Forgiveness is often prescribed as a remedy for healing from a traumatic experience. It is a very effective tool in bringing closure. Instead of remaining a victim, the offended person can regain control over a trauma by choosing a forgiving response. In many ways this destroys the offender’s influence over the life of another and reinforces the empowerment of the offended.
However, too often forgiveness becomes a task on the counseling to-do list instead of a change of heart. This minimizes the full impact and reduces it to a behavioral, instead of an attitudinal experience. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well when he stated, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” So how can a person receive the maximum benefit? Here are some suggestions.
- Understand the reason for forgiveness. Forgiveness is not for the offender, it is for the victim. When individuals decide to forgive an act, they are releasing themselves from the controlling power of the offensive event or action. It is not something to be entered into lightly, forced upon through manipulation, or guilt-tripped. Those only add to the trauma rather than healing it. Instead, forgiveness must come from a desire to “Let it go.” This does not mean the offensive act is forgotten, just that it has lost the power to control.
- Identify large areas needing forgiveness. Accidents, traumas, abuse, disasters, and death are some of the areas where forgiveness might be needed. Each person and situation is different, so it is unfair to project or judge what or who should be forgiven. This is an individual choice. Sometimes a person needs to be forgiven for an offensive act, sometimes people need to forgive themselves for their contribution, or sometimes there is no one person to accept responsibility, so a blanket forgiveness of a culture, religion, or sect needs to be granted.
- Begin a forgiveness list. Writing down who – or what offense – needs to be, or has been forgiven will help to bring clarity to the issues at hand. The 12-step process calls this making an inventory. Think of it as a list divided into two main categories: those actions of others a person needs to forgive and those actions of self in need of forgiveness. This is not a list to be distributed or shared with anyone unless in a therapeutic setting. It is only for the benefit of the person creating the list not the benefit of others.
- Counteract unforgiving (obsessive) thoughts. Having a hard time knowing what needs to go on the list? Look to obsessive thoughts to identify areas you revisit over and over. Anything that is replaying again and again, with no new insight or understanding, is obsessive. Other examples include envisioning anger rants, imagining horrible scenarios, having a judgmental attitude about others, pondering negative comments, and deliberating past decisions. These thoughts are indications of possible areas that still need to be forgiven.
- Recognize anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, or annoyance as possible indicators of emotions that arise in the absence of forgiveness. In addition to thoughts, intense feelings can identify an area needing forgiveness. A strong emotional response to a person, event, or memory, might require more investigation as to its cause. It is normal to relive some emotion when retelling a traumatic story, however, too much or none at all are signals that some issue needs addressing or possibly require forgiveness.
- Make forgiveness a daily activity. Adopting an attitude of forgiveness changes the way a person views life. Think of it as a positive verses negative outlook on life. The lens through which a person views life (positive or negative) influences nearly every decision that is made. The same is true for an attitude of forgiveness. Once embraced, this determines a person’s approach, opinion, temper, outlook, mindset, and reaction. It can transform a person at a deep level.
- Create a forgiving mantra. “I choose forgiveness,” can be a simple chant to remember when driving on a highway, listening to someone yell, or recalling a past event. Forgiving even the smallest events can bring about a sense of peace and restoration.
Having an attitude of forgiveness changes an individual’s perspective on even difficult events. However, this is not appropriate for everyone and not possible in every circumstance. Just like it is not possible to be positive in every situation, it is also not reasonable to expect a forgiving attitude for every condition.