By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood concepts, yet the need to forgive arises daily. We all make little and big mistakes that necessitate others forgiving us – not to mention forgiving ourselves. However, the importance of forgiveness takes on a new meaning after divorce because no one marries with the intent of divorcing and hurt and shame can run deep. In my case, I was determined not to repeat the patterns of the past since divorce goes back several generations in my family. In my Huffington Post article Breaking the Legacy of Divorce I write about my difficulty getting out from divorce’s shadow.
Only recently, have I been able to truly forgive myself and my former spouse for our divorce. Honestly, my journey was stalled for many years because I was unable to let go of resentment and to emancipate myself from the hurt and pain of my divorce. It was easier for me to blame my ex than to face my part in it.
To compound my dilemma, I felt guilty because I wasn’t able to forgive myself for putting my children through difficult times. Believe me, when you’re a therapist who is unable to practice forgiveness, guilt and shame can be unfortunate byproducts. The turning point for me was when I faced the shame I felt about my divorce, moved on from the victim mentality, and began to adopt a forgiving mindset.
What does forgiveness really mean? When I hear the word “forgiveness” images of children squabbling on the playground come to mind. I think about someone who intentionally injures another person physically or emotionally. But what I’ve come to realize is that forgiveness is more of a perspective and a practice rather than about one act. Forgiving is one way of letting go of your old baggage so that you can heal and move on with your life. It’s about giving yourself, your children, and perhaps even your new partner, the kind of future you and they deserve – unhampered by hurt and recycled anger. It’s about choosing to live a life wherein others don’t have power over you and you’re not dominated by unresolved anger, bitterness, and resentment.
Many therapists consider forgiveness a critical aspect of divorce recovery but suggest that acceptance is a worthy option in some cases. Author Mark Banschick writes, “It is not constructive for a patient to prematurely forgive as a way to feel that they have been a good patient.” Dr. Banschick elaborates, “Terrible things do happen to innocent – and not so innocent people. As therapists we are witnesses to the horror of history. Our job is to help those in our care to feel human despite their trauma. Our goal is to somehow metabolize their betrayal or wound without becoming a victim to their victimhood. It is a worthwhile project.” Dr. Banschick posits that acceptance is a good alternative to forgiveness when the person who injures you did something unforgivable – or when you’re not ready to forgive.
In her groundbreaking book How Can I Forgive You? Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D. explains that acceptance is a responsible, authentic choice to an interpersonal injury when the offender won’t engage in the healing process. While Dr. Abrahams encourages readers to muster up the courage to forgive others who have wronged them, she also says that forgiveness that’s not genuine is “cheap” so not worth much. She writes, “For those of you who have been wronged, I encourage you to take care of yourself, be fair, and seek life-serving ways to cleanse your wound.” She suggests that while genuine forgiveness is a worthy goal, acceptance is the middle ground between unforgivable hurt and cheap forgiveness.
There are many reasons why people have difficulty letting go of the past and reversing the painful consequences of their childhood, writes Dr. Fred Luskin in his acclaimed book Forgive For Good. He posits that they may take on the pain of others mistakes because they take their offenses personally. Subsequently, some people create a grievance story which focuses on their suffering and assigns blame. Dr. Luskin explains that individuals heal best when they are able to acknowledge the damage done and shift to an impersonal perspective.
The next step is crafting a new story by creating a positive intention – a way of transforming a grievance story into a positive goal. For instance, my positive intention is “I let go of the pain from my divorce and forgive myself and my ex.”
Luskin writes, “Forgiveness is not a focus on what happened in the past and neither is it remaining upset or holding onto grudges. You may have been hurt in the past, but you are upset today. Both forgiveness and grievances are experiences that you have in the present.”
The following are six steps to becoming a forgiving person adapted from Dr. Luskin’s model:
- Gain awareness of the emotions you experience about your past hurt. Talking to a close friend or therapist can help facilitate this process.
- Take steps to lessen the impact the grievance has on your relationship. Repair the damage by finding ways to soothe hurt feelings. This might include writing a letter or release to the person who injured you – even if you don’t mail it. Your release might read something like: “I release you from the pain you caused me when we used to argue.”
- Make a choice to feel hurt for a shorter period. Challenging your thinking and letting go of “unenforceable rules”— Luskin’s term for unrealistic expectations and standards that people hold for themselves and others that ultimately lead to feelings of disappointment or distress.
- Focus on those things that you can control. You can’t control the past but you can make better choices today – such as letting go of hurt feelings.
- Accept that people do the best they can and attempt to be more understanding. This does not mean that you condone the hurtful actions of others. You simply come to a more realistic view of your past. As you take stock, you will realize that all people operate out of the same basic drives, including self-interest.
- The final step is learning to think like a forgiving person. Avoid holding a grudge and declare you are free to stop playing the role of victim. After all, we are all imperfect. For some people, genuine forgiveness is not possible, but accepting their divorce and the events surrounding it is.
Crafting a New Story
Recently, I’ve learned that shame and vulnerability are tied into an unwillingness to forgive ourselves and others. In her landmark book Daring Greatly, Author Brené Brown writes: “Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.” For me, forgiving others and myself is infinitely terrifying yet necessary for achieving healthy relationships. It’s about being willing to acknowledge that I am capable of being wounded and to risk exposing myself. It also means that I am stepping out of the role of a victim and taking charge of my life.
In Choices: Taking Control of Your Life and Making it Better, Author Melody Beattie explains that people often let others choose for them so they don’t have to take responsibility for the results. She writes, “A lot of things happen to us over which we have no control. That includes people, their use of free will (or not), and acts of God and life.” Beattie’s words remind us that we can be so invested in playing the victim that forgiving someone may make us redefine ourselves. Forgiveness signifies breaking the cycle of pain and giving up the belief that the other person should suffer as much as we do.
Let’s end on a quote by Roberto Assagioli: “Without forgiveness life is governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation.”
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW is a licensed therapist, author, and college instructor. She and her daughter, Tracy offer a healing community about divorce related issues at Moving Past Divorce. Terry specializes in divorce, stepfamilies, and parenting. She is also a regular contributor to Huffington Post Divorce and enjoys public speaking. You can follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/