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Column: How to forgive somebody you love

We all get hurt by others from time to time, writes Lisa O’Hara. Here’s what you can do about it.

Lisa O'Hara

DID YOU EVER really mess up with someone and dread the consequences?

You fear the worst – only to find yourself on the receiving end of ‘Don’t worry about it, it happens to the best of us’ or ‘It’s OK, no worries’ or even ‘Yes that hurt, but I’ll get over it’? Then (hopefully) comes the subsequent relief that you are spared further pain and guilt by the absolution, unless we choose to hold onto the pain for longer.

So what happens if the boot is on the other foot, and we are called upon to forgive someone who may have hurt us? Research shows that forgiving can help lower blood pressure and heart rate, as well as lowering depression. It can also give us a better immune system and a longer life expectancy.

The goals of forgiveness are to move beyond hurt, anger and other uncomfortable feelings, release the urge to seek revenge and to move towards reconciliation (excluding certain things such as child sex abuse, where to reconcile would possible mean risk of repeat offending and inducing a sense of powerlessness and trauma in the abused once again).

Holding on to hurt and anger can stop us from forgiving. Do we hold onto them because we want the other to feel some of our pain? For example, if someone let you down, will you reject them back so they’ll get a taste of how you feel? The problem with this is, at most it will usually only provide temporary relief and may end up with them rejecting you again. Some people also fear that if they forgive the other, that it gives them free rein to be hurt again – or that if they say ‘I forgive you’, that the wrong that was done to them was somehow okay.

Fuelling feelings

Others will hurt us. Frequently it is unintentional, but we find it hard to forgive them for not playing by our rules. A hint might be the use of the word ‘should’: ‘He should have known that’ or ‘She shouldn’t want me to…’. Ask yourself, who do you need to forgive in this instance? Is it them, or yourself and your own (often unspoken) expectations?

These feelings are fuelled by thoughts that can keep us trapped in negativity and block the path to forgiveness and our happiness. It also has the nasty side effect of knocking self-esteem and confidence which may be fragile anyway. One way to disempower negativity is to look at how it’s affecting you (and possibly them if you’re feeling generous). For the purpose of this article, I have adapted some of Byron Katie’s style of self-enquiry (for more information, see thework.com).

First, ask yourself: ‘What is the thought?’ For example: ‘They criticised me in front of everyone.’

Now ask yourself the following: How do I react and what happens when I believe that thought? What emotions do I feel? What do I do and say? How do I treat the other person?Does the thought bring stress or peace into my life?

Turn the thought around by considering the following scenarios:

  • To the self: ‘I shouted at me. They shouted once, but I replayed it in my mind a hundred times.’ Or ‘I criticised me in front of everyone. I believed the words were critical.’
  • To the other: ‘I shouted at them. I retaliated. I shouted at them mentally to shut up.’ Or ‘I criticised them in front of everyone. I made it very clear what I thought of them by my facial expression.’
  • To the opposite: ‘They didn’t shout at me. It wasn’t personal, they were in a bad mood anyway.’ Or ‘They didn’t criticise me in front of everyone. It’s possible that others didn’t hear any implied criticism and that some people didn’t even notice.’

Inevitably, we all mess up and hurt other people. It’s inevitable. It can bring up defensiveness and a strong urge to justify our words and actions. Behind it (and sometimes out of our own awareness) we may also feel anxious and guilty.

Our guilt may drive us to overcompensate so that the other person will feel better – we hope we will feel better too but unfortunately, we may ultimately end up punishing ourselves more than is warranted.

Wouldn’t it be an awful lot easier if we had some compassion and forgave ourselves for being human? No-one is perfect, yet we expect it from others – especially if we expect a lot from ourselves. If we cannot forgive, perhaps the only thing we get to lose is peace.

I’ll finish by repeating Lewis B Smedes: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Lisa O’Hara is a counsellor for Relationships Ireland. Relationships Ireland offers confidential counselling and support services that offer you the opportunity to understand and resolve difficulties in your relationship. For more information or to book a consultation you can contact 1890 380 380 or email info@relationshipsireland.com.

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Lisa O'Hara

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