Judy is 29 years old. She has a boyfriend, a best friend, and an awesome life. Her one problem, though, is that she doesn't have a good relationship with her family. When she was younger, her father abused her and her mother wasn't able to make it stop. She has lived with the shame of this abuse for years, and blames her father for it all. This makes it hard for her to move on and forgive him. He is her father. She is half him. She worries that she will abuse her own children the way she was abused. She has started to seek therapy to help her move on from this abusive situation, so that she can forgive her father, but it is going very slowly. She is starting to wonder if anything will ever work.
From the story above, you might be wondering, "why does Judy have to forgive her father? He was the one being abusive!" Which is exactly what I would have thought a couple years ago had I read about the same situation. The problem with letting unforgiveness fester is that it causes physical manifestations. When you can't or don't forgive, you are stuck in the past and can't really move on to the future until that past is dealt with. This causes anxiety, depression and anger. These issues show up in your life in ways that are unrelated to the original trauma.
In Judy's case, she didn't really want to forgive her father. She felt justified in her unforgiveness because he was so horrible to her. After years in therapy, she finally admitted to her therapist that she struggled with her feelings about forgiveness. As a result of this honesty, her therapist was able to come up with some steps for Judy to take to finally find the road to complete forgiveness.
1. Allow yourself to grieve. Grieve for the loss of the ideal parent-child relationship. This is similar to grieving a death in the family, but allows the wronged person to move on in life without the complete closure of an actual death. This also means that the child can then start living with the actual relationship with his or her parent, instead of constantly wishing for the idealistic relationship that will probably never happen.
2. Allow yourself to celebrate the small things. When a parent-child relationship is strained, like in the one above, it can be really difficult not to look at everything in a negative light. Seeing all the strings attached, instead of the gift. Your life is a gift, so look at everything in that light, even the small positive interactions with a parent.
3. Don't fall back on past trauma. When you choose to forgive, and move past trauma, you are choosing not to fall back on old routines. If it is routine to ignore an estranged parent on a special holiday, make a point to reach out and wish them a happy holiday. This isn't to allow that person in your life again to make the same mistakes, but it is a way to tell yourself that you have moved on from the original trauma, and you are allowing yourself a new life with new experiences.
Judy is a fictional person, but she could be any of us. How many of us have held a grudge against someone for a smaller slight, or even fought with feelings toward an abusive parent? I know I have. But I have also followed the steps above and have found a way to move on from bad situations, and have found ways to forgive misdeeds by others. I have learned to respond to them in a way that may not diminish what was done to me, but helps me rise above them so that they don't define me.
Forgiveness is an active emotion. Some people forgive easily, and others not so easily. But when you choose to forgive someone for something, you are performing an action. This choice affects you, not the other person. When someone does something bad to you, and you tell them, "I forgive you," they may not even care. That person may not even realize they had hurt you in any way. This doesn't absolve you of your responsibility to forgive. This responsibility isn't to the other person. Your responsibility to forgive is for you. When you forgive, you are opening your life up to all the positive things you might not have seen otherwise. When you are not focused on what wrongs have happened to you, you can open up to all the right. By doing this you allow yourself to live a life full of love and endless possibilities.
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