Forgiveness – A Key to Your Psychological Well Being?

Forgiveness - A Key to Your Psychological Well Being? - image  on


by Glynis Sherwood MEd


“When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition
by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way
to dissolve that link and get free.” ~ Katherine Ponder


What Is Forgiveness?


Forgiveness is the offspring of pain, anger or resentment. It involves releasing our feelings of hurt or betrayal in response to feeling slighted or injured by the actions of others. Depending on the nature of the hurt, and the degree to which we have felt undermined or supported over our lifetime, we tend to respond to feeling wronged with emotions ranging from irritation to outrage and despair.


There are many different versions of forgiveness. It can mean everything from pardoning an offense, to letting go of a grudge without excusing the offender(s). It may or may not involve an apology by those who are the source of the hurt. Many people coming into my therapy practice have experienced being harmed or neglected by others, especially in childhood when they were unable to protect themselves. They feel angry, sad, humiliated, scapegoated or traumatized, and wonder how to deal with this distress. Should they try and release the pain, or attempt to find justice, or a combination of the two?  Relationships are often strained or broken with those who have hurt them. And there tends to be a lot of confusion about doing the ‘right thing’.


The focus of this article is on how to find the peace of mind that comes from freeing oneself from pain that is holding you back from being in control of your thoughts and emotions, so you can live life more fully – and contentedly – in the present moment. This kind of forgiveness is not about forgetting or ignoring unacceptable behavior, but rather about letting go of anger, guilt and hurt towards an act, a person, a group or oneself, so you no longer live in the prison of the past.


Forgiveness – Interpersonal Transaction or State of Mind?


Feeling wronged usually involves a relationship between oneself and others. The strength of an individual’s self esteem, and the degree of personal connection – and assumption of trust – will usually determine the extent of the ‘wound’ and its meaning to the injured person. Forgiveness can be an interpersonal transaction, or a state of mind, or both.


When forgiveness involves an Interpersonal Transaction, the ‘offender’ acknowledges some degree of responsibility, ranging from an apology to making amends. This is usually necessary between people who are invested in having healthy, ongoing relationships. For those with close relationships, amends can amount to a commitment to behavioral change. For example, greater honesty, tolerance, demonstrations of commitment or affection between them. The purpose of amends is to acknowledge the hurt, and to pledge to make the relationship right by repairing the rift.


Forgiveness as a ‘State of Mind’ is a process that occurs within the individual. It’s something you do for yourself, not for the ‘offender’. It involves a decision to let go of resentment so that you can move on with life. ‘State of mind’ forgiveness can occur in the absence of a reparative interpersonal transaction. In the case of historical mistreatment, such as childhood abuse, or where the offender is deceased or inaccessible, forgiveness is primarily an internal process, that may or may not involve others, such as living family members.


Forgiveness may also require forgiving oneself for a variety of reasons including: contributing to the problem through choices made and regretted, ‘allowing’ others to hurt you, continuing to feel love for the person who hurt you, and/or feeling rage and craving vengeance, or even acting out revenge.


Why Forgiveness Can Be Essential To Mental Health


After the initial shock and hurt has worn off, it becomes important to gradually be able to release the pain, otherwise the emotional energy invested in resentment and anger becomes toxic and erodes peace of mind, keeping the person trapped in negative emotions and stuck in the past. The emotional costs of resentment are high, and can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, anger, rage, bitterness, depression and low self worth. Unrelenting resentment can also contribute to stress related illnesses such as heart disease, or problems with coping such as substance abuse. Letting go of a grudge improves quality of life, with the benefits including reclaiming the ability to live for today, focusing on the life and relationships you want to have, being at peace and creating room for happiness again. These are essential ingredients for a mentally healthy existence.


How To Forgive


Give up on all hope of a better past” – Matt Child


Forgiveness is a process of psychological resolution that has freedom from pain as its goal. How effectively we respond to hurt and resentment, both in the short and long term, will influence our ability to rebound emotionally and to feel in control of our lives.


When someone hurts you, especially deeply, how do you overcome your anger, resistance and possible desire for revenge? How do you go forward with someone you love, when the memory of unloving actions lingers in your mind? If a relationship is over, possibly due to hurtful behavior, what needs to happen next to let go of the pain and move on? How do your release dreams of a life you could have had, if only you – or someone else – had made different choices?

Here are 4 key steps to the process of forgiveness:

  1. Feel – Don’t repress your feelings. Allow your emotions some breathing room and accept that you are hurt, angry, sad, confused or disillusioned. Don’t censor or judge your emotions, as they are telling you something is wrong that needs to be righted. At minimum, acknowledge your feelings without apology to yourself, it will help you to calm down. Confide in a trusted friend if it helps.
  2. Release – Ask yourself how you want to feel at the end of this experience, and what you want to do with your pain. Identify what’s making it hard to let go. Explore the meaning of the hurt. This is the deepest part of the pain that’s making you hold on to anger and resentment. If you are clinging to resentment because the hurt has made you feel bad about yourself, you are giving your power away to someone else to define your value as a human being. Get support to help you regain your confidence and self esteem. If your resentment has filled you with hatred and vengeful feelings towards those who have hurt you, be honest with yourself about the cost to your psychological well being and other relationships. Get counselling if you are truly stuck.Remember the goal of forgiveness – to free yourself of the prison of living in a grudge state. Allow yourself to let go, knowing that you are doing a service for yourself. It may help to perform a ritual that will assist you in releasing the pain. For example, writing a letter that expresses all your hurt angry feelings, then tearing it up or burning it. Remember, you are not your hurt and anger. Imagine those feelings disappearing into torn fragments or smoke.
  3. Learn – Take stock. Uncover the lesson that this experience needs to teach you. Decide what you need more of (or less of) in your life and relationships. Do you need to respect yourself more and, in so doing, command the respect of others? Should you be setting healthier boundaries? If you were harmed in childhood, do you need to no longer let hurtful adults – who should have protected you – define your worth and lovableness as a human being? Do you need to be more trusting or less naive? What do you need to absorb from this painful experience to strengthen yourself in the long run?
  4. Return – Understand that anger and vengeful feelings can flare up from time to time. Also know that emotions are different than behavior. As long as you don’t act out from anger and vengeance, and are focusing on the big picture of letting go, you are well on the way to healing. Concentrate on what you have going for you and what you want your future to look like.
photo credit: symphony of love via photopin cc

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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, and Certified Addictions Counsellor, specializes in recovery from Chronic Anxiety, Difficult Family Relationships, Loss and Grief and Love Addiction.