I have done a lot of personal work on forgiveness over the years and thought I had forgiven everyone I needed to forgive. But I recently realized I was still holding on to some old hurts and resentments and carrying a lot of old emotional baggage. Clinging to these had created a lot of internal stress, agitation and even anger.
One evening I was doing some self-examination work in my journal. I had been doing a lot of reading on forgiveness and wanted to connect what I had been reading with work I had been doing with my wounded child and victim archetypes. I centered myself and wrote at the top of a page "Whom do I still need to forgive?" I closed my eyes and waited. It wasn't long before I filled up 3/4 of the page with people who had in some way violated my boundaries and/or impacted my self-esteem, self-worth, or self-image. As a result of my encounters with these individuals, I felt unsafe, rejected, and unloved.
For a long time I believed that holding on to my grudges was a way to get back at the people who hurt me. There was no valid excuse or reason for their behavior - they did me wrong, so why should I forgive them? What I couldn't see was that by choosing not to forgive the people who hurt me, it was not them I was hurting. It was me. I was the one who was carrying around the weight of my anger and resentment; I was the one who was suffering.
It has taken me years to understand that I couldn't move beyond my painful past until I freely chose forgiveness. Carrying these old wounds around for so long constricted and hardened my heart, which also blocked the flow of unconditional love. Finally choosing to do the necessary work of releasing my old resentments, grievances, and anger, I've started the process of healing my heart.
We may feel resistant to the idea of forgiveness, or feel like it would be impossible to forgive someone who has hurt us. But we are all human. We have all made mistakes. We have all been hurt just as we have hurt others. We have all been in situations where we need do the forgiving, just as we've all been the one who needs to be forgiven. As much as I needed to forgive others for what they had done to me, I suspected that I was also being weighed down by what I had done to other people. I explored this idea in my journal too, asking "Who have I harmed?"
True forgiveness is not easy, quick, or surface-level; it's not as simple as saying that we forgive someone. In The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, Jack Kornfield wrote that forgiveness is a process which may include grief, outrage, sadness, loss and pain. For some of us, the process of forgiveness is slow, deep work because we are peeling back layers of hurt that have been accumulating for years. Through the process, we need to acknowledge what happened, how we felt about what happened, and the hurt and suffering that resulted. We may find that we need to go through the process multiple times to move from anger to heart-based forgiveness. It may be helpful to use a ritual or other exercise to help us forgive and let go of the past.
We can use any number of writing exercises. No matter which we choose, we should write about what happened, how we felt about what happened, how it affected us and how we suffered. In The Book of Forgiving, Desmund Tutu and Mpho Tutu suggest that we write about what we lost through the experience, such as trust, safety, dignity, innocence, a friend, or something else we cherished. We can write what we wish we could say to the person who harmed us. We might write from their perspective too, to understand what may have led to their actions or what they might say back to us. To help us release the pain of the past, we could also explore how the situation has made us stronger or otherwise helped us.
We can explore these ideas in our journal, or we can write our experience as a story or in a letter to the person who harmed us. If we think we want to send the letter, we may need to write several versions of it first so that when we send it, it's coming from a place of true forgiveness, not anger or blame.
Regardless of how we decide to write about our experience, Tutu and Tutu wrote that at some point, we need to actually move into the step of granting forgiveness. This may include praying for or sending blessings to the people who have hurt us.
Once we have fully processed the event and our feelings about it, we might choose to speak it out loud. We could share our experience and insights with someone we trust, who will be supportive and listen such as a confidant, a close friend, a therapist or a spiritual guide.
In our forgiveness journey, we also need to forgive our self for things we did or didn't do, things we said or didn't say, how we harmed others, and our role in the situations with those who harmed us. We need to review, acknowledge, and take responsibility for our wrongdoings and mistakes. The final question I explored that night in my journal was "What do I still need to forgive myself for?" I filled pages with examples from both the recent and distant past.
It can be incredibly difficult to forgive and doing so does not change our past; we can't undo what's been done. But we can choose to forgive anyway. We can choose a new future. When we choose to forgive, we don't do it for the benefit of the other; we do it for our own wellbeing; we do it to heal and open our heart.
Whom do you still need to forgive?
Who have you harmed?
For what do you need to forgive yourself?
Do you ever have one of those days where you feel like you just need to cry it out?
I recently experienced one of those days. Let me first say that I typically don't acknowledge my emotions. I don't like to feel sad and I hate crying, especially in front of other people. When I start to feel something, I generally ignore, stifle, or otherwise try to make the feeling go away as quickly as possible. Maybe I busy myself doing something else, or perhaps I'll have a quick outburst in private and then bury the rest so I can move on.
But one day, I felt like I was holding back tears all morning. I just couldn't shake it. Something inside was trying to get my attention but I was doing my best to ignore it. Until I was talking to a good friend, one with whom I feel safe and whom I deeply trust. When she asked me how I was doing, I couldn't hold the tears back any longer. They came pouring out. Being the good friend that she is, she just let me cry. She was present. She listened. She was supportive. It felt good to finally let the tears flow, but we had limited time together so when we ended our conversation, I still felt like I was choking back tears.
About an hour later I had a coaching call, one where I was being coached. That call was an opportunity to be fully present with myself and what was going on inside of me. I got curious about what was behind the emotions. In doing so, I realized how much emotional baggage I had been carrying around, how long I had been carrying it, and how heavy it had become. My emotions had been stifled for too long and they needed to be released. Being another safe space, I allowed myself to cry almost the whole way through that coaching call. By the end of it, I was already starting to feel lighter. After a little time to recover and then later, some laughter, I finally felt like a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
The lesson for me in all of this was that I need to stop hiding and fighting my emotions! When I'm feeling something, I need to let myself feel it. If I feel like I need to cry, well, then I need to cry. Maybe that means I need to find a private space away from other people. Maybe I need to take a long walk, sit outside, or go for a drive. Maybe I need to call up a trusted friend who will let me cry without judgment or who will just listen while I talk. Whatever it means in the moment, I need to find or create a safe space for myself so my emotions can emerge.
I learned that it's time to stop carrying the weight of unexpressed emotions. I need to let them flow, explore them and learn from them. Part of letting the emotions flow through us involves exploring what's behind the emotion. I learned that to do this effectively, I need to become fully present with myself and get curious. I need to ask, "What's going on here?" If I'm feeling angry, why? If I'm feeling sad, why? What happened? What did it trigger in me? What story am I telling myself about what happened? What tapes are replaying over and over in my mind? What is my heart saying?
When we block our emotions from flowing, they get stuck inside and keep building until finally they come out in unexpected ways. The weight of unexpressed emotions is heavy. It can make us feel physically or emotionally tired, or it can make us feel "on edge" or agitated. We will serve ourselves better by paying attention to what's going on in our body and giving ourselves the care and nurturing that we need.
Tending to our spiritual wellbeing involves taking care of ourselves physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It means becoming aware of, accepting, and allowing our feelings and emotions - both the "good" and what we may consider to be "bad." But I am learning that there are no "bad" emotions. Because fear, sadness, and even anger - they are all trying to draw attention to something we need to know or learn about ourselves. When we become fully present with and curious about our emotions, not only will we learn to express them in authentic and productive ways, we also have the ability to learn and make a new or better choice for our self. And making better choices for our self means we will be better able to serve and respond to others.