The art of forgiveness
When conflicts and grievances arise, forgiveness is one of the most commonly prescribed solutions – but it is one that’s easier said than done.
When we are at the receiving end of a cruel, hurtful or violent treatment, the idea of forgiving the wrongdoer may not sit well with us. Although it is often described as a way to let go of negative emotions and regain a peace of mind, forgiveness can come across to some as letting people off the hook or setting their feelings aside to avoid further confrontation.
“People often think that forgiveness means saying that it was okay for someone to do something,” psychologist Adam Blanch wrote on Pro Bono Australia.
“Often when people say they have forgiven someone they are lying to themselves. What they have really done is compartmentalise their vulnerable feelings behind contempt and hatred for the other person, disguised as being a ‘bigger person’.”
What is forgiveness?
According to Mary Bonich, principal psychologist at The Feel Good Clinic, forgiveness isn’t about forgoing accountability.
“Forgiveness means consciously and deliberately letting go of resentment or vengeance towards someone else, despite whether they deserve your forgiveness,” she told Over60.
“When you forgive someone, it does not mean forgetting or condoning someone else’s wrongdoing, but rather provides you with peace of mind and frees you from the anger and resentment you are holding onto.”
Bonich emphasises that we do not need to rekindle our relationship with the offending parties to forgive them. “It’s a process for the individual letting go of their anger, and does not necessarily mean you have to reconcile or be friends with the person who caused you harm.”
Is forgiveness always right?
Some people can find themselves in a harrowing situation, where forgiveness seems like an impossibility. However, even though forgiveness may not change the perpetrator’s behaviour, it will help us stop punishing ourselves, Bonich said.
“Of course there are some things we often feel are unforgivable such as murder,” she said. “But in order for us to process our grief, heal and maintain our own psychological wellbeing, we do need to forgive.
“This does not mean we condone the behaviour, or at peace with the behaviour, it just means we choose to let go of our resentment and anger as a way to heal ourselves.”
Alfred Allan and Maria Allan, professors of psychology at Edith Cowan University said our safety should be a priority. “Forgiving others is only beneficial if the advantages exceed the potential costs. We should therefore not forgive others if that might expose us to further abuse or exploitation,” they wrote on The Conversation.
“The stress response we experience to being hurt is protective because it motivates us to stop people from abusing or taking advantage of us.”
How can we begin to forgive?
The process of forgiving someone can take time. Bonich referred to the nine steps to forgiveness popularised by Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects. Some of the suggestions included making a commitment to work on feeling better for our own sake and get the accurate perspective on why we are experiencing hurt.
“Understand your thoughts and feelings about why you are hurt and understand that your emotions are what is stopping you from letting go of the hurt, rather than what someone else did,” Bonich said.
“You can use mindfulness techniques and other stress management techniques to self-soothe when you get upset.
“Look for ways for you to meet your needs yourself, and work towards having your best life.”