Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D. Psychology Today blog post, October 3, 2022
This post is part of a series on adverse childhood experiences. Read the other parts here.
“There is a hard law…that when a deep injury is done to us we never recover until we forgive.”
—Alan Paton, South African novelist
Research has established that forgiveness frees us from the painful chains that bind us to the past. Those who practice forgiveness have been shown to have less anxiety, depression, and anger—and greater happiness, self-esteem, inner peace, and hope. Forgiving goes a long way toward completing the healing process and enabling individuals to move beyond a difficult childhood. By contrast, lack of forgiveness is exhausting.
Although some say forgiving deep wounds from childhood is optional, most people find it necessary for recovery. Yet forgiving serious offenses is neither simple nor easy. Simplistic advice to “just forgive and forget” can invalidate one’s pain and minimize the difficulty of forgiving. And counsel to forgive before pain from deep inner wounds has been sufficiently processed and healed can be premature.
So far in this series, we have explored many ways to heal and rewire inner wounds from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including:
- managing dysregulated stress arousal so that the brain can function properly
- regulating strong, distressing emotions that maintain dysregulated stress arousal
- optimizing brain health and function to prepare the brain to rewire constructively
- laying down constructive new neural pathways in the brain by practicing imagery that simulates experiences that were needed developmentally
- rewiring troubling childhood memories and responses to triggering events
- reworking lingering remnants of shame from childhood
Applying such healing skills helps prepare a person for the difficult task of forgiving serious offenses.
Forgiving means choosing to respond to the past differently so that the past no longer controls us and absorbs our attention. We choose to release anger, resentment, and desires for revenge, whether or not the offender asks for or deserves forgiveness. The highest form of forgiveness also extends feelings of compassion to the offender and wishes the offender well. A young boy from Vietnam who was severely abused by his foster brother put it well: “”Forgiving is replacing anger with love. Forgiving freed me to move on with my life.” Once he was old enough and strong enough, he told his foster brother, “I want you to know I love and forgive you.” Such a stance connects us with our higher selves. It might also help the offender—be it another person or one’s self—find greater inner peace and the motivation to change, as it did with the foster brother.
Forgiving acknowledges the pain that’s been caused and doesn’t condone hurtful behavior. It does not necessarily mean that we reconcile with or trust the offender. Trust may or may not be restored over time. While forgiving means we voluntarily release ill will and anger, it does not mean forgetting. Indeed, remembering might protect us in the future. However, forgiving means releasing the heavy weight of bitterness for the perfect past we wish we’d had. As best as we can, we resolve to respond to the hurts of the past with compassion and hope rather than anger or judgments.
The Four Keys to Forgiveness
There are four foundational elements of forgiveness (full scripts can be found in Schiraldi, 2021).
1. Feel Forgiveness
Have you ever known someone who forgave your mistakes and still loved you the same? If so, perhaps your experience has taught you how deeply satisfying forgiveness feels and motivates you to grow your capacity to forgive—both yourself and others.
If your past mistakes still trouble you, you might try this (Litz, et al., 2016). Imagine being in the presence of a kind moral authority who loves you, has your back, wants you to be happy, and doesn’t want you to suffer any longer for those mistakes. This being might be a kind family member or friend, a spiritual guide, God/higher power, or an imaginary figure. To that kind moral authority you express your pain and regrets. With warm, full presence, that kind being responds with deep empathy and compassion. Perhaps that kind moral authority tells you that he/she knows you’ve learned from this experience and is confident that you’ll be a wiser, more loving individual as a result. As you sit for some moments, track how experiencing non-judgmental acceptance feels emotionally and in your body.
2. Forgive Yourself
We mortals all make mistakes. Perhaps you’ve harshly criticized yourself for your mistakes because you feel you knew better. Imagine, instead of self-condemnation, treating yourself back then, when you were younger and less experienced, with the same loving kindness you’d extend to a friend. While preserving the desire for wisdom and excellence, and not excusing hurtful behaviors, reflect on these questions regarding your troubling behavior(s):
- Was I aware back then of all the options, all the ideal responses and better choices?
- Was I skilled enough and wise enough then to respond in an ideal manner?
- At that time, did duress or unresolved pain cloud my judgment or drive the behavior?
- Can I compassionately accept my imperfections at the time?
- Can I not determine to improve moving forward?
As one person remarked about imperfect, even foolish past decisions, “What did we know when we were eighteen?” What did we know when we were 28, 48, or 68? We are all trying to figure out better ways to live, while possessing imperfect knowledge and skills. Which is more motivating: self-condemnation or self-compassion? Forgiving self is one expression of self-compassion, which is more likely than harsh criticism to result in better behavior in the future.
3. Forgive Others
Parents/caregivers raised children according to what they knew. They surely would have done a better job if they’d truly understood and mastered better ways to love and lead children under their care. How were they hurting or under duress at the time? So you might look upon the imperfect adults who hurt you with compassion and forgiveness. What did they know when they were twenty, thirty, or forty? Perhaps you might consider forgiving them so that you can free yourself from the resentments of the past.
4. Seek Forgiveness from Others
We’ve all hurt others, especially when we ourselves were hurting. To clean up our side of the street, we can acknowledge our offenses to those we’ve hurt, seek forgiveness, and make amends. Amends reminds of us of the word mend. Expressing sorrow for hurting others and acknowledging how we hurt them might help them heal—and might even help to mend broken relationships. In addition to a sincere apology, we can do all we can to repair damages. Sometimes the only way to compensate for hurts we’ve caused is to change course, resolving to never again cause harm to ourselves or others by thoughtless actions.
As we see, there is much complexity to forgiveness. It is wise to start the process of forgiving when you are ready, proceeding at your own pace and expecting forgiving to take time and effort. Forgiving requires an open heart and skills that improve with practice. The next post will describe forgiveness skills that build upon the foundation that’s been laid so far.
- Schiraldi, G. R. (2021). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications. (Scripts for flourishing)
- Litz, B. T., Lebowitz, L., Gray, M. J., and Nash, W. P. (2016). Adaptive Disclosure: A New Treatment for Military Trauma, Loss, and Moral Injury. New York: Guilford.
About the Author
Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD, has served on the stress management faculties at The Pentagon, the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, and the University of Maryland, where he received the Outstanding Teacher Award in addition to other teaching/service awards. His fourteen books on stress-related topics have been translated into seventeen languages, and include The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook, The Self-Esteem Workbook. The Resilience Workbook, and The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. The founder of Resilience Training International (www.ResilienceFirst.com), he has trained laypersons, emergency responders, and clinicians around the world on the diverse aspects of stress, trauma, and resilience.
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