ASK THE DOC: The power of forgiveness to heal your own wounds

Dr Eddie gives his expert advice

Dr Eddie Murphy


Dr Eddie Murphy


ASK THE DOC: The power of forgiveness to heal your own wounds

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Many times, in my therapy sessions, I have seen the need for forgiveness so that a person can move on.

Now forgiveness is a tricky area. Take a client I’ll call Sean, who is bitter about the past, about an action someone did in the past and he’s never going to let it go.

You have met many Seans. When they think about the wrongdoing done to them, they get tense, angry and their blood pressure increases. If forgiveness is mentioned, then the person loses their cool. Sadly, if the person could forgive the offender, it would create a potential space for peace in their life.

Forgiveness is the cornerstone of any relationship, romantic or otherwise. We assume people see life the way we see life. However, there are as many perceptions as there are people in this world.

Our lack of understanding of other people’s perceptions can create gaps built on miscommunication, anger, animosity, and emotional disconnection. However, our relationship with forgiveness can help bridge these gaps. I have a lot of work for you to do this week in order to heal if this area impacts on you!

What is forgiveness?

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or condoning the wrongdoing, or reconciling a relationship. You can forgive a person while in no way believing that their actions were acceptable or justified.

On the other hand, simply saying the words “I forgive you”, or accepting an apology, is not forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness can occur without ever speaking to the wrongdoer.

Fundamentally, forgiveness is an emotional change that occurs within the person who has been wronged.

Forgiveness encompasses the decision to overcome pain that was inflicted by another person; letting go of anger, resentment, shame, and other emotions associated with an injustice, even though they are reasonable feelings; and treating the offender with compassion, even though they are not entitled to it.

Forgiveness does not automatically mean reconciliation (repairing or returning to a relationship); forgetting the injustice; condoning or excusing the offender’s behaviour; or granting legal clemency to the offender.

“Letting go”, but wishing for revenge, is not real forgiveness.

The Four Phases of Forgiveness

The Uncovering Phase: During the first phase of forgiveness, you will improve your understanding of the injustice, and how it has impacted your life.

Use a journal and follow the following questions below to begin exploring. Describe the injustices you have endured. What happened? Why was this treatment unfair? How have the injustices affected you? Did this injustice cause you;

l Painful emotions (e.g. anger or shame)

l Changed behaviour (e.g. avoiding new relationships)

l Practical costs (e.g. time or money)

l Changed worldview (e.g. “people are evil”)

l Rumination / cognitive rehearsal (recurring thoughts about injustice)

l Physical harm (eg, injuries from abuse)

The Decision Phase: During the second phase, you will gain a deeper understanding of what forgiveness is, and make the decision to choose or reject forgiveness as an option.

Without looking at a definition, how would you describe forgiveness? Many people struggle with the decision to forgive because they know that they have the right to be angry, while the offender does not have the right to kindness. Making the decision to forgive means letting go of these resentments, which you have every right to hold, so you can heal.

What are the pros and cons of deciding to forgive the person who wronged you? Whether or not you’ve made the decision to forgive, describe how things might be different if you decide to do so.

The Work Phase: During the third phase, you will start to understand the transgressor in a new way, which will allow positive feelings toward the offender and yourself.

Learning to understand the offender, and to see them as more than their wrongdoing, is an important part of forgiveness. However, it must be stressed that understanding does not mean condoning. One can understand another person without believing their actions are acceptable. Respond to one of the following suggestions:

l What was life like for the offender as they grew up? May this have impacted their behaviour?

l What was life like for the transgressor at the time of the offence?

The Deepening Phase: During the final phase of forgiveness, your challenge is to further decrease the negative emotions associated with the injustice. You may find meaning in the experiences, and recognise ways in which you have grown as a result. How have you benefitted by forgiving the offender? Consider how forgiveness has affected your emotional and physical health, ways you have changed your behaviour that resulted from the injustice, and time/energy spent thinking about the offender.

I said it was tricky. Focus on big picture, on your healing. Forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees you from corrosive and toxic anger.

While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings.

In that way, it empowers you to recognise the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.

Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychological and counselling service in Portarlington, Co Laois. If you are organising a speaker or training for school, community, voluntary, sporting or work groups, call Dr Eddie on 087 1302899 or go to dr.eddie.murphy.psychologist