t deserve my forgiveness!”
But what the other person “deserves” or “doesn’t deserve” is irrelevant. Forgiveness is a gift from yourself, to yourself.
When you forgive, you are choosing to engage in an act of courage and self-care that decreases your stress hormones, lowers your blood pressure, improves your immune system and lengthens your life. YOU deserve that.
Forgiveness is not always easy.
The greater the injustice, the more difficult it tends to be.
After all, it’s completely reasonable to feel angry when somebody does something hurtful or disrespectful. Especially if it’s a repeated offense. That is a natural human response.
But remember the wise words of the philosopher Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Everyone is dealing with “something.” Everyone is trying to make it through this complicated world. Nobody is perfect 100 percent of the time.
If you slip up, break a promise or let yourself down, do everything in your power to forgive, reset and move on.
The journey of life is already challenging enough without needing to load more weight onto your shoulders. You could be adding years to your life—beautiful, satisfying, healthy years. Years where your kids and loved ones will get to enjoy your company, simply by choosing to release emotions that don’t serve a long-term purpose.
Forgiveness is medicine. Take as much as you need.
Let go … and live well.
~ Dr. Sue