Forgiveness, as we think of it, is seen as a form of “letting go” and accepting what another person has done to us. This preconceived notion is wrong. While forgiveness can be a process of letting go, it is not one where we forgive and reconcile or forget. Forgiveness does not always mean that a relationship will improve, that we will no longer feel the negative emotions associated with a transgression, or that we give up our right to these emotions. Forgiveness is an emotional change that occurs within ourselves, without even having to speak to the wrongdoer and is something that we choose for ourselves, not for them. By forgiving we are not condoning behavior or even stating that we accept said behavior, but that we are choosing to overcome the pain that this person has caused. We are choosing to let go of the emotions associated with the injustice that has occurred, though fully justified when felt, and to create more meaning for ourselves. We are choosing to treat this person with compassion out of our own accord even if they are not entitled to it.
Forgiveness comes in five stages: The Uncovering Stage, The Decision Stage, The Work Stage, The Deepening Stage, and The Future.
The Uncovering Stage: During the first stage of forgiveness, one aims to improve your own understanding of the injustice, and how it has impacted your life. This begins by identifying the perpetrator and the injustice/transgression. We identify who has affected us negatively and identify what specific behaviors those may have been, whether those be physical, emotional, or spiritual. This stage is the starting off point where one describes the transgression as well as the emotions associated with it, and begins to process.
The Decision Stage: During the second stage, one aims to gain a deeper understanding of what forgiveness is, and make the decision to choose or reject forgiveness as an option. Within this stage one identifies and feels the emotions associated with the transgression and processes them in a safe space. The individual then, if safe, speaks to the individual. If not, then one processes within a safe space through a range of techniques within therapy. This stage can be difficult as it is one where the individual can struggle with the decision to forgive as one can feel that they are entitled to their anger and the transgressor does not have a right to their kindness. However, making the decision to forgive is about letting go of resentments, feeling our anger, and untimely choosing healing for ourselves, not choosing kindness for the transgressor.
The Work Stage: During the third stage, one aims to truly understand the transgressor in a new way, aiming to allow some positive feelings towards oneself. At this stage one has done the work to understand and process their emotions and now considers the possible benefits to forgiveness. Once one understands and decides to forgive, then one recognizes what has transpired and is developing compassion for oneself. By developing compassion for oneself the individual can then begin to see the transgressor as a human being who comes with strengths and flaws.
The Deepening Stage: During this stage of forgiveness, one aims to further decrease negative emotions, such as anger or resentment, and creates new firmer boundaries with the transgressor. Within this stage the boundaries needed to be put into place are identified and expressed to the transgressor. One also begins to understand the need and right to protect oneself around the transgressor as well as maintaining these boundaries to keep oneself physically and emotionally safe. This stage serves to protect oneself for the future whether that be with the transgressor or other relationships within their life.
The Future: In this final stage, one aims to integrate what has happened in the past and uses the knowledge one has gained to inform one future. This also includes aiming to find meaning in the experiences and identify ways in which one has grown as a result of the transgression. This stage states that one has decided to forgive for one’s own healing and now wants to create a more meaningful life for oneself. This allows one to see how far they have come and to grow with the knowledge of themselves as a result of the transgression, their emotions, and how to set boundaries when events like these occur.
Through these stages, and through our own work to heal, one can truly forgive a past injustice/transgression and do the deeper work to heal while acknowledging the impact that this has had on one’s life.