For much of my life, forgiveness was a nebulous and ill-defined concept. I grasped the idea of forgiving, but never really learned the value of forgiveness and the freedom that comes from it. I didn’t even know how to forgive. It was an intellectual rather than a functional concept. Sometimes I’d say that I forgave someone, but not really mean it. Other times I’d want to forgive and say that I had forgiven. But even then an emotional residue often remained. In either case, feelings of hurt, shame, anger, regret or blame and harsh judgments frequently lingered after I said I’d forgiven. When my desire to forgive was genuine, I’d feel good at least temporarily. But often as I was reminded in various ways of the hurtful event that I thought I’d let go, negative thoughts and feelings would gradually creep back in to prey at my mind.
Those incomplete experiences of forgiveness felt puzzling and vexing. But since I’d said the words of forgiveness – regardless of whether I really meant them or not – I believed that I had to deal with the lingering thoughts and feelings by denying and pushing them out of my conscious awareness. It was as if I expected something magical should happen through saying “I forgive” once or twice – like the words were an incantation that could by themselves change everything. Occasionally just saying the words of forgiveness did work and I was able to let go of my negative thoughts and feelings permanently. But for the situations and people that were the most significant, I seemed to be incapable of making forgiveness stick. This felt like a personal failure and added to the burden of ways in which I felt bad about myself.
I couldn’t reveal this flaw of being ‘unable to forgive’ to anyone. Nor would I admit that I often just pretended to forgive because I thought I ‘should.’ Early in life I had learned to put on a persona and play the role of ‘good boy.’ I did this to get love and acceptance from my family, teachers and the people of the conservative church I was raised in. I conformed to definite ideas about good and bad and things that ‘good boys’ did and didn’t do. Apologizing for my ‘wrongs’ and forgiving others for their ‘wrongs’ ranked high on the list of things that ‘good boys’ must do. As I grew older the ‘good boy’, evolved into the ‘good guy’, but the persona’s mandate remained. I had to be nice, behave perfectly (or close to it) and accommodate others in order to be accepted and liked. That meant saying the words “I forgive you.” or “That’s okay.” even if I didn’t really feel it. Chances are that if you’re reading these words, you know just what I mean. The good news is that things can shift.
All that began to change for me when I participated in something called the Shadow Process workshop about 16 years ago. I heard the leader, Debbie Ford, introduce the Jungian concepts of reclaiming, embracing and having access to all parts of myself. After my indoctrination with conservative religious values and morals as a child, it was like a revelation to think in these new terms. All of a sudden I glimpsed a path to freedom from the confines of the ‘good guy’ persona. I understood that I didn’t have to limit who I was based on old ideas of good and bad.
She also explained that real self love means being able to love all of the qualities and characteristics of oneself. I didn’t have to judge some aspects of my innate personality as wrong and try to hide those parts of myself. I didn’t have to hate or feel ashamed about any of my anger, selfishness, stupidity, perverse thoughts, earthly desires or anything else. I could embrace them, integrate them and have choice to use any particular quality when it’s beneficial and useful to do so. For example, I learned that I could choose to use my anger and selfishness to help me set and hold healthy boundaries that my good guy persona could not.
As a participant of that Shadow Process, I was guided through structured, step by step processes for forgiving both others and myself. Forgiveness was the key that untethered me from the ‘good guy’ and opened the doors to a new reality of who and what I could be. I began to forgive myself for all the years of judgments, denial, and pretense I’d used to hide my true self. I forgave myself for all the shame, guilt and regret that I’d dragged around and the internal suffering I’d experienced as a result. Self-forgiveness enabled me to soften and find true compassion for myself and my circumstances, and in turn compassion for others.
With compassion came a higher level of understanding and ability to re-evaluate and re-interpret my life experiences. I discovered that I could choose to view the painful incidents of the past as valuable learning experiences that shaped me in important ways. In grasping the value of the experiences and the benefits I’d gained, I more naturally felt the need and desire to forgive the others involved. The people I’d formerly seen as persecutors or victimizers, I could choose to see instead as teachers, offering life lessons and wisdom to carry me into the future.
In the years that followed, I ended up working with Ms. Ford and helped to develop many different coaching models and training programs. I continued my personal development work as well – integrating the shadow and practicing forgiveness. One of the most important things that I learned during that time was the value of structure and process for making changes in my life and supporting others to make the changes they want in theirs. In the realm of forgiveness, we developed several straight-forward, step by step exercises for enabling people to forgive and let go of the negative emotional burdens of the past.
In the beginning of this article I shared that I never really knew how to forgive, and how to make forgiveness stick. A lot of the ‘problems’ had to do with that ‘good guy’ persona and the underlying thoughts and beliefs about why I should forgive. But by coming to understand the true purpose and meaning of forgiveness, and learning to apply structured methods, I’ve been able to go beyond my intellect and have profound experiences of forgiveness at the deepest levels of emotion and belief. These step-by-step forgiveness exercises have also proven effective in supporting thousands of people around the world to forgive. In doing so they’ve gained freedom, insight, understanding and motivation to create happier, more fulfilling and successful lives. So I know that anywhere in your life where you might want more fulfillment and success, it’s possible for you to attain too~
Let’s be clear, there are many ways in which you can experience true and lasting forgiveness, including some that are non-structured, spontaneous or even out of your conscious awareness. Sometimes you may find that forgiveness occurs quickly and easily, other times it can end up as a journey with many stops and starts along the way. There is no right or wrong way to forgive, but it all starts with you having a sincere desire and clear decision to do so. With that intent and desire in place, you’ll find your way to a path of forgiveness that works for you. Though sometimes it might seem challenging, I promise you, the results are worth it. Through forgiveness of past grievances toward yourself or others, you’ll open the door to your own new possibilities, and gain more of the energy, motivation and confidence to create the life you most desire. So please, whatever else you decide to do this week, get started with forgiveness today!
If you recognize that you have some significant forgiveness work that needs to be done, and you’re interested in getting some help with it, Forgiveness Club is here for you. First, you can get the free “Forgiveness Jump Start” kit that contains a step-by-step forgiveness exercise and 3 useful worksheets, when you join Forgiveness Club using the form in the right hand side bar of this page. Second, you can go check out the Forgiveness Coaching and Consultations page to find out about our individual consultation services. It would be an honor and privilege to support you to get through any blocks or hurdles you may be facing, so that you can Let Go, Make Peace, Forgive and Set Yourself Free!