“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” — Buddha
How do you feel about the past?
Is there a sense of contentment or pride or is there a sense of bitterness, anger or shame?
No doubt the answer to the question depends greatly on your memories.
Intense positive thoughts inspire feelings of happiness. Alternatively, the reverse can be true for negative memories.
Consider the divorcee whose every memory about her ex-husband revolves around thoughts of animosity, betrayal and lying.
Frequent and intense negative thoughts about the past are the very thing that blocks our ability to find contentment and happiness with the present. These thoughts, and the emotions they trigger, make finding inner calm and peace virtually impossible.
So knowing this is there an easy way to find a place of forgiveness?
Is there a way to let go of all that resentment and move positively forward with your life?
Rewriting the past
When someone really hurts you, you may question whether you want to forgive. It seems a natural inclination to respond negatively when someone causes you pain or harm.
This dilemma has played out again and again throughout history around the world. Hatred and revenge is fuelled by reminding people of wrongs committed.
No better example of this is the unfortunate death of George Floyd. This was seen by many as another innocent black person, in a long list, dying at the hands of police officers. This outcome motivated hatred and revenge. There was unfortunate surge of vengeful, violence throughout America.
In contrast, we can consider the legacy of Nelson Mandela. A man jailed for many years for being black in white ruled South Africa. He never looked for retribution. He refused to wallow in the bitter past. Instead he moved his divided nation towards reconciliation.
What does this show us?
Forgiveness involves alleviating one’s motivation for revenge. Ideally, this means replacing negativity with more positive attitudes, feelings and behaviours.
The only way out of our emotional turmoil is to change our thoughts by rewriting our past. That means we need to find a way to forgive and forget the bad memories to allow us to move forward in a more positive way.
Sounds good in theory, but how about reality?
Why isn’t positive rewriting of the past the most natural thing to do?
Finding a way to set ourselves free
Historical evidence suggests our survival instincts as humans has our brains exclusively wired for seeking the negative, rather than the positive, in most situations.
This means positive emotions will always be forced to take the back seat when the brain feels we are susceptible to any possible danger or hurt in our life.
No doubt there are many a good reason to hold onto the bitterness and vengeance caused by the past. We want justice. We want revenge.
However, forgiving transforms bitterness into neutrality. By doing this you set yourself free.
It’s not my place to argue the pros and cons whether you decide to let go of a grudge. I seek only to expose the inverse relationship between unforgiving and happiness in life.
How ready are you to forgive and forget trespasses from the pass?
It depends greatly how you choose to rationalise your narrative about the perceived wrong doings.
Only when you experience a shift in your thinking, that sees a decrease in ruminating and a desire to hurt the perpetrator, are you on the path to freedom.
One common mistaken belief is that forgiveness means letting the person who hurt you off the hook.
It is important to appreciate the act of forgiving is something you do for yourself and not for the person who caused the pain.
Forgiving is not about re-establishing relationships or excusing actions of others.
Long term holding onto hate or bitterness causes you more suffering than the person you direct your focus towards. As Buddha’s said: ‘you are the one getting burned’.
Research supports these facts. Studies have found training in forgiveness improves well-being and mental health.
One study in 2018 examined the value of ‘forgiveness interventions’ among adolescents and adults who had experienced injustice against them. The evidence suggested ‘forgiving a variety of real-life interpersonal offenses can be effective in promoting different dimensions of mental well-being.’
Similarly, another research study in 2001 titled “Granting forgiveness or harbouring grudges” investigated the emotional and physiological effects when 71 participants responded to their real-life Interpersonal conflicts in unforgiving and forgiving ways.
The results were powerful. Unforgiving responses indicated an erosion of emotional and physiological health. Alternatively, forgiving responses greatly impacted emotional and physiological health in a positive way.
How to forgive-‘REACH’
So we know forgiveness can positively influence our emotional and physiological health, but is there a proven method that works?
Forgiveness is about releasing yourself from the negativity that surrounds the experience. It is probably one of the most challenging strategies to carry out in life. I know for me personally it never comes easy.
One approach that I have found liberates myself from the continual memory of the offense is ‘REACH’.
The ‘REACH’ 5 stage model of forgiveness was originally developed by Psychologist Everett Worthington.
An expert in the art of practicing forgiveness. His work is greatly influenced by tragic events in his own life when his own mother was murdered in 1996.
‘REACH’ stands for the following:
R=Recall the hurt, in as objective a way as you can. Do not think of the other person as evil. Do not flounder in self-pity. Take deep, slow, and calming breaths as you visualise the event.
E= Empathise. Try to understand from the perpetrator’s perspective. Why did this person feel the need to hurt you?
This is not easy, however try to narrate an acceptable story that the perpetrator might tell if challenged. To help, remember the following:
• When others feel their survival is threatened, they will hurt others.
• People who attack others are typically in a state of fear, worry, and hurt.
• People often don’t’ think when they hurt others; they just lash out.
A =Altruistic gift: This stands for giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness. This is a tough step.
First, recall a time you transgressed, and were forgiven. This was a gift you were given by another person. Giving this gift usually makes us feel better. Tell yourself you can rise above hurt and vengeance.
NOTE: If you give the gift grudgingly it will not set you free.
C= Commit: Commit yourself to forgive publicly. In Worthington’s groups, his clients write a letter of forgiveness to the offender, write it in their diary, write a poem or a song, or tell a trusted friend what they have done.
These are all contracts of forgiveness that lead to the final step.
H= Hold: This stands for holding onto forgiveness. This is another difficult step, since memories of the event will surely return. Forgiveness is not erasure; rather, it is a change in the tag lines that a memory carries. It is important to realise that the memories do not mean unforgiveness. Don’t dwell vengefully on the memories, and don’t wallow ruminating in them.
Remind yourself that you have forgiven, and read the documents you composed.
Take home message
The REACH Forgiveness method is one of the most widely-used approaches to promoting forgiveness. I find it works best if you write each stage down and spend a bit if quality time working through each section.
Use a journal, sheets of plain paper, technology or use this link to a guided forgiveness workbook.
By writing it down you get it out of your head. It’s a mental release that frees you to move on with your life or see where you need to do more work.
In the long run, the preoccupation, hostility and resentment we hold onto only serves to hurt us, both emotionally and physically.
I think we all know forgiveness is never easy. Nonetheless, I think most would agree it’s worth the time and energy if it liberates us from the pain.
Always feel free to reach out if you need help.