Dr Bev Smallwood

Articles Library: Coping

Forgiveness: The Process

After reading my newspaper column on bitterness the other day, a woman named Jennifer left this message on my voice mail: “Bitterness is like acid; it eats up the container that holds it.”

If you’ve read the last two Magnetizers, you’ll know that I totally agree. We’ve talked about the negative consequences to your health and emotional wellbeing of hanging onto hurts and harboring grudges. We looked at some of the mental roadblocks that can keep you from the critical process of forgiveness. If you missed the other two articles in this series, just request it and I’ll be glad to send them to you.

I had an email from one subscriber saying, “OK, I get your point. I know I need to forgive. But I guess I really don’t know how. I think I’ve done it, then I think about what happened and I get mad all over again. So I must not have really forgiven.” Not necessarily. We’re going to sort this out.

Today, we’re going to talk about the nuts and bolts, the how-to of forgiveness. We’ll also distinguish forgiveness, which is a decision, from healing, which is a process that often takes time.

None of this will be easy, but it will surely be worth it.

Release Yourself - Forgive

Let’s get down to business. I’ve adapted this process from one outlined by Dr. Charles Stanley in his excellent book, “The Gift of Forgiveness.”

1. Set aside some quiet time to begin the work. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself from being interrupted…e.g., get a babysitter, turn off the ringers on your phones.

2. Clear your mind from outside clutter by spending a few moments breathing slowing and deeply.

3. Ask God for wisdom and help in carrying out this important spiritual and emotional transaction.

4. Get out a pen and pad. Write at the top of the paper, “Things (Name of Person) Has Done that Hurt or Angered Me.” This person can be living or deceased. Don’t rush through this part. Even if the events that come to mind feel silly, write them down. If they rise to the top of your mind, they are things that bothered you enough to need this work. After the items have stopped flowing freely, stay quiet a bit longer and “listen,” adding anything else that you think of. This part of the process will occur a little like the way popcorn pops…fast at first, then a few stragglers.

5. Arrange two chairs facing each other and sit in one of them. Place the “offending person” in the other one. The person will be present in your imagination. (It’s usually not wise to “forgive in person.” You can come off as self-righteous, like “I forgive you; aren’t you fortunate that I’m big enough to do this after what you did, you dog?”)

6. Back to the chairs. Tell the person with all the emotion you feel exactly what he or she did and how it harmed you. Talk about each action. Some of the losses you discuss will be tangible ones. For instance, if this person fired you from your job, you literally lost a paycheck and maybe even material possessions. Other, deeper losses are more intangible…loss of identity, self esteem, routine, and relationships. Don’t leave anything out.

7. Choose…make a conscious and determined decision…to forgive so that you are a candidate for having your wounds healed and for moving on. Even if you don’t feel warm, fuzzy feelings about doing it, forgive. You can do it by an act of your will. You will be unlocking the chains that are keeping you bound to the situation.

8. “Tell” the person, “You are forgiven. I release you from the debt you owe me. You are free. (And so am I!)”

9. Affirm this decision by dating it and writing it in a place to which you can readily refer, like a journal.

10. Complete the transaction now by asking for divine help in living out the decision you have made. Though you have made this important choice, your emotions may still be in need of healing. That is a process that can take a little time and additional work.

Forgiveness vs. Healing

It is possible to have genuinely forgiven, after which you experience an emotional setback. You are confronted with a situation that reminds you of what happened, and the old negative feelings resurface. This is the time to remind yourself, even looking at your written documentation if you need to, that you have forgiven. Reaffirm your decision and behave in the most respectful and loving way that the situation allows.

What if the event that triggered your reaction was another offense? In other words, what if the person has not changed, and he or she persists in the hurtful behavior? Your task will be to continue to internally transact the business of forgiveness, while doing whatever you can to make the situation better.

Give the person RESPECTFUL feedback when possible, requesting change. If he or she still continues to act in harmful ways, it makes good sense to protect yourself by setting boundaries. In other words, forgiveness doesn’t always mean that you totally open yourself to the person. That depends on choices that he or she makes.

You contribute to your healing, then, by living your decision in the most positive way possible, by reaffirming your decision to forgive when you are tempted to fall back into the darkness of bitterness, and by praying for grace and growth.

In “Forgive for Good,” another book I recommend, Dr. Fred Luskin advises first focusing on your original “positive intention” as a way to remind yourself in a broader way of what you want in your life. For instance, when you are struggling to forgive a spouse or lover that has wronged you, the positive intention would be to have a caring love relationship. If you’ve been physically injured, the related positive intention might be health and fitness that allows you to work, play, and/or take care of your children. This expands your thinking so that you are less likely to feel that the specific things that have occurred have closed off all possibilities of your reaching your overall goals. Instead, survey the resources you have now (not what you don’t have or what the person took from you) and find little things that you can do to move yourself in the direction of your positive intention.

When you hear yourself asking unanswerable questions like “Why, why, why?” or when you begin to obsess on “What if?”…stop! You’re on a downhill slide that will delay your healing. Yes, it’s perfectly all right to review a situation in order to learn from it and avoid in the future any mistakes you made. But dwelling on these questions obsessively is counterproductive. A better question than “Why?” is “What?” What happened? What were the steps that led in that direction? What did I ignore, though at some level I saw it? These questions provide more insight and are less likely to hang you up. A better concept than “What if?” (which focuses you on the unchangeable) is “What is.” “What is” gives you information about what you have to work with now and allows you to problem solve and take action.

When negative thoughts become intrusive, counter these and distract yourself by:

  • re-affirming the fact that you have been released by your decision to forgive;
  • focusing on thoughts of more positive aspects of your life and the progress you have made;
  • praying and meditating positively;
  • connecting with a positive person in your life…a phone call,visit, or activity;
  • taking some small action on one of your goals.

Yes, even when you’ve genuinely forgiven, your emotional healing may not come instantaneously. You’ll know it’s in progress, however, when you find yourself thinking about what happened less frequently and feeling its effects less intensely.

I leave you with a thought from Samuel Johnson: “A wise man will make haste to forgive, because he knows the true value of time, and will not suffer it to pass away in unnecessary pain.”

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist and professional speaker who is the author of “This Wasn’t Supposed to Happen to Me.” Visit her website, www.DrBevSmallwood.com; or contact Bev at 601.264.0890 or by email, Bev@DrBevSmallwood.com. Also connect with Bev on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, and her blogs, Shrink Rap and New Morning Devotionals.

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