As a Marriage and a Family Therapist, I often encourage the individuals, couples, families, and groups that I work with to practice the art of forgiveness. My intention is to make this practice a daily one for them. Oftentimes, my clients balk at the notion of forgiving themselves or anyone else for that matter. They fear that I am asking them to justify or condone harmful actions, or they worry that I’m encouraging them to seek out or speak to those who have caused them harm. Other clients fear that I am asking them to be fake or artificial, extending an olive branch of forgiveness to the undeserving. They refuse to be inauthentic, and so I often notice their bodies’ contract and experience them becoming resistant to the whole idea right from the very start.
I explain to them, though, that I’m not encouraging them to seek forgiveness from others, for themselves, or for others for any of the reasons mentioned above. First of all, forgiveness does not in any way justify or condone harmful actions. Second, forgiveness does not mean you have to seek out or speak to those who caused you harm. In fact, you may choose never to see them again. Third, forgiveness must happen organically; it must be authentically and deeply felt. Otherwise, it’s merely pain, resentment, grief, or rage disguised as forgiveness, and the person pretending to forgive is much like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Seeking forgiveness from others, for ourselves, and for others who have wounded us is so powerful because it’s a way of softening the edges or removing the calluses around our hearts. When we lack forgiveness, our hearts become closed and dark, and we build a fortress around us to protect it. Although we feel safe inside these walls, we become cold inside. Forgiveness, like a magic potion, melts these walls away, and gives us access to who we truly are once again. It helps us to let go of the pain, the resentment, and the outrage that we have carried as a burden for so long. In time, we have renewed access to our passions, our child-like essence, our humanity, and to all of the lovable qualities inside of us that make us who we are.
So, when it comes down to it, seeking forgiveness from others, for ourselves, or for others who have harmed us is really intended first and foremost to serve our own healing and set us free mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually first and foremost. And the way to begin this process is to first recognize that, as human beings, we are all fallible. We are all vulnerable to making mistakes, and we all fall prey to unconscious shadows that compel us to act out in ways that don’t reflect our highest selves. If we had the knowledge and resources to make the very best choices in any given moment and time that would be in alignment with our highest values and would serve ourselves, others, and the world in the best way possible, we obviously would. Unfortunately, we didn’t, and so we sadly resorted to making the poor choices that we did with what whatever level of consciousness was currently available to us.
In light of this reality, we’ve all likely hurt or harmed others, betrayed or abandoned them, and caused them suffering, knowingly or unknowingly, out of our pain, fear, anger, and confusion at some point in our lives. We didn’t do so because we were sadistic or inherently bad people. We did so because we didn’t know how to manage our emotions more maturely. We simply lacked the tools, life skills, and practice to show up in our lives and in our relationships differently. Knowing this essential truth, it becomes easier to soften the harsh voice of our inner judge and begin the tender process of forgiving ourselves for the many ways that we’ve harmed others.
In addition to hurting others, we’ve all betrayed, harmed, and abandoned ourselves through thought, word, and deed at some point in our lives. We hurt ourselves not out because we were pathologically masochistic, but because we lacked the necessary self-awareness, self-knowledge, and resources at that time to do things in ways that would have served ourselves and others in more positive ways. Again, chances are that we hurt ourselves through action or inaction out of our own fear, pain, and confusion. Knowing this, it becomes easier yet again to reflect love inwards and forgive ourselves for the many ways we’ve sabotaged ourselves in our lives.
Finally, it’s important to consider that there’s a high probability that those who have wounded, hurt, abused, and abandoned us in thought, word, or deed have done so out of their own fear, pain, confusion, and anger. Now this insight doesn’t mean that their behavior was therefore justifiable. On the contrary, their behavior was still never the less repugnant and wrong. However, if you take a moment and imagine walking in their shoes from the time they were little boys and girls, chances are that the heartbreak and anguish that you’ll sense they’ve long endured will help you to feel some empathy or compassion for the long, torturous roads they’ve travelled mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
It is often within the sacred garden of your burgeoning empathy and compassion that the seeds of forgiveness come budding to the surface of your heart for the person who once perpetrated against you. As Longfellow once said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” My hope is that if you can summon the will to do this, you can experience the peaceful release in your mind, body, heart and soul that takes place when you’ve mastered the art of forgiveness.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. I hope that you enjoyed it!!
John Boesky, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist