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How to make sure you’re doing forgiveness right

Shutterstock-Antonio Guillem
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If holding a grudge comes naturally, here's what you can do about it.

Do you want to stop living like a prisoner of bitterness and resentment? Then, forgive. Sounds easy, right? Well, no, it’s not easy at all, but it’s easier to work on forgiveness than to go through life dragging around heavy chains of hate towards the people who’ve hurt you.

What is forgiveness?

First, we need to understand what forgiveness is. Forgiving means canceling the moral debt that someone owes us. The greater the offense that’s been committed, the greater the need to forgive and be forgiven.

Three points to keep in mind

The first step towards true forgiveness is having the humility to recognize that we also have offended others, and that we need to be forgiven, too.

Remember, also, that forgiveness isn’t a feeling; it’s an act of the will. Don’t wait for warm feelings of love and forgiveness toward someone who has hurt you. Forgive, and the feelings will come later.

Forgiving is an action that’s actually good for us. We need to forgive in order to find interior healing. We can be fooled into thinking that our grudge somehow hurts or affects the other person, but that’s like taking poison and hoping the other person will be hurt by it.

Common myths and facts about forgiveness

 Here are some common myths about forgiveness. Do you recognize any of your own objections here?

  • “He doesn’t deserve my forgiveness.” True! It may be true that the person who hurt us doesn’t deserve our pardon. However, we do deserve to be free and at peace.
  • “I don’t forgive because I can’t.” Not true! If we don’t forgive, it’s because we don’t want to; forgiveness is an act of free will.
  • “I can forgive, but I can’t forget.” We can all relate to this one! Unless we have some sort of memory problem, it’s hard for us to forget things that hurt us. Not only that — often, it’s best for us to remember, just so we can be on our guard. Now, if when I say, “I haven’t forgotten,” I mean that I’m waiting for the right moment to get my revenge or to watch the person who hurt me suffer, that’s a different matter, and it goes against what we’re talking about here. So, in short, forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting; the ideal is to remember without cultivating the poison of bitterness.
  • “Forgiveness necessarily involves spending time with the person who hurt us.” Myth! In fact, often it can be better to keep a distance for a while. Maybe staying away from whomever hurt us can actually help us to forgive and heal.
  • “I am obliged to tell someone when I have forgiven them.” Not true! Forgiveness is a personal act that takes place at the moment I make the decision to pardon someone. It takes effect whether or not I let the other person know. Forgiveness is a one-way street.
  • “We cannot forgive until the offender has said that he or she is sorry.” Myth! Forgiveness is a choice, and we can always choose to forgive, even if the aggressor hasn’t sought forgiveness.
  • “I can’t forgive you again, because I’ve already forgiven you many times.” Not true! Forgiveness is renewable; we can always forgive. However, perhaps we should make sure there are no more opportunities for the person to hurt us. Setting boundaries is healthy and necessary, especially with people who take advantage of others.
  • “If I forgive, I should renew my friendship with the person I’ve forgiven.” Not necessarily.
  • “I have the right to deliberately refuse to forgive.” That’s not a good way to think. Do you really think you’re better than the person who offended you?

A road that never ends

You’ve finally forgiven: congratulations! Now be patient with yourself, because you will probably have to renew that act of forgiveness interiorly many more times. Keep choosing to reject any thoughts of revenge, resentment, and self-pity, and don’t expect warm, fuzzy feelings to come right away. Be patient with yourself. Wounds of the heart can take time to heal, but it will get easier with time.

This article was originally published in the Spanish edition of Aleteia and has been translated and/or adapted here for English speaking readers.

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