Forgiveness is a bit like the European Brexit movement: no-one really knows how to articulate exactly what it is, or is sure of everything it might involve, including what the consequences might be. We’re not really clear who’s going to benefit, or what it will cost in real terms, or how to do it successfully. We're afraid we might end up worse off, but we don't really know how it will be afterwards.
Unfortunately, I have nothing useful to offer about Brexit, but much of my interest in personal and spiritual development has led me to discover some empowering insights into forgiveness.
In my work, I’ve specialised in helping people to forgive pretty much every kind of thing there is to forgive, including abuse, betrayal, abandonment all the way through to forgiving inanimate objects like helicopters. What I’ve concluded is two things: -
1. We tragically underestimate the transformational potential of forgiveness in our own lives. It is like a latent superpower in all of us. It gives us the ability to completely resolve and free ourselves from past and present pain. It can heal the body by lowering stress and reducing cortisol levels, it can heal relationships with others and when you practice self-forgiveness, you can transform your relationship with yourself as well.
2. We tragically underestimate the transformational potential of forgiveness for the world. The truth is, if each person forgave everyone and everything in their individual lives. Individual peace would naturally spill into a culture of “local peace” and eventually, by definition, create global peace. You could argue that not everyone might be willing to do this. But you can’t argue with the potential, the logic or with the vision of individual forgiveness as the key to global peace.
So that means, right now, we are faced with the genuine potential that if more and more people took responsibility for forgiveness in their own lives , we could start to create a world at peace… So the question is - why don’t we? What are we waiting for? Why are we so reluctant to forgive each other?
I have been as fascinated to discover why we don’t forgive as much as I have in synthesising everything I’ve learned about how we can. Why is it that some people are able to forgive the most heinous of crimes, some even able to befriend the perpetrator; whilst others truly struggle to forgive family members or co-workers for the tiny grudges, gripes and grievances of everyday life?
What I’ve discovered is there seem to be at least five obstacles to forgiveness. When you know and can overcome each one, it will make authentic forgiveness possible, even “easy”.
The very first obstacle is having a clear, useful, powerful definition of forgiveness. There’s a lot of vagueness and assumptions made about what we mean by forgiveness, and actually pinning it down, can be liberating in and of itself.
Knowing what forgiveness actually is and isn’t can clear up a lot of our initial resistance to the idea of it. We are not going to want to forgive someone if we’re afraid that forgiving them will make us vulnerable or they’ll be “getting away with it”. We don’t want to be seen as “weak”, or get taken advantage of, or we’re afraid we’ll have to reconcile with that person and let them back in our lives and then the situation might happen all over again.
The truth is, forgiveness means none of these things. In the words of the late founder of the More To Life personal/spiritual development program, K Bradford Brown:
“Forgiveness is the absolute refusal
to hold ill will against someone
for what they did or didn’t do.”
That’s it. Not holding ill will. Refusing to hold onto your resentment. Absolute refusal. What I love about this definition is it’s clear that you are the one with the power.
It doesn’t matter whether or not the other person apologizes or is sorry for what they’ve done. It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve been resenting someone, and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve resented them for, you can still let it go.
Resenting someone ten times harder won’t make any difference to them, nor guarantee any change their behaviour, so you may as well go in the opposite direction and choose to let it all go.
Resentment is like poison that swims only in your veins - the other person might be completely oblivious about how you feel. But you will be twisted up inside - burdened by your resentment even though, the truth is, you have the power to free yourself. You are always the primary beneficiary of your forgiveness.
If someone plonked their enormous suitcase into your lap whilst you were sitting down, if you stood up (without holding onto it), it would immediately fall to the ground. You are the one choosing whether you hold on to it and drag the weight of your resentment around with you for the rest of your life or simply let it go. That’s it.
Just like the quantum physicists tell us that light can be both a particle and a wave at the same time, forgiveness is both a process and a choice. Knowing what’s been making you hold on to your resentment - the velcro between you and another person is an illuminating part of the process. Some people take a long time to feel “ready” to forgive. I never insist anyone forgives. It’s always your choice. When you’re ready. But there are steps you can take to help make that process much easier and to choose it sooner rather than later.
When you learn how to let it go - you become like Teflon - it doesn’t really matter what the other person might throw at you, none of it will stick.
In the great chess game of life, the only piece over which you have any control is yourself. You can still ask the other person to stop, you can challenge them, implore them, take them through litigation if necessary… all with good will in your heart and with an open mind.
You can “consciously uncouple” or you can have an acrimonious divorce. You choose how that will be, depending on whether or not you forgive your partner as part of that process.
In response to one of the terrorist attacks in 2015, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said,
“It is not enough simply to pray… new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges… I believe these solutions lie beyond religion in the promotion of a concept I call secular ethics. This is an approach to educating ourselves based on scientific findings, common experience and common sense.”
I believe that forgiveness is a secular ethics “superpower” and one we all need to start practicing urgently and in earnest. We can each clear up the little bit of the world that we have complete dominion over - our own hearts.
Bill Gates had a vision of a computer on every desk…. I have a vision of forgiveness in every heart. I invite you to join me at the start of this interior revolution of peace. Your practice of forgiveness is an act of amnesty for humanity. Together we can be the (r)evolution of peace.
(For more information about the other obstacles to forgiveness and my 7-step Forgiveness Made Easy process, please visit www.forgivenessmadeeasy.co.uk
Or check out the book Forgiveness Made Easy - available on Amazon.)
Human beings have evolved with the capacity for both revenge and forgiveness. We might not always seek revenge, but we can also end up never forgiving certain people in our lives. Sometimes, forgiveness feels like the last thing we want to do.
Many people don’t really know what forgiveness is and most people think it’s something that it isn’t - like letting people off the hook. Research has also shown that even when people believe forgiveness is important, they don’t know where to start and think they’d need some support to do it.
Most importantly, many people aren’t even aware of the awesome benefits you can get from forgiveness, when you do it. Here are the five main areas of your life that forgiveness will improve:
1. PHYSICAL HEALTH
Forgiveness is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your physical health. Scientific research has shown that it can help:
2. MENTAL HEALTH
Forgiveness is the only way you can truly resolve the past. You can talk about it, ruminate on it, process it and complain about it, but until you actually forgive what needs to be forgiven, you’re only part of the way there. Forgiveness can help you:
Forgiveness will improve every single relationship you have, every one you’ve had in the past and every one you’re going to have in the future. After you forgive, you’ll feel like being more loving toward everyone in your life:
Studies of brain wave patterns of people in the process of forgiving those who’d hurt or betrayed them, revealed an unlikely benefit of forgiving - it can significantly increase your alpha-waves - the brainwave frequency associated with enhanced creativity, problem solving and even athletic ability. What did the people who did the study find was the biggest single factor suppressing alpha waves? Holding on to anger and grudges. When you forgive, you:
5. THE WORLD
You may have heard this vivid description of bearing a grudge: “Holding on to anger and resentment is like setting yourself on fire and hoping the other person will be bothered by the smoke.” You are always the primary beneficiary of your forgiveness - the one who sets themselves free. But when you forgive, you’re also making a difference in the world. You’re setting an example for what’s possible. When you forgive, you contribute the peace in your heart to the world, and you will:
You might be thinking “Well, I can probably forgive most things, but there’s one or two people who were downright wrong and I’m never forgiving them.”
Or you might want to forgive, but just don’t know where to start.
In my coaching work over many years, I’ve witnessed the utterly transformational power of forgiveness. I’ve had the privilege of coaching people of all ages, from all walks of life. I worked with a wonderful woman in her 70s, who, after she’d forgiven her abuser, said, “All that bad feeling I was carrying in my body, since I was 15, it’s all gone!” She’s typical of anyone who does forgive - they feel like they’ve resolved the trouble of a lifetime. It’s inspiring and humbling, because the way they’ve done it – the way they’ve set themselves free, is by refusing to hold their ill will against someone else.
So the fact that we’re not all queuing up to forgive each other means there must be really convincing reasons why not. If forgiveness has this many amazing benefits, why isn’t forgiveness taught in schools, offered as part of our mental health services, why isn’t it part of our everyday lives?
I’m fascinated by not just the phenomenal power and potential of forgiveness, but also why we don’t often choose it. What are the biggest obstacles to forgiveness?
In my next blog, I’ll share the six most common mistakes you need to be aware of that might be getting in the way of your forgiveness.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below – what’s your major obstacle to forgiveness? What is your most burning question about forgiveness? What do you need most help with?
Here’s to your peaceful heart!