Break Down the Baggage: How to Forgive
Self-Sabotage. Revenge. Arrogance. Self-Sacrifice. Isolation. All these expressions of baggage are often rooted in our biological and emotional reactions to being victimized in some way, shape or form. We often exhibit these habits because we have been hurt or let down by someone, whether they be parents, caretakers, significant others, best friends, or maybe even acquaintances or strangers. Generally, the path to freedom from these patterns is to successfully process the wrong that has been done to us, a term we often refer to as Forgiveness.
What is forgiveness, anyway?
According to Merriam-Webster, forgiveness is defined as "to give up resentment of or claim to requital," or "to cease to feel resentment against". This definition is huge because it says nothing about giving the person a free pass or in any way excusing what was done as if it were permissible. I write this blog with the full understanding that someone is reading this reeling from the effects of horrific abuse, or other traumas I may not even be able to imagine. Traumas and experiences in this series are not made equal in their magnitude. It is simply the similarities in our reactions that unify how we deal with these difficulties. In trauma, the way we perceive things determines how deeply it affects us. Someone may be as horrified with their speech class as someone else may be with a war. It is not about the universal measurement of what's bad and not so bad, but all about how bad it was for you.
So why do I need to forgive?
You don't, actually. This process is not so much about telling someone, "hey, I forgive you for what you did to me." After all, they could still be convinced to this day that nothing wrong was done. However, anger, the desire for revenge, overcompensation through ego or excessive self-sacrifice all serve to stunt your growth and the quality of your life. The eventual goal could be better described as "letting go." It's the old adage that it is more for you than it is for the other person.
Letting go? Are you serious?
You might be saying right now, "But, you don't know what he did to me!" Well, you're right, I honestly don't. And, I also might not know how this continually messes up your life. "It" could be fueling self-sabotage, making us unable to successfully accomplish our goals, focus on bettering our lives, or maintain healthy relationships. My goal is not to convince you to decide to forgive someone. If you are not ready to forgive the person, then don't. Really. Coerced forgiveness is a common way we lie to ourselves and this does not move us forward. However, if you have reached the point where the baggage of this wrong has become noticeably heavy, then hopefully this article provides insight on how to move forward in the forgiveness process. There is a process to this, roughly outlined below:
- Understand what happened
- Learn to recognize and manage your feelings
- Use healthy coping skills
- Tell your story
- Don't get fooled again
Understand what happened
What was it that really happened? This question is not simply one of facts, but of education. Do some research into the type of event or issue that you have suffered. Look up those statistics and accounts of sexual assault (if you feel like you're ready, of course), or read up on abandonment, or whatever issues have come up in the troubling experience as you learn, realize, and/or understand more about what happened. This is the classic saying that "knowledge is power." The most powerful knowledge you can pick up in this stage is not facts or figures, but a sense that the troubles you have experienced have also affected many others. This is the power of the #MeToo movement sweeping the internet right now; people are hearing the stories of others which provides solidarity. It strengthens the self-image of sexual assault survivors, especially women, all over the world. It removes the labels placed on them by society and shifts accountability to the perpetrator. This is what you are seeking to do here, even if it is on your own small scale.
learn to recognize and manage your feelings
Sometimes the hardest part of the forgiveness process is even understanding where you are emotionally in the present moment. The smallest things can trigger a thought or memory of the person who we were hurt by. You might find yourself swinging from feeling normal, maybe wondering if you're finally "over this," and then the slightest thing takes you back to feeling as if the event had just happened. We can often find ourselves out of touch with our feelings, either because we have a hard time recognizing or acknowledging how we are feeling in the present moment, or even when we can recognize it, we may not have the vocabulary to most helpfully label the feelings.
In terms of recognizing feelings, a commonly helpful approach is to enhance one's mindfulness. Mindfulness exercises are designed to keep a person in the present moment, ignoring frustrations of the past or the worries of the future, to allow us to be more alert observers of the thoughts that cross our minds. Helpful exercises include meditation, mindful eating, or journaling. There is a bevy of sites, products, and apps that can aid in this process. To help one to identify feelings, it helps to expand one's vocabulary of feeling words. Looking up feelings words lists, or booklets like The Daily Mood (affiliate link) have been helpful for me and my clients.
What is helpful and necessary in this process is to gain a sense of what your feelings are and where they come from. The most commonly held view is called the Cognitive Model. According to the Beck Institute, the Cognitive Model states that we have thoughts in reaction to situations, which influences our emotions. Our emotions then in turn influence our behaviors. Every feeling has a thought behind it. The problem for a lot of us is that over our lifetimes, these thoughts have become so quick and automatic that our brains don't even bother to make them known to our conscious awareness. Our thoughts at this point are called Automatic Thoughts. The magic of mindfulness is that it slows down the very fast mental process and allows you to start catching these thoughts as they flash across the brain.
Once you are able to get a sense of what you're feeling, the next challenge is to learn how to manage those distressing feelings when they arise. This is done by observing and targeting unhelpful thoughts with mental statements that challenge and redirect those patterns. This is once again where a therapist is instrumental in helping you to identify and address unhelpful thought patterns.
Use healthy coping skills
A major strategy therapists will use to help individuals to address distressing feelings is through healthy coping skills. Once again, mindfulness exercises such as meditation, journaling, and others are once again helpful here. Other healthy coping skills include activities you might enjoy such as exercise, hobbies, or positive social events. These will be specific to each person. These coping skills can be even more beneficial in cases where trauma is being dealt with through self medication such as substance abuse or other unhealthy methods.
Related: How to Stop Self-Sabotaging
tell your story
Tell your story. At this point, when you have started to search yourself to be more aware of your thoughts and feelings, and you are much more knowledgeable about what you have experienced, and now that you have coping skills that can help with distressing feelings at this point, it is now a time where you are much more equipped to handle telling your story. You may want to tell a close friend or family member, or maybe you just want to tell your journal. One way or another, this is the time where you can benefit most from the brain’s natural process of digesting what happened.
Don’t get fooled again
This may be the most important step, and in therapy it is interwoven throughout all the steps. We want to prevent the same trauma from happening again. This is hard to give specific feedback about because of the vast variety of experiences of our readers, but please take some time to look up for your own experience what the steps are that you can take in order to prevent that from happening again. Hopefully our blogs may be a resource depending on your personal experience.
A winding road
The process of forgiveness or resolving trauma is not a step-by-step process. Much like grief, which is also taking place in this process, you may start in the “middle”, or at the “end”, or skip or jump around and come back to an earlier step. As much as you can, simply accept that this is where you are. We often reject our inability to move through the steps in sequential order, or at a certain speed. This is actually contrary to your desired goal of resolving it in time because fighting against distressing emotions or confused thoughts actually strengthens their negative effect. It's like quicksand, where the more you move, the more you sink; the more you seek to fight against and reject those emotions, the more strongly they arise. It sounds backwards, but acceptance of what is without judgment is actually the best way to move productively through the process. Understand that it may take years to move through the process, or even one step! Everyone processes trauma differently. Try your best not to compare to others. Even two individuals who experienced the same tragedy at the same time process it completely differently. My best suggestion is that if you are dissatisfied with your progress, or its speed, please get professional help. It can make a major difference.
When it comes to forgiveness, and processing trauma, the word of the day is “acceptance”. One day you will be able to accept what happened. It doesn’t mean you will excuse it as right, but you will be able to accept that it happened and make meaning from it.
Sometimes, our thoughts and feelings can become so loud and intense that we begin to identify ourselves by them. As you take this journey, understand that you are not your thoughts; you are simply observing them. You are not your feelings; you are simply experiencing them and they will pass. Better yet, you have some command over them; or at least you will.
I strongly recommend you or your loved one get help. Therapists go through years of training and do research to get to what best helps us move forward. Take advantage of this. They can give you an extra set of eyes to catch something you might not notice, and can help when you are stuck in the process. Regardless, I wish you the best in this journey. Be patient with yourself, and if this blog simply gives you a tiny piece for your puzzle, then this time was worth it.
How to move forward
We've created resources designed to help you assess and begin to deal with this specific issue. We have a free community area that gives you access to guide sheets relating to the topics discussed in this blog. Check out our free community resource area to access downloadable PDF guide sheets for this blog and much more: