Release Yourself by Forgiving

To be wronged is nothing unless you continue to remember it.

Confucius

A few years ago I shared an idea I was working on with a co-worker. He used that information in a way that, at the time, I thought discredited me and hurt my career.

I was angry. I felt my trust had been violated and that I’d been used.

I didn’t trust him. I didn’t want to talk him or attend meetings that he was part of. I filtered everything he said through my distrust and anger. I gossiped with other people about him and felt better when other people agreed with me about his shoddy ethics.

This went on for a long time, and at least one person told me I should let it go. But I wasn’t willing to do that. I was determined not to forgive him.  I needed to make him pay for what he did to me, and I needed to show that I wasn’t a door mat to be walked all over.

I was working with a life coach at the time, and this slight to my career came up from time to time. My coach would tell me that I needed to figure out how to forgive him and move on.

I’d politely tell her that I didn’t see any reason to forgive him when I was the one wronged and he’d never apologized or even mentioned the incident. I wanted to hang on to my anger.

Then one day I read a passage that said forgiveness has nothing to do with the person you are forgiving. It went on to say that forgiveness was about you, about letting you move on from whatever incident you were holding onto, about freeing up the energy you were using to be angry and hold a grudge.

Whoa! Stop the presses. This had never occurred to me before.

I always thought of forgiving as saying “What you did is OK, I don’t mind … or at least I can live with it.” I thought it was about letting the other person off the hook. I thought you forgave people who made a mistake, but not necessarily people who were purposefully hurtful.

As I finished reading those sentences about forgiveness being about my own well being I immediately thought of this person and then thought, “I need to forgive him.”

I suddenly felt lighter. I didn’t need to tell him the words; I just needed to do it for myself.

Surprisingly, after this I was able to listen to his ideas with an open mind. I could talk to him when I ran into him in the hall without feeling awkward and hostile.

Forgiving Doesn’t Mean Excusing or Forgetting

Before I read that passage I thought that if I forgave him for what he did, I was saying that what he did was OK. I thought it meant I was giving him back all of my trust and that it opened me up to being hurt again.

But forgiving didn’t mean I condoned what he did, or that I would suddenly start sharing all of my ideas, or invite him over for dinner. It just meant that I could engage with him professionally and openly.

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you are saying that it is OK to do whatever that person did. It also doesn’t mean that you have to forget what happened and start with a fresh slate.

Forgiving only means you are willing to leave the incident and your feelings about it in the past. There is nothing wrong with learning from whatever incident you forgave (especially if it is part of a pattern).

The difference between forgiving and not forgiving is this:

  • If someone lied to you in the past and you are holding on to the hurt, you might approach everything they say thinking things like, “He’s a liar, why would I trust anything he says.”
  • If you forgive, you can approach new interactions with an open mind, taking everything you know into account. Instead of immediate distrust, you can evaluate the situation and what is being said from the here and now. Knowing the person has lied to you before is just one piece of information allowing you to apply some caution to the current situation, but it isn’t the primary thought that colors your current judgement.

Holding a Grudge is Selfish and Only Hurts You

When I look back at the time when I held a grudge and refused to forgive, I can see that not only was I hurting myself internally, I probably hurt my reputation more than he did.

Most people didn’t know what he did to me, and I probably appeared petty and awkward in meetings; it probably looked like I was the one unable to collaborate. But I didn’t see any of this at the time because I was too busy staying angry and not moving on. I thought I was making him pay for what he did.

But if I look back now I can see that I also felt good when I gossiped and someone agreed with me. I felt justified and righteous in my anger. I liked that feeling. I’m not proud of it, but I liked it.

Holding On Instead of Forgiving Wastes Your Energy

It takes energy to hold on to your anger and refuse to forgive. Every time you think about whatever was done to you, every time you let it color your judgement, every time you gossip about it you are using energy to keep your anger going — and to keep yourself living in the past.

When you forgive, you free up that mental energy to focus on things you want to do. You can use that energy to stay present, and see what is happening in the here and now – allowing you to make better judgements.

Make Forgiving a Conscious Effort

This instance of forgiving someone for something I was bitter about made it easier to see when I was holding on to my anger, and when I need to forgive. Now I try to make forgiving a conscious effort rather than ignoring whatever is bothering me.

For me forgiving is a quick three-step process:

  • Bring the person you are forgiving to mind (the person not the action or incident that made you angry — you don’t need to bring the anger and animosity to mind again)
  • Take a deep breath
  • Think, “I forgive you for this.” while exhaling slowly.  Mean it when you think it.

It is amazing the difference it’s made since I realized that forgiving someone else is about my peace of mind instead of theirs, and how much forgiving has freed me, and improved my relationships with the people I forgave.

Do you think forgiveness is important to your well being? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Check out what other smart people have to say about forgiveness (even the Mayo Clinic):

Photo by: hollyhennypenny



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