May 16, 2005

Guidelines for Forgiveness

"The poets and mystics among us have long known and declared that the act of forgiveness releases great healing power.

Author and minister Charles Fillmore recommended forgiveness as the most effective way of restoring inner harmony and balance: "There is a mental treatment guaranteed to cure every ill that flesh is heir to: Sit for half an hour every night and forgive everyone against whom you have any ill will or antipathy," he wrote.

While forgiveness has always been an important concept in religion and ethics, only recently have psychologists begun to discover its powers as a psychotherapeutic tool. In three separate studies, people who had not resolved the wrongs done to them - college students, elderly women, and incest survivors - all improved when therapists helped them learn to forgive. Although an increasing number of counselors recommend that we forgive those who have hurt us, many people find forgiveness difficult to offer. Here are 10 guidelines to help extend forgiveness and ease resentment.

1. Educate yourself about forgiveness. "Forgive," according to Webster's New World Dictionary, means: "to give up resentment against or the desire to punish; pardon; to overlook an offense; to cancel a debt." Thus, the goal of forgiveness is to let go of a hurt and move ahead with life. Visit a library and research books or magazine articles on forgiveness so that you understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy forgiveness. For example, Robert Enright, Ph.D., an education psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, stresses that true forgiveness is not:

-Forgetting. If the hurt wounded you enough to require forgiveness, you may always have a memory of it.
-Excusing or condoning. The wrong should not be denied, minimized, or justified.
-Reconciling. You can forgive the offender and still choose not to reestablish the relationship.
-Weakness. You do not become a doormat or oblivious to cruelty.

2. Spend a few minutes each day cleaning out your thinking...

3. Practice on small hurts...

4. Challenge the "shoulds" in your thinking. Forgiveness is much easier when you give up the irrational belief which fuels your frustration, anger, and hostility - the expectation that other people will always act in the way you want. Beware of the "shoulds" in your thinking and speaking:

-He shouldn't have done this to me.
-She shouldn't act that way.
-My daughter should have known better.
-My son should be more attentive to me.
-I've worked hard and I should have been rewarded.

Whenever you find the word "should" in your mind and talk, challenge yourself. Tell yourself it is unrealistic to expect that people will always act decently and respectfully toward you. Remind yourself that everyone is fallible and capable of making a mistake.

5. Understand that resentment has a high price tag... Whenever a hostile or hateful thought enters your mind, try to be fully aware of the harm that resentment can do to you, even making you ill. Let that knowledge further motivate you to forgive and let go.

6. Remember: Lack of forgiveness is giving others power over you. Withholding forgiveness and nursing resentment simply allow another person to have control over your well-being. It is always a mistake to let such negative emotions influence your living. Forgive, and you will be able to direct your life in positive thoughts and actions...

7. Recognize the ripple effect of harboring a grudge...

8. Bury the grudge - literally. Write a letter to the person who hurt you but don't mail it. Express fully, clearly, honestly how you feel and why that person's act hurt you and made you angry. Conclude with the bold declaration that you have forgiven him or her. Then, bury the letter in a potted plant or somewhere in your yard. This is a powerful symbolic exercise which many people have found to be extremely therapeutic.

9. Try instant forgiveness...

10. Recall repeatedly this one vital fact: forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. A former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp was visiting a friend who shared the ordeal with him.

"Have you forgiven the Nazis?" he asked his friend.


"Well, I haven't. I'm still consumed with hatred for them," the other man declared.

"In that case," said his friend gently, "they still have you in prison."

That story points out this reality: ultimately, forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. Bitterness and anger imprison you emotionally. Forgiveness sets you free.

From Victor Parachin, 10 Guidelines for Forgiveness.

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