Many people carry resentment and anger toward others they could get rid of if they learned to forgive. But there isn’t a lot of information out there about how to forgive. Most of the information I came across in my years of trying to forgive was on why to forgive. I also had a lot of misconceptions about what forgiveness is and is not, maybe you do too. Those misconceptions often get in the way of our forgiveness of others.
I eventually learned that forgiveness is all about compassion. You might be resistant to the idea of having compassion for someone who did you wrong. That’s completely understandable. In fact, learning compassion for them can be the hardest part of the forgiveness process.
In this essay, I’ll talk about what forgiveness actually is and how it works. I’ll share the misconceptions I overcame about forgiveness, which might help you too. Then I’ll share some methods for cultivating compassion which I learned in 12 step recovery.
All these components are part of the process of forgiveness. I’ll share a little bit about my story of forgiveness at the beginning and at the end of this essay. My hope is that you’ll come away from this having a better understanding of forgiveness. You’ll also have concrete tools for how to forgive someone so you can be free of the burden of resentment.
My personal story of forgiveness.
In 1994 I kicked my father out of my life. We didn’t communicate for 11 years. 1994 wasn’t much different than any other year, though there was an event that caused me to say, “That’s it. I’m done.” My main issue with him was what I perceived as his lack of acceptance of me. In a variety of ways, I got the message from him over the years, “You’re not the daughter I want.”
During those 11 years I did a ton of work to try to forgive him. I said a forgiveness prayer for years. I went to a two-day workshop on forgiveness. I read a ton of books, all of which told me why to forgive, but not how to forgive. After reading all those books and gathering all that information about forgiveness I was pretty exasperated. I remember thinking, “All right people, I get it! I. Need. To. Forgive. How the fuck do I do it?”
Reasons why forgiveness is so important.
Eventually, I was able to forgive him which I’ll tell you about in a bit. But first I’d like to go over some of the many reasons we need to forgive. It’s really important to understand why before we actually do it. As frustrated as I got that I couldn’t figure out how to forgive, I’m glad I learned about all the reasons why forgiving is important.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned about forgiveness. Many of these gems come in the form of quotes. I’ve noted the sources I know. Here goes.
“Lack of forgiveness is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” In other words, it’s toxic for us, not for them! I sometimes held onto my resentment like it was a weapon against the other person. Like I was somehow inflicting pain on them by not forgiving them. And that’s not true. It’s toxic to me not to forgive.
“Forgiveness is unlocking the door to set someone free and realizing you were the prisoner” (Max Lucado).
“We are very largely what we remember” says Bishop Desmond Tutu. “Forgiveness is giving up the idea that the past could have been different.” As I said in this article, acceptance is an incredibly powerful tool. Forgiveness is an acknowledgement that I accept “this is the past I had.” There’s no sense spending any time wishing it had been different. It wasn’t different, it was the way it was. Forgiveness is an acknowledgement of that.
This one is by Edwin Markham:
“He drew a circle to shut me out
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
we drew a circle to take him in.”
Markham’s poem tells me that when I forgive someone, I have the ability to bring them back into the circle of “we.” It doesn’t serve me to think of “us” and “them” with anybody. There’s no them. There’s only us.
Then there’s this one from James Baldwin:
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.” Forgiveness is such a big issue in recovery because addicts are trying to avoid pain. That’s why we numb in the first place. The thing is, all that work that we’ve been doing to avoid pain actually creates MORE pain!
Misconceptions about forgiveness.
I had inaccurate ideas about what it would mean to forgive. Perhaps you do too. These are some of the ideas I had about forgiveness that blocked me from forgiving others.
I used to think, if you forgive the other person, it means…
· You’re agreeing that what they did was okay
· You’re supposed to forget about what they did
· You have to accept them back in your life
· You have to act like it never happened
· Your forgiveness is for them
I learned that forgiveness doesn’t mean any of these things. By forgiving someone, you’re not agreeing that what they did was okay. You don’t have to forget what they did or accept them back into your life. In fact, you don’t ever have to see or talk to them again! You can even forgive people who are dead. You don’t have to act like it never happened. And forgiveness is not for them, it’s for you.
What forgiveness actually is.
When we forgive, it means we let go of the resentment we have about the incident so we can move on. When we let go of the resentment, we let go of our connection to that person. When we refuse to forgive someone, we still want something from that person. It could be an apology or even revenge we want. Forgiveness is a means of getting rid of that desire to get something from them. If we don’t forgive them, we’ll be tied to that person forever.
How forgiveness works.
Even if you understand what forgiveness is and you want to forgive, you may not know how to do it. That was true for me. Once I understood what forgiveness was and wasn’t, and truly wanted to forgive, I tried. I really did. But I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. I found tons of information on why to forgive, but I had a hard time finding anything on how to forgive.
I finally came across a book that actually spoke about how to forgive. The book is The Wisdom of Forgiveness by the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan. In it, the Dalai Lama says forgiveness is all about compassion. You must learn to have compassion for the person you want to forgive, to humanize them. This is from a man who forgave the Chinese Army for brutality against his people and forcing him to flee his homeland of Tibet. He knows something about forgiveness!
Learning how to forgive someone requires compassion. That means we have to try to think about them objectively as fellow human beings. They are flawed as we are, they’re not just villains. No one is entirely good or entirely bad. It’s important to realize that no one is perfect, including us.
As a result of reading that book, I learned to look at my father with compassion. That is, I began to think of him as a human being, as a man, and not just as my father. That changed everything for me. I realized he didn’t have the wife, sons, daughter or life he wanted. And that must have sucked. I was then able to forgive him such that we reconnected for a time.
Have you ever done anything you’d like to be forgiven for?
If we want to be forgiven for things we’ve done, then we must forgive others. We set the wheels of the universe in motion for that by forgiving others. I believe “what goes around comes around” — i.e., what we put out into the universe we receive. So if I want forgiveness, I must forgive. I’ll say more about that below.
The importance of willingness.
Before I share about how to forgive, I want to say something about willingness. In recovery, we talk a lot about the importance of willingness. If you’re going to forgive someone, you must really be willing to forgive them. There’s an important distinction between being willing to do something and wanting to do something. For example, I’m willing to use a needle to take a splinter out of my finger. I don’t want to use a needle to take splinter out of my finger, but I’m willing. The same is true with forgiveness. You must be willing. In my experience, willingness is incredibly powerful. It gives us the ability to surmount incredible obstacles.
You may not want to forgive someone, but you may be willing. Understanding that forgiveness can release you from the burden of resentment makes it easier. I’ll say a bit more about how to become willing below, in case you’re not already willing.
Methods of fostering forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an important part of 12 step recovery, so it’s no surprise there’s some wisdom there on how to forgive. Here are two “tools” I learned to use from recovery. Both of these tools have worked quite well for me in different circumstances.
The first method helps foster forgiveness by cultivating compassion for the other person, as the DL recommends. You do this by praying for the other person for at least two weeks. During those prayers, you wish for them things you want for yourself. If you want peace of mind, financial freedom, a healthy child, a kind boss or a new car, you pray that the other person get those same things. It’s incredible what will happen in your heart when you repeatedly pray for good things to happen for someone! The resentment and animosity melt.
There’s another tool that doesn’t take as long, but it’s more difficult to do. It can be gut wrenching, in fact, but it’s extremely effective. If you’ve been carrying around resentment for decades, this should do the trick to rid you of that. It’s called a Forgiveness Inventory. This is how it works.
The Forgiveness Inventory.
Write down all the reasons you’re angry and resentful of the other person. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it helps release negativity and open your heart to forgiveness. Anger and resentment keep you tied to the other person. Deep inside you feel wronged and justified in being angry. Get it all out, no matter how ugly it is.
Write out all the things you’ve done to that person. It can be difficult to look at the ways you’ve contributed to the difficulty of your relationship. In recovery we call this “looking at my side of the street.” When we do this, the righteous anger in the first part of the exercise begins to melt.
Write a letter that you believe the other person would write to you. What do you think they feel about your relationship? Might there be any specific incidents troubling them about you? This helps you look at yourself from the other person’s point of view. It helps you move away from your perspective to that of the other person. This helps open you up to compassion, which leads to forgiveness.
Write a letter to your Higher Power. Ask for the willingness to forgive the other person as well as for yourself for the pain of your relationship. This will bring you closer to your Higher Power as well as to the other person. If you’ve been struggling with being willing to forgive, this should help. I’d like to point that if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve already demonstrated your willingness to forgive by taking action. One more thing — if “Higher Power” doesn’t work for you, try substituting “universe.”
The forgiveness inventory is an incredibly powerful tool. I’ve seen it unlock decades of resentments in myself and others and it can work for you too. Now, back to my story of forgiveness.
Forgiving my father.
Interestingly, I wrote a letter to my father in my journal after finishing the Dalai Lama’s book. The letter I mailed him was almost word-for-word what I wrote in my journal. It just came out of me — everything I wanted to say.
So we rekindled a relationship. It was always strained, though. I could never quite figure out how to relate to him. But I didn’t continue to hold onto the resentment and the animosity in this really heavy, clinging way as I had been. My resentment against him no longer dominated my life. I learned to be able to accept, “This is what’s he’s like” and “this is what he’s capable of.”
That being said, my experience is that forgiveness is something that may have to be done again and again. For me, it hasn’t been “one and done.” I’ve had to forgive again and again. Until I no longer did. Until I was cleansed of my resentment. It gets easier over time, and the times between become fewer and farther between. It helps to remember that it’s for me, not for them.
The situation with my father doesn’t get all tied up in a neat bow. He died in 2018 and we were not communicating again for the last couple of years before he died. I couldn’t tolerate his dysfunctional behavior and I let him go (gently this time, no “kicking him out”). I wasn’t sure if I’d ever speak to him again when I decided to stop contact. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel if he died while we were estranged.
Honestly, I felt a sense of relief when he died. I have no qualms about the fact that were weren’t speaking when he died. Had I not forgiven him before then, that might not have been the case.
Not long after he died, I had the realization that I could love him now. That it was safe to love him now. It felt safe to be vulnerable with him now that he’s on the other side. This realization was propelled by my 12-step recovery and the forgiveness process I started before recovery. Recovery gave me much more compassion for him than I ever had before (even having already gone through the process of forgiving him). Remember that the key ingredient to forgiveness is compassion: there is no one who is entirely evil. No one.
12 step recovery and forgiveness.
Recovery taught me that my father wasn’t doing things to me. My father was just doing things. I just happened to be in his “line of fire.” The things he did to me were very likely done to him. How sad. For example, when he screamed and yelled at me instead of comforting me when I got hurt or had a car accident, it was probably because that kind of thing happened to him. He didn’t have the capacity to say, “It scared me that you got hurt” or “I was afraid you were gonna die.” Or maybe even, “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you and keep you safe.”
In recovery, we take a searching and fearless moral inventory of our lives. When I did that, I realized that if I really wanted to be forgiven for things I’d done, then I must forgive others. Specifically, I must forgive my father. For we committed the same transgressions.
Even if you didn’t commit the same transgressions as the person you can’t forgive, know that this is how the universe works: if you want to be forgiven for anything, then you must forgive others.
And you must forgive yourself. Forgive yourself when you mess up, and then move on. Think of it like this — if you’re walking downstairs and you slip, you get up and continue down the stairs. You don’t give up and throw yourself down the rest of the stairs! So forgive yourself when you make a mistake. Remember — you are flawsome! Being “flawed” and being “awesome” aren’t mutually exclusive. You’re both.
As the character of God and the movie “Bruce Almighty” says, “No matter how dirty something gets you can always clean it.” You can always begin again, in love. And often, that starts with forgiveness. Oh, and by the way, you are forgiven.
Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She works with people who are tired of drama but don’t know how to stop. Her newsletter, “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”