Tis’ the Season: Seven Steps to Forgiveness

As you head into the holiday season, you may be confronted with some unresolved business – namely interacting with people for whom you feel resentment. Divorce can create a lot of hard feelings and those can be difficult to release. But as long as you harbor ill-will against your ex, you may not be able to truly move forward. And that takes one very difficult task: Forgiveness.

How does forgiveness happen? Often it’s hard to imagine being able to forgive transgressions that feel so hurtful and wrong. But it is possible to not just forgive, but have compassion for the person who hurt you. And it doesn’t have to take a lifetime to achieve. The key is to have the will to forgive, to put hurts behind you so you can truly let go of resentment. Although forgiveness doesn’t necessarily happen in a linear fashion, the following are seven steps that can sponsor the spirit that makes it possible.

1. Know It’s Not Personal. If someone hurts you badly, chances are it is because they were hurt badly at some point in their lives, most likely when they were innocent, vulnerable children. (See #4) Being able to separate the harmful deed from yourself allows you to let go of the sense that there’s something wrong with you. The moment you can consider that the person who hurt you was not deliberately trying to do damage, but was thinking exclusively of himself, you can start to let go of resentment.

2. Appreciate What It Was. It may sound like the last thing you want to do, but the sooner you can do it, the sooner you can begin to feel relief. Write down all the good things your ex did for you in your relationship. Start small if that’s the best you can do. (He always cleaned his beard hair out of the sink, or He had a pulse). It may be painful to admit it, but feeling the sadness of loss (which is what that pain is, in case you’re wondering) is a big part of healing and healing means gaining the strength to forgive.

3. Realize Your Part. You may think you’re wearing a halo, but if you had an expectation of another human being, then you have a part. We ALL make mistakes and react out of our own fears. When you’re ready, work with a skillful therapist or spiritual director to help you discern your part. You don’t have to run apologize to your ex for these things, but it will help you forgive yourself.

4. Accept Things Beyond Your Control. Realize that every person on this planet has suffered some type of deep wounding: Betrayal, physical harm, emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, belittlement, etc. Everyone has something from which they are recovering. Whatever your spouse brought into the marriage is his/hers to own. It had nothing to do with you.

5. Envision Something Better. Although your plans for the future with your ex are not panning out, this is not the only plan that Life has to offer. Once you have truly accepted your ex’s limitations then you can see that perhaps that vision for the life you thought you’d have together was not quite accurate. When you can envision what you want your life to become without this special person, you can start to see opportunities that were not present when you were with that

person. You are free to envision the life you want beyond someone else’s wants, needs, and desires. And you are free to envision a life that meets your wants, needs and desires.

6. Releasing the Harm. Now it is very possible that your ex’s actions caused you real harm — financially, emotionally, physically, spiritually. You were hurt in some way or you wouldn’t feel resentment, anger, and sadness. The pain is real, but remember the saying, “Pain is part of life, but suffering is a choice.” It’s your choice whether you want to carry that with you or let it go. What happened, happened. It was unpleasant, painful, it may have been a setback, and it also revealed the truth about the other person that you needed to know. You can choose to feed it and, in effect, keep it alive, or you can choose to let it go.

7. Find the Purpose. Why did this happen? It’s natural to want to know why. Sometimes it may be more about things running their course. Accepting the limited time warrantee on a relationship is not easy. And yet, there is always something to learn from every relationship. There are lessons to learn and take with you, so that – hopefully – you won’t have to repeat that same painful course again. Once you can identify how you’ve grown, or have a glimmer of it, you may be able to appreciate the time you had together, bless your ex, and let them go. Be happy that you are on your respective ways to better things.

If you are struggling with finding forgiveness for your ex, consider working with a therapist to help you process the feelings and find some closure. Be gentle with yourself. Forgiveness is difficult work and it doesn’t happen overnight. But when you can realize the humanity in your ex, you will also recognize your own humanity – and ultimately forgive yourself for “ignoring the red flags,” for saying yes when you should have said no, or for behaving less than civil to your ex. Forgiveness of others ends with forgiveness of self. And that is the most precious gift you can give and receive.