It’s one thing to talk about forgiveness; it’s another thing to actually forgive. That’s why I want to wrap up this “Fall Into Forgiveness” series with some specific strategies you can use when you’re finding it hard to forgive yourself or someone else.
One helpful thing, as we go through each strategy, is to see forgiveness as a process. If forgiveness is letting go of our guilt and animosity, we have to acknowledge those feelings can run deep. There can be layers to the pain we are experiencing and there is no quick fix.
You may have to repeat one strategy multiple times or try multiple strategies at once before you are truly able to forgive. And that’s ok. Give yourself some grace.
Also, I’ve already mentioned two forgiveness strategies earlier in this series: rituals in Part 4 and mindfulness in Part 5. I would encourage you to revisit and try those two strategies in addition to trying the three strategies I’m covering here.
Name Your Feelings
Simply naming or a labeling your feelings may sound too simple, but science tells us it works! UCLA psychologists conducted a study that showed when you attach a word to your experience, the activity in your brain’s amygdala decreases, making your feelings less intense.
How does this work? Your amygdala is responsible for controlling your reaction to emotions. When you experience or even think about a situation that makes you angry, for example, the activity in your amygdala increases. Essentially, an alarm goes off in your brain and your body goes into “fight or flight” mode.
The problem here is the amygdala can’t always distinguish between a real or perceived threat. That’s why naming is so powerful! When you name the anger, you are turning off the alarm. One of the psychologists at UCLA, Matthew D. Lieberman, called it “hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.” Or, in our context, we can call it letting go.
Naming your feelings can be done in whatever form you feel most comfortable with, whether that’s talking it out or writing it out. You may want to sit down with a trusted friend or a therapist and tell them about the situation you are trying to forgive. Or, you may want to write it all down on a piece of paper or in your journal. Either way, be sure you name the specific feelings you are experiencing as you try to forgive, so you can actually let them go.
Symbolically Let Go
Once you’ve taken time to name your feelings, find a way to symbolically release them. You may want to bury, burn or tear up the piece of paper on which you wrote down your feelings. You may want to close your eyes and imagine the feelings leaving your body.
Some of these suggestions may sound a little crazy, but it’s much better than holding on to emotional baggage for too long. After all, emotional baggage can make you feel crazy anyway. So, if you’re going to do something a little crazy, it might as well be the thing that sets you free!
Whatever you decide to do here, just make sure it’s safe and actually targeted towards your freedom. Symbolically letting go is not permission for revenge.
In her book, Forgiveness: 21 Days to Forgive Everyone for Everything, Iyanla Vanzant explores the relationship between forgiveness and judgements. She defines judgement as “the belief that things are not as they should be, as we want them to be, or as we need them to be.”
The idea that things need to be or turn out “a certain way” is central to our unwillingness to forgive. Have you ever refused to forgive someone on the basis that whatever they did to you was not as it should have been or as you wanted it to be? Have you not forgiven someone because they weren’t who you needed them to be? Have you refused to forgive yourself for the very same reasons – because you shouldn’t have done something or you shouldn’t be something?
Forgiveness – letting go of our guilt and animosity – cannot happen without releasing these judgements. We have to release the unnecessary expectations we place on ourselves, others and even on life itself. We have to release the need for life to be perfect, for things to always go our way, and for people to be anything other than human.
This is a tough one, I know, but ultimately it’s a matter of changing our perspective. Again, I love how Iyanla frames it in her book:
“What is often challenging for the human mind to accept is that regardless of how hard, challenging, frightening, or difficult an experience may seem, everything is just as it needs to be in order for us to heal, grow and learn…This is why we are faced with challenges and difficulties. This is how we ultimately learn to trust the process of life…”
This shift in perspective is key. It’s a move from victimhood to empowerment. What if we stopped judging ourselves and others for our shortcomings and mistakes and started accepting these as opportunities for growth? What if we believed life itself is our teacher? Is it possible that forgiveness would come a little easier? I think so!
Forgiveness is possible. Growth is possible.
In every difficult circumstance you have two options: you can wallow in shame and blame or you can rise up stronger and wiser. I hope you’ll choose to see that when you fall into forgiveness, when you let go of that weight that’s been holding you down, you’ll finally be free to rise up stronger and wiser than you ever imagined.
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