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Enlightened teachers of every faith have exemplified a willingness to let go of anger, resentment, and vengeance toward those who have harmed them. Major world religions extol the practice. Yet, how does one move from the anger of injustice to the peace of forgiveness? What happens to feelings of rage, sadness, disappointment, or anger stemming from an offense?
The following steps will help you navigate painful emotions, separate forgiveness from justice, and take back the power of your own emotional energy.
Clarify Your Emotions
The fact that you are contemplating forgiveness indicates that you have experienced injustice at the hands of another human being. The scale of the offense does not matter. Strong emotions were catalyzed through your experience.
The challenge that most people encounter when approaching forgiveness is that they try to jump right into the final state of surrender. However, before you can let go, you must first acknowledge your emotions. One of the easiest ways to do this is by writing a letter to the individual(s) who mistreated you. The letter is not going to be delivered. It is a means through which you may clarify your feelings.
Without reservation, write down everything that you wish you could say to the person through whom you experienced pain. Do not censor yourself. Feel free to use colorful language, “you” statements, repetition, and other expressions that you would likely withhold in conversation.
Allow yourself to move through all the nuances of your emotions: anger, grief, despair, anguish, frustration, resistance, and disappointment. Discuss how the incident has impacted your life. Keep writing until you cannot think of anything else to say. Only when you have divested yourself of emotional content are you ready to move to the next step.
Whatever you are seeking to forgive happened in the past. Yet, most people get stuck mentally resisting what has already occurred. Thoughts such as, “This should not have happened. My friend should have known that would hurt my feelings. If she loved me, she would not behave in such a way. I am the victim of this situation. I did not deserve this,” poison the mind with resistance to the past event. There is nothing more futile than fighting with the past.
The way out of resistance is through acceptance. To be clear, acceptance is not the same thing as condoning. You can accept a situation without negating the other person’s wrongdoing. Releasing resistance implies that you let go of the desire for the past to be different. It indicates that you accept the situations, people, and circumstances that have collectively created your life story. Releasing resistance does not mean that you would have chosen an offense, but it does mean that you can choose to grow from it.
Allow the Past To Empower Your Values
The past plays one of two roles in a person’s life. It either serves as the purveyor of victimization or the engine of growth. The past cannot create both a victim and growth mindset simultaneously. In order to develop spiritually, one must forgo the victim thought, “Why has this happened to me?” in favor of the growth mindset which says, “I choose to use this for my good.”
The quickest route to finding good in difficult experiences is through meaning. Has your challenge made you stronger, wiser, or more compassionate? Has it informed your own values or fostered a worthy goal in your life? Reflect on what you have become or what you can still learn from the experience. As yourself, questions such as the following:
What qualities do I have that someone without this experience might be lacking?
If I were to let go of the emotional content from the past and just keep the lessons, what would those lessons be?
How have my values been changed through this experience?
How have I grown through this experience? If I have not grown as much as I would like through the experience, what is holding me back?
What would it look like if I were to release the victim mindset and step completely into a growth mentality?
Define Yourself by Your Values, Not Your Past
Forgiveness is letting go of the emotions from your past. It does not negate, condone, or otherwise nullify accountability. What it does is free you from emotional bondage. It breaks the power that another person still exercises over your emotions. Forgiveness is for your benefit.
To forgive, remind yourself, “Experience is my greatest teacher. This experience has made me stronger, wiser, empathic, etc. I give thanks for what it has taught me and I now release myself from any negative emotions pertaining to this lesson. I am free.” You may need to replay this affirmation many times. If at any point, you feel strong emotions bubbling up, go back a step. Take your time.
Forgiveness may not be a linear process yet it is possible to let go of bitterness and replace it with gratitude. This kind of transformation is possible only by transferring your focus from what went wrong to the good that can come from it. Universal law suggests that thoughts expand.
The more you contemplate the good that can come from a situation the more it will grow. One day you may look back and see that experiences which you once found to be disconcerting are, in hindsight, teachers sent to help you realize your full potential.