“When we’ve been treated deeply unfairly by others, we should have the tools to deal with that so the effects of that injustice don’t take hold in an unhealthy way.” ~ Dr. Robert Enright.
We all know what it feels like to be wronged by someone.
We’ve all felt the pain of betrayal and the hurt of mistreatment.
Maybe your spouse cheated on you.
Maybe your parent(s) neglected you.
Maybe your friend lied to you.
Maybe somebody disowned you.
Maybe your peers made fun of you.
And the list goes on.
These things sucked then, and thinking of them sucks now, albeit to a lesser degree (hopefully.)
Emotions and wrongdoing
Our reactions to being wronged are different. Some rely on their resolve, “picking up the pieces” (or say so, anyway); some are neutral – perhaps numb; others find it difficult to move on.
The emotions created from maltreatment can be ingrained into the psyche. The reason for the long-lasting effects of maltreatment is this: our brains are wired to create a memory in proportion to the emotional arousal of the situation.
Memory champions the world over talk about arousal, which is our brain’s innate tendency to remember things that are emotionally impactful.
Unfortunately, this “brain rule” applies to adverse events – including abuse and trauma. The rule also helps to explain why the emotions associated with maltreatment – anxiety, depression, fear, isolation, insomnia, etc. – may be long-lasting.
When experiencing negative emotions – such as those mentioned above – it is essential to your psychological health to resolve them. To do so takes time, effort, and emotional capital; but, in the long-term, you’re much better off mentally.
The act of forgiveness may just be the single most powerful antidote for the pain caused by others.
Forgiveness does not mean that you “forget it and move on.” Nor does forgiveness mean that you absolve the person of their actions.
Forgiveness, instead, is choosing to compassionately release the desire to punish someone or yourself for an offense.
Yes, forgiveness is a choice. Yes, you can forgive yourself. But here’s the thing: while we may accept these statements on the surface, we often have trouble following through on the act of forgiveness – be it forgiving ourselves or someone else.
Why do we have this trouble? Because of our emotions. Because we rationalize things. After all, we are not responsible for their actions.
Maybe not, but you are responsible for yours. You’re responsible for your actions – as well as your emotions and thoughts.
You’re responsible for mitigating the damage inflicted.
You’re, ultimately, responsible for forgiveness.
But even more important, you’re responsible for your happiness and peace of mind.
According to Dr. Robert Enright, a pioneer in the scientific study of forgiveness, we can implement a four-phase model to help us forgive ourselves and others.
To start forgiving anyone, we must first believe that forgiveness is possible. We must, at a minimum, accept the notion that forgiveness is a feasible solution to the problem.
“People should not be forced into forgiving,” Enright says, “I think it’s important that people are drawn to it.”
As mentioned, forgiveness doesn’t entail excusing someone or forgetting about their past behaviors. Understanding this – and forgiveness’ positive influence on your emotions – allows us to look at forgiveness in the right light.
This step works by making a list of everyone – going back to childhood – who has harmed you in some way. After the list is created, prioritize by ordering the names starting with who has hurt you the most.
Start off by forgiving the individuals toward the bottom of the list and make your way up.
Take the time needed to process the emotion; you’ll know when it’s time to move to the next step.
“(This step) is kind of a checklist,” Enright says. “How are you doing in terms of your anger? How have you been denying it? Are you angrier than you thought you were? What are the physical consequences of your anger?”
Enright concludes “Once you look at those effects (of your anger), the question becomes, Do you want to heal?”
After step 4, you’re ready to commit to the act of forgiveness. “Once people have completed phase one and seen how the effects of the anger have made them unhappy, there’s a tendency to give this a try,” says Enright.
This step is where the “work” of forgiving starts. It involves thinking about the person in a new way. Were they hurt in any way? If so, did their hurt possibly contribute to yours?
“You were both born, you will both die, you both bleed when you’re cut, you both have unique DNA and when you die there will never be another person like you. And given the humanity that you share with this person, is it possible that they might be just as special, unique, and irreplaceable as you are?” asks Enright.
Knowingly or unknowingly, the other person’s actions have hardened your heart a bit. Eventually, if you practice the type of forgiveness prescribed by Dr. Enright, you should begin to feel the release of unhealthy anger.
“It’s a tiny glimmering of compassion,” Enright states.
It’s normal to feel strong emotions at this point. Enright says that there’s a dose of pain involved; but that this pain ultimately allows us to move on.
“(Pain) builds self-esteem because you’re saying, ‘If I can see the humanity in the one who didn’t see the humanity in me, and if I can soften my heart to the one who didn’t to me, then who am I as a person? I’m stronger than I thought.”
“Typically, people are more aware of the wounds in the world,” says Enright. “They become more patient with people who might be having a bad day; they see the people are walking around wounded all the time, and they’re generally more aware of others’ pain and want to be a conduit for good.”
There’s certainly a reflection period involved when the pain passes. You realize: (a) you’re stronger, and (b) you’re happier.
Know how you started out with a list? Well, after a certain period, it’s time to get back after it.
Sooner than you think, you’ll have forgiven the people who’ve hurt you – and live a happier, stronger, more fulfilling life.
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