What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is letting go of resentments. A wise saying reminds us that when we do not forgive we only hurt ourselves: “Holding on to resentments is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Letting go of resentments involves the mental preparation to become willing to forgive as well as the act of forgiving itself. Forgiving may be hard until you understand that the goal is to secure your own emotional freedom. Forgiveness is a choice and an action, not a feeling. Feelings do not change immediately when we forgive; this takes time. Feelings follow choice. It may help to think of forgiveness as allowing room for—and coming to terms with—human error or weakness.
Why should you seek forgiveness?
Asking for forgiveness from yourself and others is a critical step in recovery. Success in working a Twelve Step program begins by forgiving yourself. If you choose to do that, you remove the underpinnings of shame and guilt. You aren’t telling yourself that what you did is okay. But you are allowing room for weakness and error. Self-forgiveness lifts a tremendous weight that can crush your self-esteem and confidence.
With the act of self-forgiveness, you will generate the energy and self-respect necessary to ask forgiveness from others. Steps Four through Nine will help you do just that.
How does forgiveness benefit you?
Forgiveness helps you let go of a huge barrier to recovery. Many recovering people have clung to deep resentments for years. Resentments block recovery. Resentments feed “stinking thinking.” Resentments lead to relapse. Forgiveness defuses the power that resentments have over you.
The second promise of sobriety is “We shall no longer regret the past nor wish to close the door on it.” Forgiving ourselves and others is the way to achieve this promise. The process of forgiving helps you make amends to others and let go of the past. It helps you see the past accurately and soften rigid all-or-nothing thinking. Best of all, you will realize how your past has brought you to this place and time of healing and recovery.
What about very difficult situations to forgive, such as incest or abuse?
At first thought, forgiving abusive or incestuous people may seem impossible. It isn’t. Forgiveness of a deep-seated wrong is for you, for your healing, for your recovery. It’s not about the other person. When you forgive such wrongs, you release them. You let go of the power they hold over you. In the Twelve Step recovery program, forgiveness is just one example of yielding something to gain freedom in another area of your life.
When you forgive a person who victimized you, you are not saying you like that person or believe what they did was in any way acceptable. Saying, “I forgive you,” isn’t saying, “It’s okay” or “Let’s be friends.” It also does not let others off the hook: they are still accountable for their actions. Remember, it’s not about that other person. Instead, you’re saying, “I choose to let go of this part of my past so that I can move on. I choose to free myself from the resentment this harm has caused.”
In these difficult situations, realize that forgiveness can sometimes be a process. When we have been deeply hurt, it takes time to work through the feelings to forgiveness, but it is important to do so. Otherwise our resentments can hold us prisoner to the past.
We must also realize that we may need to forgive even if we never get the apology we deserve. If we wait to forgive until the person says he or she is sorry, we may never forgive at all. In these cases we need to see, again, that forgiveness is done for our sake, not for someone else’s.
Web resources for survivors of trauma and victimization
Gift From Within
Gift From Within is an international nonprofit for survivors of trauma and victimization that offers articles on coping with trauma and post-traumatic stress and lists of support groups, conferences, and retreats.
What is the role of assertiveness in forgiveness?
Here, assertiveness means asking for what you need in a clear and respectful way. Whether you are asking for forgiveness or doing the forgiving, your goal is clear communication about your perception of the past and what you need now. The passive-aggressive approach won’t work; you aren’t putting your needs ahead of, or behind, the needs of others.
You will need to work hard to ensure that your understanding of the situation is accurate. That means pushing aside lies, rationalizations, minimizing, and denial. After you communicate what you believe to have happened, follow up by stating what you need. And stop there. You have assertively communicated forgiveness or the request for forgiveness. The rest is in the hands of your Higher Power.
How can your Higher Power help with forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the act of letting go. Much of the Twelve Step program is directed toward helping you learn to release your grip on harmful thoughts and behaviors. How? By turning them over to a power outside of yourself. Step Three asks you to turn your will and life over to a Higher Power. Step Five involves turning over specifics of your past by telling them to another person. In Step Seven, you ask to remove your shortcomings. And Steps Eight through Ten guide you through the process of letting go through making amends.
Some resentments are especially hard to rid yourself of. Even if you aren’t able to come to an understanding about them, you can turn them over to your Higher Power. Make a decision to release them. Give them up, set them aside, and move on to other things you can work on and resolve. Your Higher Power will hold these resentments until you are ready to let them go.
What is the value of asking for others’ forgiveness?
Willingness to forgive yourself is one thing; asking others for forgiveness is quite another. A great deal of humility is needed to put yourself in a vulnerable position and ask for something another person may refuse or may not be ready to forgive at that time. Remember that you are only responsible for the asking; you have to let go of the outcome because it is not yours to control. That means you should do your very best to prepare to make amends and talk to the person involved; the other person’s reaction is not the point. The goal for you is in the quality of the process you used to get there.