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?