Years before I became a therapist I learned about the importance of cultivating a forgiving nature. My ankle was rolled over by a two-ton Honda driven by a young woman who chose not to get out of the car at the scene. I dealt with the physical part of recovery—three surgeries, tri-weekly physical therapy and grinding pain—with as much Zen-like calm as I could muster. I wasn’t angry that someone hit me—accidents happen. But my stomach burned with acid fury that Melissa Koch never sent a note or card saying she was sorry.
For two years my need for Melissa to acknowledge what she’d done had soured my life far more than the damage inflicted by her car. Finally, we faced one another in a lawyer’s office during a deposition. Seeing how young she was, how cavalier—laughing inappropriately, never looking me in the eyes—my rage loosened. I’d given my power to someone who didn’t have the ability to ask for forgiveness (something I’d have quickly granted).
Sometimes I tell this story to patients who are trapped in a tsunami of anger—spending session after session helplessly railing at what they perceived as terrible slights inflicted on them in the near or very distant past. Once we start to examine how a life defined by a hyper-focus on people who have “done us wrong” is a needlessly painful life, the work turns to the vital need to forgive.
When you let go of a grudge that has been weighing you down, the one you are most benefiting is yourself. Dr. Robert Enright, dubbed the “The Father of Forgiveness Research” for his decades long work in this field, has documented that negative emotional states such as revenge-oriented thinking can impact your blood pressure; cause headaches, back pains and depression; and weaken your immune system. All this can heighten your susceptibility to illnesses such as cancer.
The good news is when you free yourself from the nest of negativity, you can actually improve even compromised health. Research presented in 2011 by Duke University Medical Center stated that people with HIV who forgave someone who hurt them improved their CD4 cell percentages, which boosted their immune system. Another Duke study found that among people who had chronic back pain, those who had forgiven others experienced lower levels of pain and less associated psychological problems like anger and depression than those who had not forgiven.
Who hasn’t been wounded by someone they trusted? Whether it was a parent who broke a promise, a friend who didn’t actually put it in the figurative vault or a callous oversight from someone peripheral that nonetheless cut deep, feeling betrayed can cause us to cover up our vulnerability with layers of anger or bitterness and feelings of resentment or injustice—a miasma of internal misery. One patient defined her fixation with a cousin who never gave back the $1,000 loan she’d given him years before as, “a circular mental loop that’s as confining as jail.”
Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting or not learning from a cruel experience. I would obviously advise my patient to think very carefully before she gave someone another loan. And to still try to get back her money if possible—no need to let someone off the hook for bad behavior.
Here is what forgiveness does entail:
• Ripping Off the Band-Aid
You can honor the emotions you are feeling without continually repeating the story of the person who wronged you to anyone who will listen. That just fans the flames of your unhappiness. Instead, allow yourself to cry when you’re sad, slam a pillow against the wall or scream into it when you’re angry, talk to trusted friends and/or a therapist about the anxiety you experience in a world that feels full of betrayal.
• Reflection on What the Experience Taught You
Not in a self-recriminatory, “I was such an idiot” way, but as a spiritual lesson. For example: “I see my loneliness led me to a lapse in judgment. My mistake wasn’t letting someone into my heart—human beings need connection—but in expecting this person to act the way I would.”
• Reflection on Why the Person Acted in a Hurtful Way
We are all imperfect beings. Developing empathy for the demons that shaped and perhaps continue to drive your betrayer can help you see him or her as someone who has also suffered. Again this doesn’t condone what was done to you. But viewing someone as a troubled individual rather than as a cardboard villain who should be hung on the cross or buried neck deep in lava will help you move out of your black hole.
• Working Toward Closure
A conversation with the person who wronged you can be cathartic. However the only pieces of this exchange you can control are your own actions or reactions. Go into it knowing you might not get the “I’m sorry” you ache to hear. One of my patients worked up her courage to call her father who’d abandoned the family when she was 10 and confess the hurt he’d caused. He reacted defensively, saying, “if you can’t get over old stuff, how can you get along in the world?” The patient and I explored how powerful it felt for her to finally voice the words she’d held inside for so long. That her father couldn’t accept responsibility for his actions showed how limited he was as a person. That was on him, not her. She said, “instead of feeling like dad’s victim, I feel sorry for him.”
Another powerful way to take back your life is to write a letter pouring out your feelings in as much detail as you need, making no attempt to spare the other person’s feelings. This is for you, not the one who hurt you. At the end of the letter, write, “I forgive you.” It’s not necessary to send the letter. You can keep it, ceremoniously rip it up and/or flush it down the toilet. Whatever feels right.
I come from a family of holocaust survivors. I have several patients who were victims of sexual abuse by family members, as well as a patient whose ex-husband beat her for 10 years.
There are offenses that are so evil, forgiving them feels not just impossible but like a sacrilege toward the person violated. Yet we hear stories about people forgiving the murderer of their child …
Forgiveness, whether in person or in your heart, is an individual choice. The point of it is to finally lay down the 100 pound sack of hatred you carry 24/7.
One patient found a creative way. A drunken driver had killed her mother, killing himself in the process. For years my patient “felt impotent fury” that her mother’s murderer had died, depriving her of the opportunity for retribution. On the sixth anniversary of her mother’s death she went to an AA meeting (she is not an alcoholic) and listened to the attendees speaking of their struggles. Finally she stood up and talked about how a drunken driver had “ruined” her life. She spoke to the dead man directly, “I’m going to stop hating you because it is poisoning me and that hatred won’t bring my mother back. So I am forgiving him.”
We can’t change the past. All we can do is keep it from dictating our present and future.
Traumatic as it is to forgive someone, it’s often harder to forgive yourself. Frequently the reason we judge others so harshly is because it’s easier than holding a mirror to our own past (mis)actions. Once we shine that light, we can become enmeshed in a smothering cloak of regrets, guilt, shame and self-hatred.
A patient who had cheated on her then husband five years previously worked through the reasons for her infidelity in therapy. Fear of abandonment had caused her to lash out in spectacular passive aggressive fashion by having a one-night stand that indeed ended her marriage.
She’d heard through a mutual friend that her ex had remarried. He had moved on, yet she couldn’t stop castigating herself.
We discussed how good people can have lapses of judgment and do “bad” things. The key was learning from mistakes and moving on.
She decided to call her ex to ask his forgiveness—offering no excuses, just a sincere apology. He responded, “it took me years to get over what you did, and I appreciate you’re sorry but I’m not ready to talk to you.” It was hard to hear but she respected that her ex had to forgive her on his own timetable.
How, then, without absolution from the one she’d wronged, could my patient forgive herself? We spoke and came up with a ritual for her to perform: throwing stones into the water while saying this mantra, “I forgive myself for the pain I caused my husband. I’m not the person I was when I cheated. I’ve grown wiser and stronger.”
The next session she came in and said of her cleansing ritual: “it allowed me to forgive myself for being imperfect and messing up.”
We cheered her milestone. She had learned to treat herself with the empathy and compassion she would offer someone else. She added, “I hope someday my ex can forgive me—not so much for me but to free himself.”
Sherry Amatenstein, LCSW, is a NYC-based therapist and editor of the anthology
How Does That Make You Feel? True Confessions From Both Sides of the Therapy Couch.