Forgiveness. Some of us offer it too readilty; others refuse to offer it at all. It can be given freely or begrudgingly, conditionally or unconditionally. The decision to forgive is a deeply personal one and can be quite difficult to make. Anyone who has ever been forgiven knows forgiveness for what it is: a gift, which bestows upon its recipient a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation.
Often, when we have been hurt or betrayed by another, our initial response is to distance ourselves from the resulting emotional pain. We become angry because anger is easier to deal with than pain. This is a natural reaction that serves a protective function in the immediate aftermath of a betrayal. As a long term coping mechanism, however, anger is far from adaptive. Anger that is nurtured and fed over time becomes hatred. Hatred eats at a person until it consumes every aspect of his life. Thus, the person is twice victimized: first by the one who betrayed him and then by himself, in his choice to remain angry instead of trying to move forward.
We can choose forgiveness instead. This may or may not mean restoring the relationship between victim and offender. Sometimes the relationship can be mended. At other times, reconciliation is ill-advised. Fortunately, forgiveness does not require reconciliation. Rather, forgiveness represents a change in the emotional response of one person towards another. Forgiveness means working through the hurt and the anger and then moving past it.
Forgiveness is not something that happens immediately; it is a process that takes place over time. There are many theories about forgiveness and each one has its own ideas about the specific path one must take on the way to forgiveness. Still, most theories agree on a few basic tasks that must be completed in order for forgiveness to occur.
Before a person can forgive, he must first accept the reality of the offense committed against him. He must recall the offense in detail and allow himself to experience the emotions associated with the betrayal. He should acknowledge and explore his anger and hatred. He will probably find that beneath these emotions lie feelings of hurt, fear, and vulnerability. He must allow himself to experience these emotions as well. Hopefully, he will come to view himself with compassion and to let go of any self-blame.
I believe this is the most important step. It is, in my opinion, where most of the healing takes place. Personally, I think a person could work through this part of the process and go on to live a happy, psychologically healthy life. Nevertheless, I have committed to writing about the process of forgiveness in its entirety, so I'll move on to step two.
The second phase of the forgiveness process is building empathy for the offender by learning to view him as human and therefore falliable. An effort is made to see things from the offender's persepctive, to put yourself in his shoes and try to imagine his thoughts and feelings. There is an attempt to identify and understand the factors that might have contributed to or motivated the offender's actions. It is important not to confuse empathy with condoning or excusing the offender's behaviors. Rather, the goal is to avoid the pitfall of labeling the offender a "bad person." People are rarely all good or all bad. Good people often do bad things. And sometimes even "bad" people do good things.
The third and final task of forgiving involves acknowledging that we are not unlike our offender in that we too are human and have, at some point in our lives, behaved in ways that were hurtful to others. In this final task, we are called upon to reflect on our own lives; we are asked to recall times when we were the offender and required others to forigve us. In some ways this is an extension of phase two, in that acknowledging our own failings makes it easier to empathize with someone else who has done something wrong. Admitting that we too are capable of behaving selfishly prevents us from being overly judgmental or self righteous.
Keep in mind that every situation is different and that forgiveness is not always the best option. Still, we should be aware that it is an option and should have the freedom to choose forgiveness if we so desire.