The following is adapted from Your Real Life.
The ultimate goal of forgiveness is to use the past to learn and grow in a loving way. Psychologists who study forgiveness have found that in the aftermath of incidents that resulted in being wronged or hurt, people’s first natural response is to seek vengeance. This isn’t surprising given our brains’ negativity bias. The power of forgiveness comes from flipping that vengeful inclination on its head and choosing to instead respond with empathy and compassion.
Choosing to forgive enables you to live more fully in your own authenticity by acting on the value of generosity, because forgiveness comes from generosity. There is power in being generous with love and forgiveness—even if you choose not to reconcile.
Reconciliation is the coming together of people to restore a broken or damaged relationship. Forgiveness is an intentional and voluntary process wherein a person who feels victimized undergoes a change in feelings toward the offense that led to the sense of victimization. This allows that person to overcome the negative emotions (resentment, vengeance, etc.) associated with the events and people involved.
You can’t have reconciliation without forgiveness, but you can have forgiveness without reconciliation, and, if you let it, forgiveness will help you make it through anything.
The Power of Forgiveness
When we ask ourselves why we forgive, evidence demonstrates that keeping hostility, resentment, or preoccupation with ill feelings only serves to hurt us emotionally and physically. There is also evidence that forgiveness is regarded well in our communities and helps deepen the shared sense of humanity we all feel with suffering.
To me, this is proof enough that forgiveness is a key to moving on, growing, and learning from adversity—and ultimately gaining resilience.
Learning and self-insight can be found in the acts of forgiveness and reconciliation. The brain learns by creating neural pathways in the part of itself that processes events (the prefrontal cortex). Learning also happens when you change that pathway and structure (neuroplasticity). When you forgive someone, you actually learn how to feel differently about the transgressor. There is a before-and-after effect in your brain that shifts your thinking, decreasing your desire to take revenge against your transgressor and increasing the desire to make peace with them.
You develop your psychological resources by repeating and sustaining experiences in your life, like when practicing driving or playing an instrument, so that the actions become almost automatic for you. To become a more forgiving person, you need to continue to build and install experiences of forgiveness in the brain—in other words, practice.
The more you practice forgiving yourself and others, the better you get at it. It becomes easier to generate love for yourself and the people around you.
Practicing Forgiveness of Self
Forgiving yourself is often a much harder pill to swallow, so here are some starter questions to prompt you in the journey of forgiveness of self. I suggest getting comfortable first by sitting or lying down. Breathing gently will also help your body relax.
Ask yourself first, Is the time right to seek forgiveness from myself? If not, what needs to be addressed before I’m ready to forgive myself for all my past self-harms?
Next, ask yourself, What is that truth? While working to feel the feelings and drop the story, it helps to first understand that story. What’s true and what’s just fabricated by your inner critic in an attempt to fill a void of missing context? Seek facts and accurate observations about the event(s) you need to forgive. You’re looking to tell yourself the truth about what it is you seek to forgive. If you’re trying to forgive something that isn’t true, you’re not really doing the work of forgiveness; you’re just further fabricating stories.
Follow this by asking, How do I feel about this truth? Name and explore these feelings further and examine why you have them. For example, are these emotions connected to feeling you’ve done wrongdoing or harm? Does this cause shame or guilt? Whatever you’re feeling, try to see if you’re able to be objective about it.
Then, What is the opportunity or cost if I forgive this harmful act? What is the opportunity or cost if I don’t? When we don’t weigh the risks and costs of forgiving or not forgiving ourselves, we miss the bigger picture of how that forgiveness fits in with the rest of our lives. This understanding is important to gain perspective about what we are seeking to forgive in the first place.
What You Gain From Forgiveness
Practicing forgiveness has been correlated with better health, happiness, and a sense of serenity. Research also suggests that people who practice forgiveness are better at empathizing with others, connecting with their spiritual energy and higher purpose, and developing close connections with others.
Further, it’s been demonstrated that those who find it hard to forgive are often stuck in the part of their brain that ruminates on the past. Dwelling on hostile or vengeful thoughts is an energy vacuum that sucks out all your power, which then contributes to self-sabotaging behaviors. People who practice forgiveness are more able to move on from past hurts, including self-inflicted ones.
There is also research that suggests remembering you forgave someone helps to rewire your brain from a “me” to a “we” mindset that focuses more on community and relationships. This shift helps bring people closer together and inspires in those around you a willingness to help others.
Forgiving yourself not only helps you heal from negative events but do so in a way that enables you to move forward in a positive manner that will allow you to forgive others more easily and give you the joy from it.
For more advice on how to practice forgiveness, you can find Your Real Life on Amazon.