My definition of forgiveness is a bit different than you may have been taught.
By Tina B. Tessina, PhD
Learning to forgive those who hurt us is an essential life skill, because it helps develop inner maturity, frees us from emotional bondage to the other person, and helps us develop the power to move on.
Forgiveness begins with learning to forgive yourself for any damage you may have done to yourself and others with destructive habits and for allowing others (beginning with your family, and including later adult relationships) to be unkind or abusive to you or take advantage of or disrespect you.
My definition of forgiveness is a bit different than you may have been taught. The dictionary defines to forgive as "to give up resentment of", which I have found is nearly impossible if you’ve been really hurt – often there are too many real injuries to forgive. It can also be unwise, because resentment is like a reminder to yourself to "watch out -- this hurt me before". Ignoring the past and forgiving others who may still be abusing you now ("He didn't mean to beat me up, he was just drunk" ) gets you hurt or mistreated over and over again. Dependency is often perpetuated by being "nice," forgiving and forgetting that someone has hurt you, and not confronting the person or ending the relationship.
Forgiving yourself for past destructive behavior, if not based on a real, inner change of attitudes ("it wasn't my fault, I had a rough childhood."; "I can't help it, my anger just takes over.") becomes dysfunctional permissiveness and self pity. Forgiving yourself without learning from your destructive behavior, and without determining how to change, is aptly termed denial by recovery programs. If you don't recognize the consequences of your destructive behavior, and accept responsibility for it, you have no incentive to change.
However, simply hanging on to resentment will not really protect you, or allow you to let go of the past and move on in your life. As long as you hold onto the resentment, you will feel like a helpless, hopeless, dependent victim of your past history. You do need to learn to forgive, but just giving up resentment is not sufficient. You need a new model of what forgiveness is.
The need to forgive may include several things:
*You may need to forgive yourself for doing emotional, mental or physical damage to others.
*You may need to forgive yourself for doing emotional, mental or physical damage to yourself.
*You may need to forgive yourself for letting others damage you in those ways.
*You may need to forgive others (parents, children, spouses, friends) for hurting themselves in all the above ways.
*You may need to forgive others for doing emotional, mental or physical damage to you.
Safely and honestly forgiving all these past hurts is not accomplished by simply giving up resentment. First you must find a way to be safe from future damage and abuse. Once you have learned how to create safety you can rely on, and you know you have the ability to protect yourself from damage, and to prevent yourself from causing damage, forgiving past destructive behavior, (your own and others') becomes easy, because you are no longer threatened. When you have real reasons for resentment, both against others and against yourself; the assurance that you can take care of yourself so that you won't be hurt again is the only thing that makes true forgiveness possible.
Recognizing the consequences of your own destructive behavior and taking responsibility for it does not mean punishing yourself; it means becoming aware of the ideas and feelings that are behind your behavior, and learning how to change them. It is possible to love and approve of yourself now and still be aware that you have allowed yourself to be damaged by yourself and others, and that those experiences have been painful and destructive. If you've caused yourself pain in the past by being involved with abusive people, you can learn to understand your inner reasons for feeling dependent on such abusive people. By using your inner awareness and the following exercise, you can change the patterns that keep you helpless in such relationships.
If your own behavior has been damaging to yourself or others, you don't have to continually blame and punish yourself in order to remember the consequences of destructive behavior. Instead, you can use your inner awareness to find the deep inner feelings and beliefs underlying your behavior and make the necessary changes.
Although it is often not possible to prevent others from hurting themselves or attempting to hurt you, you can take steps to see that their rage and destructive behavior does not threaten or damage you. Remembering who hurt you is not the same as condemning them. You can be wary of their out-of-control or problematic behavior, and recognize that they are fallible human beings, too, and often more damaged by childhood experience than you were, and that until they repair their own damage, as you are repairing yours, you must keep a safe distance. In fact, the possibility that someone might lose you, or that you will keep a safe distance because of his or her destructive behavior, is often the only type of confrontation that will cause him or her to accept responsibility for bad behavior.
The following exercise will help you to learn new ways to cope with situations where you were hurt by others. Through visualization, you can learn to protect yourself from others by rehearsing and changing old painful scenes as many times as you need to make sure you know how to take care of yourself.
It is not easy to be sure an old behavior problem (your own or someone else's) is gone forever. Even when you or the other person has done inner work to correct the problem, in a situation of enough stress it may still return. This exercise will help you learn how to take care of yourself in difficult and painful situations, and give you a chance to practice various solutions and responses until you find the ones that work, without risking any real- life consequences. This is learning to care for yourself in very realistic terms, and it begins with healing old, painful scenes.
This exercise will help you to take control of events in your past and replace them with new, more effective behavior. I believe "Time Travel" is the single most powerful exercise you can do to clear out old traumas and build autonomous skills, including the ones that keep you safe from emotional, mental, or physical harm. It will help you develop the self-protection needed to achieve forgiveness and let go of damaging behavior, situations and people.
Through consistent use and practice of this exercise, you will no longer need resentment to protect you, because you have learned how to ensure your safety. You will be able to release and forgive old hurts, recognizing that the people who caused them (yourself included) didn't know any better ways of behaving at the time. As you learn how to protect and care for yourself, you will also learn how to recognize when others are uncaring, and what to do about it.
You can use this exercise to heal various hurts. For example, if you're having a recurring dream that troubles you, you can use this exercise to replay the dream, and it won't bother you any more. By using scenes from your present or future (a quarrel with your current mate, or an encounter that you're afraid will happen with someone who's angry at you) you can use "Time Travel" to practice risk taking (rehearse in advance social events where you'll meet new people, or talk to someone you've been shy around).
To allow yourself the full impact of the exercise, without interruption, read the following steps into a tape recorder and play them back.
1. Visualize the source of anger or pain: To begin, sit quietly by yourself, and close your eyes. Visualize yourself in a painful scene from the past. You will learn how to correct the scene, take care of yourself, forgive whoever created the problem, and forgive yourself for your own participation. Allow the troubling scene from your memory to appear around yourself. You may get a mental picture, or if not, just imagine the scene as you remember it. Remember to use your senses, to establish your scene clearly. If your scene is very painful, or frightening, view the scene as objectively as you can, as though it is a story about someone else.
2. Enter the scene as a hero. Like a time traveler from the future, visualize yourself in the scene as the person you are today. There will be two of you present, your self who had the original experience, plus the you from today, who will fix things.
3. Take charge of the scene. Now it's time to take over the story and protect yourself. Do whatever is needed to stop whoever is upsetting, hurting or neglecting you. If the other person is too badly behaved, you can make them leave-- you have total power here, in your imagination. Use that power to protect yourself. It often helps to surround yourself with loving people, or to call in the police if the scene is violent.
4. Take care of yourself. The early version of you may be frightened, angry, confused, feeling helpless, or overwhelmed with grief -- the "heroic you" can be rational, effective, competent and reassuring. You may encounter some resistance to doing this, in the form of feeling incapable of taking care of yourself. You can do this over and over in your mind until you get it right. You can try to fix the situation in several different ways, before you decide which is best. Remove yourself from danger; comfort and reassure; correct any lies you were told by telling the (positive) truth and establish a friendship with yourself. If your former self needs some information or help, provide it. Promise that you will never be left at the mercy of ignorant, malicious, incompetent, or uncomprehending people again.
5. When you feel safe, consider forgiveness. When you have corrected the scene enough that you are out of danger and feeling safe, think about what happened. Analyze what went wrong and who made mistakes, and decide how to avoid being the victim of those same mistakes again. Once you know you will not be hurt again (because you'll do what it takes to protect yourself,) you'll find that you are ready to forgive whomever hurt you, and will understand that they just don't know how to behave.
6. Go to a safe place. Close the scene by visualizing yourself in a safe, secure place, completely out of danger. Promise yourself that you'll be there when you're needed, and you’ll be careful, strong and self-protective. This means that you will not leave yourself alone, dependent, or at the mercy of people who are hurtful, and you will not be "nice" and allow someone to hurt you. Do not leave the scene until you feel calm and secure.
6. Repeat regularly. After you have done "Time Travel" the first time, you can keep your promise to keep yourself safe (and build self-trust) by checking in with yourself as often as needed, until it becomes an unconscious habit. Doing this exercise repeatedly, whenever old, painful memories arise, will eventually clear out traumas and correct the damage done while helping you practice the autonomous skills needed to take care of yourself. You'll find that you instinctively know when someone or something is hurtful to you, and when you're being hurtful to others. You'll also know what to do to correct the situation, (don't be alone with violent or emotionally hurtful people, don't allow yourself to be in tempting or dangerous situations, and so on) and you'll feel safe enough to forgive those who are confused and behave in hurtful ways, because their behavior will no longer be dangerous to you.
Overcoming your resistance to facing yourself and becoming aware of your inner feelings and beliefs, and learning how to care for yourself effectively, and to release the hold the past has on you, helps you develop emotional autonomy. The more adept you become at self-awareness, learning and forgiveness, the more autonomous you can be. The hurts of the past can be healed, and you can feel capable of taking care of yourself. When you feel stronger than those who attempt to hurt you, forgiveness comes naturally. (From The Real 13th Step)© Tina B.Tessina, 2007
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., (http://www.tinatessina.com) is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California, with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 11 books, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page); How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page); The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again (Wiley) and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the Twelve Step Programs (New Page.) Two new books will be out from Adams Press in 2007:Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Squabbling About the Three Things That Can Destroy Your Marriage and Commuter Marriage. She publishes Happiness Tips from Tina, an e-mail newsletter, and has hosted "The Psyche Deli: delectable tidbits for the subconscious" a weekly hour long radio show. She is an online expert, answering relationship questions at www.CouplesCompany.com and Yahoo!Personals, as well as a Redbook Love Network expert and "Psychology Smarts" columnist for First for Women. Her "Dr. Romance Blog" is at http://drromance.typepad.com/dr_romance_blog/ Dr. Tessina guests frequently on radio, and on such TV shows as "Oprah", "Larry King Live" and ABC news.