Mindful Forgiveness: Finding Peace in the Hurt

(4 min read)

For many, forgiveness is viewed as a way of giving in, making allowances or excuses, letting another person “win,” or showing weakness.

For the unforgiving, grudges are held, intense emotions are clung onto with a sense of desperation, for the purpose of fighting back, trying to obtain justice, or somehow attempting to prove a point or change what was done in the past.

However, resisting forgiveness in this way is exhausting, defeating, and ultimately, a way of letting the other person take control over you. Each time you experience anger, they (the hurting party, their actions, or their words, etc.) continue to beat you down, torture and hurt you. When holding onto the past in this way, you allow the other person to have the upper hand, giving them power over your wellbeing.

Holding onto unforgiving thoughts has been found to result in physical changes in the body consistent with the physiological stress response, including unfavorable skin conductance, heart rate, and blood pressure changes (van Oyen Witvliet, Ludwig & Vander Laan, 2001). Over time, these changes can lead to serious physical illness including heart disease and diabetes, as well as serious psychological disorder (McEwen, 2002). With this being said, in holding onto grudges, we slowly break ourselves down, both physically and mentally.

So, it’s important to ask ourselves, is it really worth it?

In many cases, the efforts of grudge-holders have little to no impact on the hurting party. It’s also important to remember that there is no changing the past. What’s done is done, and in trying to fight back, you’re the one who will become further hurt…

On the other hand, there’s another way for us to approach forgiveness. It is a way of opening ourselves up rather than closing ourselves off. It is the process of finding peace and resolution around the events of the past through the cultivation of mindfulness. For those who aren’t familiar, mindfulness is generally known as the process of bringing intentional awareness to things as they are, in the present, and without judgement.

In cultivating mindfulness, I believe we can develop something that I will call mindful forgiveness.

Mindful forgiveness can help us explore what we’ve been through as an outside observer – intentionally acknowledging what went wrong and questioning why it happened, while holding the non-judgmental and compassionate knowledge that we’re all human and, as such, we’re all prone to making mistakes. Mindful forgiveness also means recognizing that, as humans, we possess basic goodness, meaning that most people aren’t trying to purposely cause others harm. People generally do the best they can given the resources they have and the situation they find themselves in.

Mindful forgiveness also means acknowledging where we have gone wrong ourselves, admitting that at some point in our lives, we’ve hurt others as well (perhaps, the person we currently feel hurt by), and at the time, we also hoped that we would be forgiven. It means admitting that we’ve also messed up, we’re also imperfect, and we’re also human. There are always two sides to the story. We can acknowledge this, we can find a sense of balance between the two.

When we practice mindful forgiveness, we find peace within ourselves as well as with others, allowing us to let go of our anger, rage, fear, remorse, or other unpleasant emotions. When we let go of unhelpful emotions, our stress response goes down, and we achieve better physical and mental health once again.

Ultimately, when we choose to mindfully forgive, we take back control of our emotions, and of ourselves, rather than letting the other person hold power over us. When we feel that we’re in control, we tend to relax, and pleasant feelings of calm, happiness, joy, and even love, can arise within us.

Of course, acknowledging and understanding what happened doesn’t mean agreeing with it or saying it was right. Rather, mindful forgiveness is a way of letting go of trying to change what happened, and instead, finding out how growth and learning can develop from it – also known as “post-traumatic growth” (O’Leary & Ickovics, 1995). Whenever mistakes are made, there arises an incredible opportunity to turn inwards, asking yourself where you went wrong, how you can improve, where you aren’t as willing to give next time, where you’d like to give more, etc.

This might not be possible right away. Most of us need to go through a period of anger, hurt, rage, depression, remorse, guilt, etc. before reaching the point of transformation. This is normal and natural. Trying to disregard any of these early feelings is ultimately lying to yourself. Let yourself feel these emotions, and see them through to completion (see my previous blog post on “riding the emotional wave”). The more you try to resist, the longer it will take for you to reach genuine forgiveness.

When you do get there, and when you can honestly say that you no-longer harbor anger or resentment, then you get to experience the gift of bettering yourself, mentally, physically, and spiritually. With a new level of self-awareness, you will proceed with more concrete boundaries for yourself, understanding what and who you need in your life down the road. This is an important part of owning yourself as well as your future. Consequently, we begin to relate to people and situations differently, which usually means having fewer disputes requiring forgiveness in the first place.

One of the most interesting side-effects of practicing mindful forgiveness, I think, is that it means losing fewer relationships with loved ones throughout the course of your life. Perhaps the damage for past wrongs is done, and maybe you won’t be especially close with the people who hurt you (or who you hurt) anymore, but in choosing to mindfully forgive one another, it might just be possible to experience an ongoing connection based on joint appreciation for the good times that you did have together, for the love and/or respect that was (or still) remains, and for the simple knowledge that you are together in your ongoing imperfect human-ness.

The process of mindful forgiveness isn’t for the faint of heart – in fact, quite the opposite. Mindfully forgiving is ultimately a process requiring a tremendous amount of strength and vulnerability, as well as the ability to raise yourself to a new state of enlightenment. As long as you’re willing to dig into the rawness with wholehearted genuineness, the results are both empowering and freeing.

***

McEwen, B. S. (2002).  The end of stress as we know it. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.

O’Leary, V. E. & Ickovics, J. R. (1995). Resilience and thriving in response to challenge: An opportunity for a paradigm shift in women’s health. Women’s Health: Research on Gender, Behavior, and Policy, 1, 121-142.

van Oyen, C., Witvliet, Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. E. (2001). Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12(2), 117 – 123.

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