Recently, a young woman told me that she was feeling vindicated because her ex, with whom she’d had a bad breakup, had reached out to apologize for his bad behavior. His attempts to make amends comforted her because she took it as evidence that she hadn’t been crazy or unreasonable.
“So, will you forgive him?,” I asked her.
“Oh no, I see no reason to be friendly. We ended the relationship with a big fight. I haven’t talked to him since, and I feel pretty happy about that.”
Her response seemed emotional and edgy. It wasn’t a nonchalant dismissal.
Her reactions to his behavior and her inability to forgive sadly indicate that she’s carrying around some unresolved hurt, which in turn colors her perceptions and experience of love.
This post is for her (and others holding on to hurt) to explain what forgiveness is, why it’s crucial in healing from heartbreak, and how to develop it.
What is forgiveness?
The term “forgiveness” often invokes the image of a divine act that benefits the wrongdoer by relieving them of their guilt. But as Wikipedia correctly explains, it is in fact an intentional and voluntary process by which the forgiver undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense and lets go of negative feelings. As such, the focus is very much on restoring peace to the forgiver’s life. It’s not about becoming friends with the wrongdoer, taking them back into one’s life, or even excusing them for their behavior.
But I don’t want to forgive! Why should I bother forgiving?
The health benefits of forgiveness include less anxiety, lower blood pressure, improved self-esteem, and more. Holding a grudge, on the other hand, leads to depression, a sense of meaninglessness, an inability to enjoy the present moment or to connect with others, amongst other things.
But really, you forgive in order to free yourself. It is a powerful gift to yourself. Do you really want to carry a seed of discontent into your next relationship and in your life more generally? As psychotherapist David Richo explains in When the Past Is Present, we tend to unconsciously transfer feelings, beliefs, and expectations from former relationships into our new ones, sabotaging our capacity for true intimacy. Any anger, resentment, or hurt you haven’t let go of will pile up as emotional debris, influencing your ability to stay open to love and build healthy trustworthy relationships going forward.
Rather than being defined by your painful experiences (and innocently building an identity around being a victim), wouldn’t you rather thrill in the joy of putting your hurt completely behind you? Wouldn’t you rather set yourself up for the best love possible? This is a choice you alone have to make. And doing so means that you seek to understand the situation as it was and recognize the role you might have played in co-creating it.
Forgiving someone is thus an act of courage and self-respect. It means not letting a false sense of self-importance get in the way of your very own healing. And that courage, that desire to see things as they really are, will help you build qualities that help you more generally — self-esteem, good judgment, emotional maturity. It will also help heal the world, one relationship at a time.
Forgiveness is hard. How do I do it?!
It’s true. Forgiveness is a deep process of the heart and it takes time.
The first thing you should know is that complete forgiveness happens only after you grieve your loss. Not able to forgive yet? Allow yourself to feel deeply and grieve further; resist the temptation to distract yourself from feeling your emotions. As Fred Luskin, an expert on forgiveness, points out, you’ll have to start by acknowledging that you’re hurt and that harm was done (whether by you or someone else), experience the ensuing feelings and emotions, and share your grievance with a select few confidantes you trust. (Also review his excellent nine steps to forgiveness.)
The next thing you should know is that forgiveness happens in phases, not all at once, and often in parallel with new feelings to process. Reflect on what these emotions can teach you with your therapist’s help or in a journal. Remember that you can’t ignore forgiveness as part of your healing journey but you can’t rush it either.
Ultimately, forgiveness is about returning to “your undying capacity for love and freedom that is untouched by what happens to you”, as spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield explains in a beautiful essay. You can get there only if you develop empathy for your ex. Can you imagine your ex as a little child, hurt perhaps, susceptible to all the fears and challenges of growing up in this world, trying so hard to be good and strong, but failing sometimes? Please do so if it helps you to forgive and let go.
Here’s a concrete letting-go ritual, as fleshed out in Getting Past Your Breakup: Create a list of sentences that mention things you forgive your ex for, each one starting with “I forgive you”. This list may be short at first, but it’s important to get started. Then write a letter to your ex with these sentences, even if you don’t actually feel the forgiveness; pretend you are having one final conversation with your ex. Read the letter out loud (ideally to a trusted friend or therapist), then burn it while thanking your ex for the time they spent in your life and say it is now time for you to let them go with love. Walk away, and process any feelings that arise out of this exercise (if not now, they might arise later). You might only forgive them partially, but over time, as you process your hurt and anger, you’ll forgive more. Set aside your skepticism and give the method a try.
Don’t forget to forgive yourself too
Forgiving yourself is the foundation on which your ability to forgive others and to heal yourself rests. The views or patterns you inherited and brought into your relationship weren’t your fault; what is in your hands is whether you acknowledge and forgive yourself for your mistakes. As you heal you may stumble further; it’s all okay. Please learn from your experiences but don’t beat yourself up. Remember how far you’ve already come in your life!
And when you’ve processed everything there is to process, bask in the freedom of having forgiven. Rejoice in it! Feel the peace of mind that comes from laying down your burden.