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How to Forgive and Forget: Emotional Rescue From Pain to Peace

Updated on June 28, 2017

Talking Therapy - Forgiveness

Forgiveness can mean going back to things you used to enjoy together - a healing chat over coffee.
Forgiveness can mean going back to things you used to enjoy together - a healing chat over coffee.

Forgive and Forget - But How Many Times?

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,-
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.”
William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing

Forgive and forget - Before it's too late!

Forgiveness is central to our healing process after a period of hurt, shock or disappointment. Many folks think forgiveness is almost impossible. But is it? Often, people hurt each other, sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. Yet victims of hurtful actions often struggle to understand how they can possibly forgive a person who has caused them physical, psychological or emotional pain. The idea of ‘forgive and forget’ is too much of an ‘ask’ for some folks. So how can we educate people in the art of forgiving?

The meaning of forgiveness

In discussing forgiveness, it’s interesting that Enright and Fitzgibbons in 2000 said that folks will use their sense of reason first, in trying to decide if they’ve been treated unfairly. Once they’ve done that, the idea of ‘forgiveness’ depends on them making a deliberate decision to give up grudges, feuds and other kinds of resentment - and crucially - to change their attitude to the perceived wrong-doer. If these folks try to respond to the perceived hurter with kindness that doesn't seem deserved, then that act can be transformational. If a person responds to hurt with kindness, good deeds and compassion (which others think they don’t deserve) then Enright and Fitzgibbon judge true ‘forgiveness’ to have taken place.

'Forgive them even if they are not sorry.'

Mark 11:25

It’s worth remembering too, that the person they need to forgive could be themselves! Folks often struggle on, on their own and beat up on themselves about things they did years before. Yet, with the right counseling they can reach acceptance and understand that much has changed for them, and in society. It may be that one whole episode spranf from a misunderstanding with a friend. In this case, a little relationship counseling might be all that’s needed. ‘Clear understandings make long friendships’ and folks can be shown how clear communication can be worked on so that they learn about the events that led to the misunderstanding in the first place. Self-forgiveness can eventually be reached once issues like taking responsibility, acceptance and final closure have resulted in the forgiveness of self.

So how can we educate people in the art of forgiving? How can we help them to explore the possibilities of self-forgiveness? Well, sometimes therapy is the wisest way forward. People will often fix upon one they can’t forgive, such as infidelity or risking a child’s happiness. They can be shown to respond positively, rather than negatively and to react more with their clear head than hot heart.

Forgiveness and therapy

Sometimes a counselor can take the hurting person through many challenging obstacles along the way. People go through many emotions at the beginning of their forgiveness journey, for example, they may be trying to forgive the infidelity of another or may be trying to cope with self-forgiveness relating to their own behavior. In the first situation, the hurt person may be very angry and raw, wrongly surmising that expressing their vengeful hateful feelings will be good for them. Forgiving someone who has hurt you is a step too far when it's taken right at the beginning.

Therapy and self-help groups can offer support and education at this difficult time and can lead folks to a better path, showing them how destructive their first feelings can be. Helping people to see how to let go of their anger is an important part of group support sessions. It’s often achieved by explaining just how self-destructive angry feelings can be, and how they can end up hurting the victim even more. This helps them to overcome their fear of forgiving.

How to forgive and forget

So can the victim end up making things worse for themselves when they can’t forgive and forget? The answer to this lies in the area of energy. Being a hater takes work. A lot of work. The kind of frenzied intense work that runs down the batteries of our emotional reserves, takes our attention from our own wellbeing and quality of life in order to obsess totally over the concentration of bad feelings on another individual. When we are focused entirely on someone else, we aren’t looking after ourselves!

And that’s looking at the bright side, the side that imagines there is still a ‘significant other’ to focus the spitefulness at. If the person who did the hurting (the perceived perpetrator of the original hurt) isn’t around anymore or has made themselves unreachable, or wisely makes up their mind not to respond to cynical approaches from the ‘victim’, then the spite has nowhere to go. The pain and hurt and vindictive feelings can only go inside. The hater then has a problem. Anxiety, depression and mental ill health can result from burying bad feelings deep inside. Fixating on the small stuff rather than carefully addressing the big issues means people never have space to release.

Hurting and forgiving

So what can the hurt person do to try to avoid becoming a hater filled with psychologically unhealthy feelings - and become a 'healed forgiver' instead? The hater has three choices. Either be a self-saboteur and up the ‘anti’ to let an obsession develop in order to devote every available moment to hunt down the object of their hurt and retaliation, or to subconsciously or consciously self-harm. Self-harm can take many forms including the infliction of physical pain, alcoholism, substance misuse, risky behaviors, and suicide. Folks who are hurting will often engage in these harmful activities rather than trying to forgive the hurter or trying to forgive themselves. There are consequences to these actions. For example, a person who finds it impossible to forgive an infidelity and engages in non-stop sniping and cold responses could be throwing away the remnants of a relationship which could, in later life, bring security and warmth and companionship. This person is potentially harming their future and might want to consider trying to forgive.

The healing power of forgiveness

The second type of self-harm outcome can result in the hating and the wounding starting to turn inwards in the form of depression. Depression can take two forms, low mood or full blown clinical depression which is far more serious and can lead to a need for meds, and for the fortunate ones, therapy. Forgiveness counseling can help to empower people to forgive and forget but forgetting a hurt such as an infidelity (or another form of betrayal) can be a long process and needs commitment from the parties involved. Many won't be ready at first because the pain is still too raw. Some folks have a lot to get off their chests and there may be tears, recriminations and honest conversations to be had first. Some run away to stick their head in the sand, unable to engage in a therapeutic process which could truly help them. This is a shame because they are isolating themselves in an often lonely space and risking low mood or clinical depression.

Both forms of depression are damaging and both can creep up insidiously, starting with apathy or disinterest in the world, the immediate environment, friends and family, work and their own well-being. Friends may notice signs of a person 'letting themselves go' as they lose interest in personal presentation, hair styles, fashion or style. Concentration can be affected and diary entries and appointments may be completely forgotten. Some folks have sleep-disturbance and others feel so low and lethargic that they can't get out of bed. They nurse the grievance and hurt until it grows so dark and enormous that it fills their consciousness with poisonous negativity, they are unable to try to understand the issues or to start trying to forgive.

Both victims and hurters can suffer from an inability to forgive. The hurter, for example, may be unable to forgive himself for breaking up a happy and prosperous family unit and for letting down children, especially little ones. They may beat up on themselves over it, reliving their actions over and over. Some may even move on to other short, unsatisfying, unsuccessful relationships where they play out exactly the same issues as before, leading to exactly the same negative outcomes for all involved. They may feel a compulsion to repeat this cycle over and over with every new partner, acting out some long-forgotten trauma that has never been explored and resolved. Learning how to forgive yourself is hard and can bring your mood way, way down. It requires insight into one's own personality and issues to bring about understanding. Until this acceptance and closure take place, a person who finds it hard to forgive themselves or others may suffer from depression.

As low mood begins to suck the joy out of a sufferer’s life, they may lose more and more motivation until they get in a vicious spiral where things become so dysfunctional and bad that the person begins to suffer from anxiety, stress, and agoraphobia as they literally can't face situations in which they are now failing. They might not even be able to get up the motivation to take back control of their lives and work schedules, becoming disorganized, missing deadlines and dipping down on punctuality. They might even become physically unable to move as a deterioration in self-care has led to nutrition and appetite problems. They do not know how to let go of the anger that is making them sick inside.

Clinical depression has other foundations too, such as imbalances of chemicals, and this needs professional intervention in case self-forgiveness is not the only issue. For example, there may be a difficult forgiveness issue from way back in childhood which is causing trauma.

Forgiveness for early hurts

Sometimes the hurt may have occurred very early on in the sufferer's life but it seemed to have been successfully avoided for years whilst a good career and family were built. The person may have buried unforgiving feelings for a very long time, due to childhood episodes associated with guilt or failure. Possibly an absence of timely therapeutic support leading to a lack of understanding, acceptance, closure, and forgiveness at the right moment meant that pain was not properly processed. Consequently, the person is far more likely to be derailed by tricky events later in life as they have no emotional resilience. Self-forgiveness can't really happen without trained counselors helping to explore past issues. This can help both young and old. Young people can learn about the liberating states of understanding and forgiveness at their own level and pace.

Recrimination is sometimes inappropriate. Sometimes folks have to accept that a person who is moving on is simply getting on with their lives and leaving a situation that is holding both parties back. There may be no deliberate hurt intended, just a practical sense that things can never work out. The other partner may disagree and therefore feel pain where none was intended. Much can be achieved if the process of parting can be warm and positive, perhaps with an agreement to stay friends. Many people can't do this. They would rather hold on for grim life rather than face up to practicalities or emptiness. However, holding on to something that is finished is often harmful and can cause further pain, whereas emotional courage, understanding and perhaps forgiveness can offer well-being. Recrimination and guilt-tripping is not letting go and is a means of holding on to having that person in our lives come hell or high water because we have not reached acceptance that a person has gone forever out of our life, never to return.

The hurt person may desperately look around for retaining strategies, and pick all the wrong ones and chase the object of their attachment away. They may reach for button-pushing, character assassination or even physical attacks in an effort to punish a partner. Such retaliation may make the wronged or abandoned person think they feel better at first, imagining they have doled out some pain back in the other direction, and perceiving feelings of satisfaction as a useful outlet for their own grief and anger. Some folks may figure that keeping their partner around in some shape or form, for example as a target, is better than the utter desolation that no partner at all can bring.

So in a twisted kind of way, hating instead of trying to understand and forgive, is a desperate last ditch attempt to keep this person in mind, or even to make repeated attempts to negatively engage with the person. These attempts can include spying, stalking, looking for ways to undermine or sabotage the person's new life structures or relationships. Also whinging, incessant nagging for trivial help with perceived emergencies and manipulating child care are displays of non-forgiveness and imagined punishments. This makes the person who left feel bad, and in need of trained help to forgive themselves or families will suffer.

Self-forgiveness can't really happen without trained counselors helping to explore past issues. This can help both young and old. Young people can learn about the liberating states of understanding and forgiveness at their own level and pace. Just like adults, they will be helped to realise that holding on to something that is finished is often harmful and can cause further pain, and that procrastinating over coming to terms with past hurts only puts the final reckoning off until later when it may come at the wrong moment in a busy life, and cause far more damage than would have been the case earlier on. Teaching children to forgive and forget can be built into social skills activities at home and in school. Then they will have the skills they need when they grow up. By our example they can learn that if we can forgive from our hearts those who have wronged or failed us then our lives will be enriched, rather than diminished.

Sometimes we need space before we are ready to even consider the idea of forgiveness. In this case, the word 'space' is important because people lead such frenetically busy lives that significant underlying issues of a mild kind such as not calling elderly parents or consistently missing school parent evenings seem to need to be pushed aside 'for another day.' So when the issue is more complex and hard work than that (forgiving a perceived hurt or reconciling a long-running acrimonious feud) then forgiveness is even more likely to be pushed under the carpet of the conscious mind. When this happens, it is useful to suddenly take a rain check on ourselves. Sometimes a rain-check happens naturally during sudden or random events when we are forced to face up to the reality of the shortness of our precious lives and the tiny windows of opportunity we have to 'fix things.' Perhaps a much-loved colleague at work fails to show one day. A month later, staff get an invitation to the funeral. These events can cause us to force ourselves to stop, pull up short and take some time out to appraise our lives and well being. Previously we had thought work too important and ourselves too indispensable to take time out for a life laundry, but now we realize, perhaps, that we take the precious gift of life for granted and that every day is special. We realize that 'life's too short' to harbor grudges and refuse to forgive.

Sometimes we need a helpful structure to guide us in our 'time out.' For example, we can explore ways of taking a break which are packaged in a way which guides us to use the time productively. We could take a short solo holiday to concentrate on a particular issue such as reconciling with a dying parent or a relative who now has dementia. Or we could take a long overdue activity break as a couple in order to make an effort at forgiveness so that a marriage can be saved. Those with fewer funds available could consider a week at home re-discovering forgotten joys such as baking a true apple pie from scratch or planting out soft colorful summer flowers in the yard. This gives the necessary space and time for contemplative meditative new activities such as yoga or tai chi in order to review issues of a mild kind such as not calling elderly parents or consistently missing parents evenings, forgiving ourselves and resolving to do better in future.

Forgiving in time

A death or the sudden illness of a colleague or friend can remind us that life is short and is too unpredictable to allow past grudges and hurt to spoil what's left, either for ourselves or for other people. Trying to forgive and forget early on preserves the quality of life and invests it for later happiness. After all, if we harbor a secret plan to end a hostility and say sorry "one day' we may suddenly realize that we are not in control of that decision and that moment. Unexpected things happen and people die suddenly, or we ourselves may get bad news from the doctor's office. The opportunity 'to kiss and make up' may be suddenly snatched from us by random life events. How great would it be, in those circumstances, if we could turn back the clock and undo things? But at that point it may already be too late, the moment and the opportunity have gone forever. Instead, we could seize the chance ahead of the times that are surely coming and do something now? While we are still around to enjoy the result?

To forgive means letting go of the past so we can live in the present and look towards the future. To forgive means to acknowledge that we are growing humans ourselves who mistakenly take the wrong path at times through our fears and ignorance. To forgive can also be an acknowledgement of reality and an acceptance of ourselves and others and the eventual understanding that we are trying to hide the truth when we don’t accept what we have done.

By forgiving others and ourselves we balm the pain of feelings such as anger, resentment, revenge or bitterness and instead walk towards the light of compassion, acceptance and understanding.

'Love prospers when a fault is forgiven, but dwelling on it separates close friends.'

Proverbs 17:9


Forgive and Forget - How many times?

How many times should we forgive?

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