For many of my clients, dealing with trauma from our past and present requires the ability to forgive. How people define forgiveness and what they do to practice forgiveness can vary and it can be a difficult process to face. I talk with clients about learning to forgive in three stages.
First, we must understand the person that hurt us is in pain from whatever has happened in their life. They may intentionally, but usually unintentionally, be inflicting pain on other people as a result of their own hurt. We hold on to our anger because we feel that this person should be "punished" for what they have done. When we choose to forgive we have decided not to seek revenge, not to retaliate. We have decided to let go of the pain being placed upon us and to free ourselves of resentment. This is not a process that is done with the other person; it is an internal release to set us free, whether or not that person has acknowledged their wrongs. The Buddhist see forgiveness as a "gift" to both us and the person who has harmed us, as we have freed our energies from a cycle of pain.
Secondly, we must forgive the overall experience. We have gained wisdom and learned from what has happened. It has given us insight into the world, into humanity, into our own flaws or decision making. Rather than seeing this experience as having a negative impact over our lives, we learn to take back the power and define how this experience has made us stronger.
Lastly, we must forgive ourselves. For some time after this experience, we allowed it to have power over us, to influence how approached life or other people, and even how we treated ourselves. Maybe we blamed ourselves or we felt ashamed / embarrassed by what happened. These are judgments, negative judgments that we would not pass on to someone else, on a loved one. Yet, we did that to ourselves. So, we must forgive ourselves for the punishment and guilt we placed on ourselves for someone else's actions. This is the time we feel empowered to live our life fully again.
And what if I forgive, does that mean I have to be friends with this person? The Buddhist emphasize that Forgiveness and Reconciliation are two different words for a reason. Reconciliation is based on the premise that trust can be reestablished. It is not possible to reconcile with someone who maintains they did nothing wrong, that does not understand how their actions impacted you, and does present that trust can be reestablished. We have to be able to come to a mutual standard of how to be in the relationship to respect one another for trust to be reestablished and we both have to commit to the work.
So, for those who will not forgive out of fear of having to establish a relationship with someone you cannot trust, understand reconciliation is not necessarily a requirement of forgiveness. When forgiveness and the genuine healing through reconciliation is possible, allow it to happen to bring harmony and peace in your world. But know that we can forgive even when we cannot reconcile with that person. Forgiveness will still bring harmony and peace.