For me, forgiveness has been one of those life lessons–and practices–that has had mind-bending and life altering payoffs. I’ve learned the hard way that holding onto past hurts and trauma consumes precious energy and mind power.
Clinging to anger and resentment is an energy suck that drives stress—the smoldering kind of stress that hangs on and leaves decay and destruction in its path. That places a strong foothold on our health, happiness, energy, and resilience.
Hard as it is, forgiveness—the active letting go of attachment to the disappointments and hurts of our past—is as necessary a step to a vital life as good food, sleep, and air.
My Forgiveness Story
It took me a long time to forgive my dad—to truly forgive him. The details are not so important. What is important is that nothing he did or didn’t do was actually about me, not ever—a realization I had after decades of rumination, frustration, and suffering. I created many stories to explain to myself why he behaved as he did. Stories that always included a part that made me the victim.
As I grew and matured in my thinking I discerned that I really like who I am and have a blessed life—my life is good and I’m no victim. This doesn’t mean I haven’t struggled or suffered. But it does mean, ultimately, that my past—and my dad—played important parts in my success.
And my stories about my dad are just that—stories. They were built upon my assumptions about what he thought, intended, believed—all things I couldn’t possibly have known anything about. While he may have had deficiencies in his ability to connect in a loving way with his daughter, that’s all I really know. The stories about blame and self-worth are unnecessary. I can’t make him something he’s not. And it’s not about me—it never was.
This shift in my perspective about how to think about my dad, as well as others with whom I’ve struggled, has been singularly freeing. My daughter-father story could be all about abandonment and mean spiritedness, but its much more life affirming, less stressful, and perhaps closer to the truth, to be a story about one person’s ignorance and anxiety and the other’s rising up. I had to make the choice to think of it in this way.
And as a result of this freedom, I’m more energy resilient—I feel better, I sleep more deeply, I’m more relaxed and less reactive, and I have more brain power for other things.
Forgiveness is for US
My personal transformation showed me that forgiveness is perhaps one of the highest expressions of self-love—it’s for us. We claim our personal freedom by letting go of the past.
Bad things happen. Elements of these events can be so profound and hurtful that the wounds come upon us without our bidding and without our needing to decipher what happened. Like tripping on a rock and hitting our head. It happened. It hurt and there were ramifications. But we can release our attachment to the event. And we must.
Forgiveness is our way of releasing the past and letting go of the need to have had events unfold in a different way. Or of letting go of the expectation that the important people in our lives should be anything other than who they are. Forgiveness is accepting that none of it was personal. That rock did not intentionally trip us. Those people who harmed us acted out from their own pathology, stupidity, immaturity, or simple ignorance. It was never about us.
We forgive for ourselves. It’s not for them. It’s not pretending that our past didn’t exist. We just don’t let it define who we are. We release our attachment to it.
In the end forgiveness softens us. It opens the way for us to love ourselves more deeply as we realize that we were never the true target of our past. Forgiveness opens our hearts and makes us ripe for the many possibilities of our lives that would not have been available to us otherwise. It supports our highest potential.
Forgiveness Frees Up Energy and Resources for Our Health and Wellbeing
While forgiveness frees our minds and our hearts, it also mobilizes actionable biological energy to support our healing.
The energy we used for remembering, fuming, and hurting becomes available for something new—for growth, recovery, and renewed vitality. Numerous scientific studies have shown that forgiveness improves our health and resilience by reducing the stress response and levels of damaging inflammation.
The stress of unresolved anger and trauma leads to loss of resilience and increased vulnerability to virtually every common chronic health condition—including heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression—through real, measurable changes in our biology.
Forgiveness is a Practice (and is accessible to EVERY ONE of us)
“You cannot forgive just once, forgiveness is a daily practice.” -Sonia Rumzi
By making the decision to forgive.
It all starts with: one simple decision. A decision we make for ourselves—it’s ALL for us. We don’t have to tell the perpetrators in our lives. We don’t need to have empathy or compassion for them. All we have to do is set the clear intention that we’re ready to let go of the past to move into greater freedom and ease.
By knowing our life stories.
We must tell ourselves the truth about our life stories, and acknowledge they are just that—stories. We’ve created them from the available data, but do we have all of the facts? Even when we think we do, is there another way to look at things? Is there a more positive lens through which to see our past? That makes us the hero or the benefactor instead of a victim?
Like my story about my dad—I had to acknowledge that the positive outcomes of my life meant things actually went well in spite of the hurts and traumas. That I am grateful for how my life has turned out. That I define who and what I am—I am not a victim. And that (oh boy, this part was hard and humbling!)… I wouldn’t want it any other way.
By letting go of assumptions.
How do we know our stories are completely true and rest on solid data about the events of our lives, rather than our assumptions about what transpired? If we are painfully honest with ourselves, is there not room for other interpretations? We’re wired to make assumptions for survival. When we no longer need them we’re supposed to upgrade to the truth—the truth that we don’t have all the facts.
By choosing to see the past through the lens of love.
Seeing my own life this way helped me realize that rather than being a victim and abandoned, I was a scrappy girl who created an awesome life for herself. Seeing my life through the lens of love helped me put it all into a more meaningful context—that Life School provided rich experiences that shaped me into who I am. Disappointments, sure, but measurable and fruitful opportunities.
By grasping that none of it was personal.
This is hard. So dang hard. But none of it was personal. Those people in our lives who have failed to see our beauty and worth are ignorant. There was nothing ever farther from the truth. We must rest in that. And affirm our truth: Already worthy. Born beautiful.
By knowing we can’t change anyone.
We must give up all expectation that anyone can possibly be anything other than what they are. Those expectations sap our precious energy and make us feel angry and resentful when things don’t go our way.
By having compassion and empathy.
This can also be hard. Once we’ve succeeded at loosening those attachments to past hurts, it may be possible to understand our perpetrators in a different light. Perhaps they were trying their best but fell short because of their own hurts and traumas.
Sometimes compassion is just too tough to face. Even so, when we gift ourselves with releasing the past, a curious thing happens. We open the possibility of healing for all concerned. The energy of forgiveness, as it sets in, inspires everyone.
By forgiving ourselves.
Our judgments and assumptions always include ourselves. We have to let go of the disparaging things we learned about ourselves.
Because practice always makes progress. Forgiveness is a practice.
Share your forgiveness story with us…
We’re all hungry for the courage and inspiration it takes to do this difficult work!
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Kathleen A. Lawlder, et al. The Unique Effects of Forgiveness on Health: An Exploration of Pathways. J Behav Med (2005) 28: 157.
Worthington, E. L, et al. Forgiveness, Health, and Well-Being: A Review of Evidence for Emotional Versus Decisional Forgiveness, Dispositional Forgivingness, and Reduced Unforgiveness. J Behav Med (2007) 30: 291.
Karyn Shanks, MD. Practice is a Superpower. 2017.
KARYN SHANKS MD
Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-five-year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.