Getting over a painful experience is a lot like crossing monkey bars.
You have to let go at some point in order to move forward. — C.S. Lewis
In my work as a life coach and career coach, I work with people who feel stuck in a lot of different ways — stuck in their careers or relationships; stuck in limiting ways of perceiving themselves, their circumstances, or their resources. And often we discover together that one of the things holding them back is a reluctance to let go of old grudges and hurts.
Forgiveness — finding a way to let go of those old grudges — gives us the freedom to move forward in our lives rather than being stuck in the grievances of the past. Taking steps to forgive has also been shown to enhance our happiness, improve our relationships, and to have immediate and lasting effects on our physical health and well-being.
Some Reasonable Objections
Of course, as healthy as practicing forgiveness may be, it can run counter to some entirely reasonable objections. Let’s take a look at a few.
I can’t excuse it.
Okay. Forgiving doesn’t mean that you need to minimize or excuse what’s been done or how it’s made you feel. Forgiveness is simply a choice to move beyond hoping that the person who hurt you gets the suffering he or she “deserves.” That choice can allow you to focus on healing the harm done to you without being distracted by a desire for revenge or a persistent feeling of ill-will toward the other person.
It’s not fair.
That’s very often true. Extending forgiveness to someone who doesn’t deserve it isn’t fair. It’s much easier to forgive someone who apologizes and makes amends. And perhaps the person you forgive will do so. If you’re to have a healthy ongoing relationship, it will certainly be much better if the person does. But if you make that a precondition of your own decision to forgive, you run a real risk of never forgiving. And remember, you’re forgiving for the sake of your own health and happiness, so you really don’t want to set up conditions that will prevent it.
This person is bad for me.
Strong connections with other people are what make us happiest in life, so you don’t want to end relationships over petty hurts. But sometimes you really do need to break things off entirely with people who are not good for you. Fortunately, you can still get the benefits of forgiving.
Forgiveness doesn’t require you to reconcile with the person you’re forgiving. You can choose to let go of ill-will toward someone without choosing to continue your relationship. You don’t even have to extend the relationship long enough to let the person know about your forgiveness if doing so would be unhealthy for you.
Ready to Give it a Try?
Forgiving can be hard to do. But it gets easier with practice, and there are some good strategies that have been proven to help. So if you’re struggling to let go of a grudge, here are four steps that just may make it easier.
1. Remember a time someone forgave you even though you didn’t fully deserve it.
We’ve all been the beneficiaries of other people deciding to treat us with more mercy than justice. Recalling how being forgiven felt to you can help you to get past the “It isn’t fair” objection.
2. Think of something you value, or valued, about the person who’s wronged you.
The point isn’t to justify the bad behavior, just to remind yourself that he or she is a human being with both strengths and weaknesses.
3. Imagine the situation from the other person’s point of view.
Try to find one aspect of the situation that you can see from other person’s perspective. Putting yourself in his or her shoes that small way can make it easier to extend forgiveness.
4. Decide to forgive.
Because forgiving can go against the grain in spite of how healthy it is, you’ll need to make a conscious decision to forgive, and to remind yourself of your decision if those feelings of ill-will start to come back.
If You’re Not Ready
If you try these steps and keep getting stuck along the way, you may not be ready to forgive just yet. That’s okay. Give it some time, then try again and see if you get farther. It’s not always easy, but if we take it step by step, we can develop an ability to forgive that will have lasting benefits on our relationships, our health, and our happiness.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Penguin, 2008 Learning to Forgive May Improve Well-Being, Mayo Clinic, Science Daily, January 4, 2008