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August 20, 2008 > Counseling Corner: Forgiveness - A Gift to Yourself

Counseling Corner: Forgiveness - A Gift to Yourself

By Anne Chan, PhD, MFT

August is the month of "International Forgiveness Day" (first Sunday of August), "Be an Angel Day" (August 22), "Kiss and Make Up Day" (August 25), and "Global Forgiveness Day" (August 27).

Do you spot a pattern here?

Seems like the powers that be want us to reflect on forgiveness from the first to the last weeks of August.

But what is forgiveness, really? People tend to think of forgiveness as excusing bad behavior or as reconciliation. Others might think of forgiveness as a religious practice applicable only to believers.

Certainly, there are many differing definitions and concepts about forgiveness. I personally love the definition offered by Dr. Robert Enright, a developmental psychologist and pioneering researcher on forgiveness. Enright describes forgiveness as "Giving up the resentment to which you are entitled and offering to the persons who hurt you friendlier attitudes to which they are not entitled."

Here's another useful definition coined by Dr. Fred Luskin, Senior Fellow at the Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation and author of Forgive for Good: "Peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story."

Note what these two definitions do not say about forgiveness:

* Forgiveness does not mean forgetting that hurt and damage has been inflicted on you
* Forgiveness is not about making the other party feel better.
* Forgiving someone does not mean that you condone what they've done to you.
* Forgiving someone does not mean that the offender's behavior was okay.
* Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation, although reconciliation may occur as a result of forgiveness.
* Forgiveness does not mean that you will automatically or that you need to resume normal relations with the person who hurt you.

What is key is that forgiveness is more about you and less about the other person. Forgiveness is about you having a choice - whether your choice is to stay hurt, or let go of resentment, hurt, injustice, and pain.

Yes, it is all too easy, all too understandable and all too natural to be consumed with the hurts and injustices that you have suffered. But staying in this place of resentment hurts only one person - YOU. Obsessing over revenge only serves to victimize you over and over again. Hoping someone else will change only sets you up for ongoing disappointment.

Here's the paradox about forgiveness - even though someone may have hurt you and even though you suffer the consequences of their actions, you still have a choice as to whether you want to dwell on the hurt or let it go.

Forgiveness is the conscious choice to move away from feeling victimized and powerless. It is about having a different state of mind where you have freedom from resentment and the need for revenge. It is about saying to yourself, "I can let go, be happy and self-accepting, even when "X" happened to me, even if "Y" doesn't apologize."

Depending on the type of offense, forgiveness can be a matter of minutes or may take years. Here are some concrete steps for forgiveness:

* Acknowledge your feelings from the offense, e.g. anger, resentment, hurt, vengeance.
* Choose to forgive - make a conscious decision to let go, heal, and get on with your life.
* Learn simple relaxation or stress management techniques to deal with hurt or angry feelings triggered whenever you think about the offense.
* Find a new way to think about the person who hurt you. Most of us have the tendency to think in all or nothing terms, and we are likely to view our offenders as the Devil Supreme. Seeing your offender in a different light can help move you toward forgiveness.
* Give up the hope or expectation that the offender will behave in a way that you desire.
* Seek out other ways to get what you want and/or need.

These steps may need to be repeated, and you may find some steps harder than others. A good friend or wise counselor can help you make progress through them. When you are successful at forgiving, you are likely to find yourself feeling much happier and enjoying greater peace of mind.

In fact, forgiving has been found to have numerous benefits, including stress reduction, decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improved relationships. Dr. Luskin has even applied his forgiveness techniques to individuals in Northern Ireland who experienced murders of family members.

With the right frame of mind, forgiveness can be a tremendous gift to oneself. Ultimately, forgiveness will benefit you, your health, and your peace of mind. I hope this article encourages you to take a big step forward this August and practice forgiveness!

Anne Chan is a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor in Union City. She specializes in helping people find maximum happiness and fulfillment in their careers, lives, and relationships. She can be reached at achan@midlabs.com or (510) 744-1781.


(c) Anne Chan, 2008.

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