Forgiveness: The Process of Letting Go

By Gina McSheffrey-Emmons, PhD

Has anyone ever hurt or betrayed you where you found it hard to forgive that person for what he/she did? Forgiveness is the act of letting go negative feelings associated with a person or persons who have hurt you in some way. For some people it may be an easy thing to do, and for others it may not be. It all can depend on what happened to cause such hurt/harm to the other person. Some acts may even seem unforgiveable to most people. You can probably easily forgive people for minor offenses such as a friend who told you a white lie, a date who stood you up, or even a person who stole your wallet, but when it comes to more serious acts such as involving abuse or even death of a loved one, forgiveness may seem impossible.

Forgiveness is a process and is different for each person. Working toward forgiveness is definitely a personal journey, and even with hard work it may not always be the outcome. Part of one’s healing can ultimately be letting go of past hurts and grudges. It may not be a one-time thing; it may involve you learning to forgive over time or multiple times. During this process, one can learn to forgive the person who hurt them, but not forgive the act. Forgiveness does not mean you discount what happened, it just means you are choosing to let go of the power this act has on you. Learning to forgive does not happen overnight and can require the support of others in your life such as family, friends, religious leaders, spiritual healers, mental health providers, etc. It does not have to be done publicly; it can be a private choice, and there is no set time frame as to when this should happen.

Some may argue that it may be easier to forgive others than ourselves. If you know that you are in the wrong for something you did to someone else, maybe it is time to let go of the guilt, own your actions, and apologize. Regardless of whether the other person forgives you or not, you have to be comfortable with knowing you did what you could to mend the situation and forgive yourself. Also, we may be too hard on ourselves by feeling guilty for the feelings we have or by constantly criticizing ourselves such as our looks, skills/abilities, decisions we make, etc. If that sounds like you, then it is time to start forgiving yourself for being your harshest critic and let go of these negative thoughts and feelings. Self-forgiveness can be achieved by working on ways to feel better about yourself and making time to address the issues that bring you down.

Some side effectsof holding on to past hurts include:

  • Negativity:You may harbor negative feelings such as bitterness, anger, resentment, and maybe even vengefulness. You may start feeling more pessimistic and take on a negative view of the world. You may even become more withdrawn and feel lonely.
  • Mental Health Effects: If you do not recognize and address these negative feelings, it can lead to more serious conditions such as anxiety and depression where you find it more difficult to cope with your feelings.
  • Feeling Stuck:Holding on to the past can weigh us down and take away from enjoying the present. Being stuck in the past can keep us from moving forward.
  • Physical Effects:Not only does “holding on” affect our emotional well-being, it can also have negative consequences on our physical health and result in stomach aches, headaches, frequent illnesses, or more long-term effects such as high blood pressure, heart-related diseases, etc., which are all similar to the side effects of stress on our system.

Some of the benefitsof forgiveness/letting go are as follows:

  • Emotional Release: “Letting go” allows you to release such an emotional burden in your life that it may feel like a weight has been lifted.
  • Inner Peace:Forgiveness fosters healing, a feeling of peace within yourself, and maybe even empathy/compassion for others.
  • Stronger Sense of Self:Although we cannot change what has happened, we can change how we think and feel about it. We can change how we want to live our lives and not let our past hurts define who we are.
  • Helping Others: Forgiveness may lead you to help others in similar situations.
  • Positive Modeling:We can model for our children and teach them that while it is normal to feel hurt, we can also move on from it.

Deciding to forgive is not an easy decision, but being open to the process can help in starting to heal from past hurts. Holding on to these hurts can really cause damage to us on so many levels. Although it can be difficult, learning to let go and forgive, whether it be yourself or others, may lead you to another path that you did not expect—a path that allows you to break free from the past and to view things from a different and perhaps healthier perspective.