I think it’s safe to say that everyone who reads this has been hurt by someone, either emotionally or physically. Think back to one of those moments. Now, I want you to imagine that the hurt they caused you gets drawn out of your body and soul and is transformed into a large burning coal in the palm of your hand. Imagine you hold this orange, sizzling coal in your open hand. What would be your normal reaction? Jerk your hand away as fast as possible and let it fall to the ground, right?
Now imagine this same burning coal in your hand, but instead you let it sit there, maybe even close your fingers around it. You just sit there with it scorching through your skin, no matter the pain, no matter the damage or stress it is causing. This is un-forgiveness.
If you are a right brain oriented person, that metaphor might be enough to convince you of the damage un-forgiveness causes, but what about the left brain folks who need something more literal? The answer here is somatic symptoms. “Somatic symptoms” is just a fancy way to say that our bodies bare the scares of what our minds and emotions are doing. If I get stuck in bitterness (un-forgiveness) against someone, physical symptoms that can occur as a direct result of this bitterness could be muscle tension and pain, nausea, restless sleep, skins rashes, fibromyalgia, etc. These facts show us how vital it is to practice forgiveness.
Forgiveness is something often misunderstood because it can be so ambiguous and situational at times. The goal here is to offer some clarification on what forgiveness is so we can better apply it to our lives.
What is Forgiveness, Really?
- It extracts the poison
Dr. Wayne Dyer, a well known speaker and author of “10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace”, often said that, “Nobody dies from a snake bite.” He explained that the bite itself will never kill you; instead it is the poison that flows in your veins that destroys your life. Forgiveness teaches us that when people hurt us, it is not the act itself that has the most power, but what we choose to do with the poison that results from the act. I want to be very clear here. Some hurts inflicted on us in life are horrific and will take a long time to heal, just like a really bad snake bite, but the poison that the hurt injected into you is what will truly kill you because it robs you of joy, love, safety, and trust until one day you give up completely.
Forgiveness is the procedure that extracts the poison from your heart and mind. We cannot pretend that forgiveness heals the wound itself (the wound needs its own work) but forgiveness allows for the possibility of healing and keeps the wound from causing more damage than it should.
- It works in a circle
Forgiveness is not a straight line from point “A” to point “B”. It’s not even a wobbly line. Too many people that I have worked with had the expectation that, once they forgave someone, the issue would be permanently resolved within them and never come back. Unfortunately life experience shows the opposite. Instead, forgiveness can be seen as a circle. You must choose to forgive, and forgive, and forgive again, and so on.
As humans, we often ask questions like, “How could I have done better?”, “I wish I would have said…”, or “How could they do that to me?” We can circle back on our bitterness and get tempted to pick up the pain again after we have chosen to lay it down. This happens especially when we feel justified in our anger or if the behavior hasn’t changed yet; our motivation to forgive drops through the floor. Why is it that we are so willing to circle back on our anger, but not our forgiveness? This gets into the issue of vulnerability, which I will discuss more in the next point. Vulnerability is exactly why forgiveness must be used in a circle.
The most healthy and peaceful individuals I have met in this world are those who exist in this circle. They are prepared to forgive, before the wrong has even happened because they understand that mending the snake bite is hard enough on its own. Extracting the poison immediately, rather than contending with the wound and poison’s damage at the same time, just makes sense.
- It protects and creates vulnerability
This is one of the hardest parts about forgiveness and I would guess that most of us stumble on this point. If I choose to forgive someone who hurt me, I must also be vulnerable. I must be able to let go of my anger, distance, or being “above” the other person. This is relatively easy if the infraction is minor or if the other person has proven that they have changed. This is impressively difficult if the wound is deep or the person has not proven to be safe yet. This is where boundaries come in (check out this blog post for more on boundaries).
If the other person is not safe yet, setting boundaries with them is vital. If you still feel your bitterness is justified, you likely need to set boundaries with yourself. Much like building a warm house in the wilderness, boundaries create a safe place for you to become vulnerable. Unless I let go of that control and become vulnerable, I will not be able to forgive. Forgiveness, working in tandem with boundaries, protects and creates a safe place for vulnerability.
- It helps you love you
Another very tough aspect of forgiveness is when you have done the wrong, whatever it is, and need to forgive yourself. Billions of people in this world walk with the weight of their mistakes tied around their heart everyday. Leave that weight there long enough and it will start to choke out your value. Imagine that not forgiving yourself is like wrapping your heart in barbed wire. The tighter the wire, the more likely things are going to be mangled on their way in or out. After a while, misunderstandings are common and lies about yourself start to look like truth. People who do this often say things to themselves like, “I’m such a screw up!”, “How could I be so stupid?”, or “How could anyone love me?” A while back, a client of mine summed up the solution to this perfectly. They said, “I would never let someone else talk to me like I talk to me. What makes me so special that I can abuse me and get away with it?” It’s time to stop taking the place of God. It’s time to accept what amends you needed to make and stop the endless punishment.
Forgiveness of self peels back the strangling barbed wire one piece at a time, allowing messages of love, trust, and value to join with your heart unscathed. It allows these same messages to flow out of your heart in one piece so others can understand and trust them again. Forgiveness and amends, working together, let your value start to shine through again. Where there is value, there is love.
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I know there is more wisdom about forgiveness out there. Post it here! I know there are more questions. I want them! Many minds create a more complete picture so “grab a paint brush” and help me out.