Remember, if you are in crisis, get help immediately. You may already know how to do that locally. If not, I have a link here to crisis lines worldwide.
Also, if this is your first depression homework exercise that you are doing in this series, please read the brief introduction here.
Today’s exercise is challenging. It is about the power of forgiving. A lot of people do not understand the purpose of forgiving others. I was included in this group until quite recently.
If you are depressed (and even if you aren’t), there are likely people in your life (maybe even including yourself) who you feel you cannot forgive. They may have done or said something so awful that you cannot move past it and you just feel unbelievably hurt.
You have every right to feel hurt. I am not suggesting that you were not hurt. In fact the person who hurt you may be truly monstrous and they may deserve to go to jail. Forgiveness is not about letting the other person off the hook. It is about letting yourself off the hook.
When I started to understand forgiveness was when I read a news story about an eighty year old survivor of a concentration camp who met up with a man who had tortured her while she was in camp. She forgave him. People judged her for it. However, she said how it helped her to finally feel free of the horrors and to be able to move beyond what had happened to her. It was not about making this man feel good about himself. It was about allowing her to release her negative feelings and move forward.
- Make a list of all the people who have wronged you (even yourself).
- These can range anywhere from terrible wrongs like war crimes, physical and sexual abuse, etc. to smaller wrongs like your bank charging you more than they should have or your teenager not doing the dishes when he/she should have.
- Anything you resent or feel annoyed about should be on the list.
- Some of the items on the list are going to be easier to forgive than others. Remember that this forgiveness is about you. It is not about the other person or entity. In fact they don’t even have to know that you have forgiven them unless you want them to know. They may not respond the way you want them to and that might hurt you again, which is NOT the purpose of this exercise.
- I believe the best way to forgive is to do it on paper (in your homework notebook perhaps). You write out, for example, “I forgive you, Angus, for being a naughty cat and urinating on my shoes. I know you did it for attention, but that is not an excuse. It was still a bad thing to do. However, you are my cat and I love you and I forgive you.” (That is my silly example — yours may be much more serious, of course.)
- You do not have to love or understand each person you forgive. It helps if you have some insight or compassion for them, but the important part is giving up your feelings of anger.
- I met a man once who said he would never forgive his father for being so physically and emotionally abusive towards him — that he would hate him until the day he died and that he would urinate on his grave. That may sound harsh, but consider the pain and humiliation that father put a helpless little boy through for years. It was cruel, unfair, and criminal. And this man that the boy became had every right to never forgive his father, to hold onto that hatred and anger. However, the tragedy is that holding onto that hatred and anger was poisoning his life further. It made it impossible for him to trust people. It made it impossible for him to love himself or others. So, please think of forgiveness as a compassionate gift that you give YOURSELF.
- Releasing hatred, anger, and frustration is for your own peace of mind.
- After you have done this exercise — and it may take more than one day to complete — come back and see how you feel. Has forgiveness lightened your mood at all? For some it will, for others, there is more work to be done. Do you feel any lingering resentments? If so, why? Can you do anything to forgive these?
- A word about self-forgiveness: Sometimes the hardest person to forgive (ironically) can be yourself. Depression and guilt go hand in hand. Forgiving ourselves can be very hard because we have to live with ourselves. And if you have a conscience, that can sometimes be very difficult to do, particularly depending on what you did wrong and if someone else does not forgive you. Self-forgiveness may take a while (or it may not and that is okay too). Personally, I find great solace in the Maya Angelou quote: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” We are all works in progress. The buddhists consider life to be one continuous mistake. One thing is certain. A crippling feeling of guilt is unproductive. If you have not done anything wrong, you don’t deserve it. And if you have done something wrong, there are better ways you can atone for what you have done. (You may never be able to atone to the person you have wronged, but some people feel like they are creating some sort of balance in the world when they do some good for other people and make the world a brighter place that way — is that possible for you now? Take only steps that you feel comfortable with today. It may just be an idea for the future.)
It is important to note that this exercise is about forgiveness, but not about giving up. For example, if you are engaged in a custody dispute with someone who has treated you unfairly or abused you and/or the children, forgiveness will help you to release the hurt, anger, frustration, and perhaps fear that you feel. However, this does not mean you should give up the custody dispute. The work of that will simply continue without all the negative emotions. You can continue with a cooler, more rational mind.
This exercise is very challenging and I look forward to your comments and any suggestions on how to modify it or even explain it better. What I have read in several places is that forgiveness is an incredibly powerful force that can make us feel lighter and can offer us a feeling of peace. That is the goal here. Some people, once they get the “hang” of forgiveness really like to find more and more things and people to list that they can forgive because the feeling of forgiveness can be such a powerful release.
I recommend the book below, Triumph of the Heart, which is about forgiveness.
“I believe that it is vital for us all—both as individuals and as a society—to think deeply about the question of forgiveness and its power to transform. I delight in the amount of research that Megan Feldman Bettencourt has done here, and I welcome her book as an important contribution to our ongoing cultural conversation about this important topic. I hope it will lead many to reconsider their anger, their bitterness, and their resentments.”
—Elizabeth Gilbert, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love