I want to start out by having you think of the most recent time you forgave someone, or someone forgave you. Maybe it was fairly recent. Briefly reflect on how you felt after the forgiveness was given, by you or someone else.
Maybe someone bumped into you, a classmate said something unkind, your sibling took something of yours without asking, you and your mom got into an argument, or something else that left you feeling hurt or wronged.
When I was younger, I was taught to “forgive and forget.” When someone apologized to me, I’d respond with, “It’s okay,” or “It’s fine,” and was expected to move on. But there’s a lot more to forgiveness — let’s explore it.
Forgiveness by definition is “to cease to feel resentment,” meaning, to stop holding a grudge toward someone.
Imagine it like this: have you ever had to carry or pull something really heavy? When someone does something hurtful, or offends you, or wrongs you in some way, it’s like a big rock is placed in your hands and you have to drag it along with you, carrying the weight of it as you process what happened. And when you feel ready to, you decide to stop holding on to the rock, you put it down, and you let it go.
Forgiveness isn’t as simple as just dropping the rock and moving on. Putting down the rock so you can let it go may involve mentally bending in ways you haven’t before, it might cause some strain or pain, and it might take longer or happen slower than you’d like. But you’ll be better off in the long run.
Now, you’re not required to forgive everyone. Sometimes it feels more convenient or easy to hang on to a grudge and keep holding that rock. Researchers at Macquarie University in Australia actually studied this, and found that people hold on to resentment instead working toward forgiveness because that process requires facing the hurt within yourself, and that takes more effort and discomfort. But the long-term benefits of forgiveness (which have also been studied) are worth it, and include improved physical and mental health, better relationships, healthier coping strategies, and less anxiety and hurt.
Dr. Fred Luskin is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, and has studied forgiveness for decades. He identified stages of and steps to forgiveness, so I wanted to share some of his ideas with you.
The first step is to be mindful about how you feel, naming the emotions you have about what happened — anger, sadness, betrayal, misunderstood. Even if it was an accident or the other person wasn’t trying to offend you, their intentions don’t erase your emotions. You don’t have to respond with, “It’s okay,” or “It’s fine,” when you’re really not okay. Consider talking to someone you trust about what’s going on/wrong. Assert yourself and use “I” statements to express your feelings: “I feel ____ when _____ happens,” ie. “when I am left out,” or “when I am disrespected.” Saying it out loud may help you better-identify your feelings.
These negative feelings don’t feel so good. You can’t force people to apologize or change their behavior, and expecting them to may result in resentment. Placing blame, taking offense, plotting revenge, or dwelling on your hurt — all of that will only make the rock heavier and prevent you from finding that peace.
The more you think about all the negative stuff, the more space those thoughts occupy in your head and the more time you spend replaying in your mind what happened instead of finding peace for your thoughts.
So try to accept the things that aren’t in your control and recognize the things that are in your control (we discussed that in episode 002). You can control your response, your actions, your decisions, your behavior, how you treat others, your thoughts, and your perspective.
Remember the positive things, like good feelings and relationships, in your life — the things that are going right. And that includes the person involved — you may even remember some positive things about them and happy memories you shared. Get yourself into a better headspace to process what happened. If you feel like that relationship is worth repairing, think about how you can let go of your grudge or put down that rock.
When you are ready to forgive someone, remember that forgiveness isn’t about being right, nor is it forgiving with conditions, like, “I’ll only forgive you if you ___” or, “You have to promise to never do it again.” If their behavior was wrong and does continue though, you can forgive them and take some time off from them for a little while (or longer).
There may be times forgiveness involves not working things out with the other person, or not allowing what happened to continue. Also, you can forgive someone and they can still get in trouble for what they did.
Forgiveness isn’t making the person involved feel better about what happened nor is it eliminating consequences; forgiveness is to help you feel better. Boundaries are important and they will give you space to heal.
Many years ago my dad gave me very wise counsel: “Always assume the best intentions of others.” He wanted me to understand that jumping to conclusions about someone’s motives isn’t helpful, and may cause unnecessary hurt between me and someone else. When someone behaved some way or didn’t respond to me or didn’t participate, more often than not, my initial assumptions about them were wrong. I learned to take offense less and try to understand more. I truly believe that most people don’t start their day intending to hurt others, and when they do something unkind, it has more to do with what’s going on in their own lives than throwing a wrench into yours. That’s not to excuse someone’s behavior, but understanding that will give you a broader perspective and allow you space to see the situation more clearly as you work toward forgiveness. Especially with your closest relationships, your family members and friends, a misunderstanding isn’t worth ruining a strong relationship. Mend things if possible, or move on, whichever is best for your peace.
Now, one last thing: what if you’re the one who made a mistake or did something hurtful? Remember to be humble enough to admit you did something wrong, apologize sincerely, and commit to making better choices. Forgiving yourself is important, too. Don’t wallow in your negative emotions for too long. Feeling remorse for what you did means you want to change, so try to make things right and renew your commitment to doing better.
We covered a lot of tools because forgiveness can be quite involved. If I had to sum it up … the process may be uncomfortable, may take longer than you’d like, but remember:
To help you remember all this, I created a “Forgiveness” poster for you to print out, personalize, and post on your wall where you’ll see it, remember it, practice it, and believe it — that’s the important part.
A few books that illustrate this are:
Draw the Line, by Kathryn Otoshi
Charlie and Lola: I am EXTREMELY absolutely boiling, by Lauren Child
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
11 Birthdays, by Wendy Mass
Movies that explore this are Disney’s live action “Cinderella,” “The Tale of Despereaux,” and “Wreck-it Ralph.”
If you have favorite books or movies to add, I’d love to hear from you! Ask your parent’s permission to share your favs by sending an email to [email protected].