Forgive to be Free

A vintage ball and chain with an open shackle on an old prison cell block floor lit by overhead lights

It won’t be easy, but freedom is within reach.

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” -Mahatma Gandhi

Freedom and forgiveness–two powerful words that are critical to living our most positive lives possible.

While I don’t expect much of an argument about the importance of freedom, I don’t expect as many people to embrace the life-saving positivity of forgiveness.

Why?

Because it’s hard. Really hard. In fact, I don’t know if there is an act in the world that requires more inner strength than the act of forgiveness.

Don’t believe me?

Let’s say that your significant other cheated on you and gave you an incurable STD, or your babysitter severely burned your toddler because she left him unattended while she was messing around on Facebook, or your coworker spread a vicious lie about you that was believed by your boss and it ended up getting you fired and destroying your career.

Would it be easy for you to show forgiveness in any of those situations? If so, you’re officially a better person than I am.

Extreme examples? Okay, fair enough. But many of us struggle with forgiving much lesser acts than the ones mentioned above, don’t we?

When someone deeply hurts us (or someone we love), one of the easiest and most natural things to do is to hold on to that bitterness, anger and hatred for as long as possible. In extreme cases, we use all of our power and strength to direct our negative energy toward the person/people who hurt us.

I’ve been there and it’s still something that I struggle with often.

In order to make the forgiveness process a little easier for all of us, let’s start by blowing up some of the myths about what real forgiveness is all about.

Real Forgiveness: Healing Ourselves

Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” -Buddha

Forgiveness is a conscious decision to release feelings of resentment and vengeance toward the person/people who have hurt you.

Just to clear up the most common misconceptions, forgiveness is not about:

  • Condoning the behavior.
  • Forgetting that it ever happened (if you forget, how could you remember the lesson?)
  • Giving the other person a “free pass” and becoming best friends again.
  • Getting to a point where you’re fine with what happened.

The biggest misconception of all is that forgiveness is about extending kindness to the person who hurt you. That is not the case at all.

Forgiveness is about extending kindness to yourself by starting the healing process.

As a person who has had to practice forgiveness in my life more often than I would like to admit, I realized that when I was consumed by those deep feelings of hatred and vengeance, it was like I was being victimized twice.

As the famous quote above said, I kept drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

Predictably, the other person didn’t die, but the poison was slowly killing every meaningful area of my life: My relationships with my family and friends, my career, my health, my sanity and happiness…you name it, and it was slowly dying due to my anger and bitterness.

As strange as this may sound, in order to truly heal, I had to start by forgiving myself.

I kept beating myself up for allowing someone/something to hurt me so deeply, and the last thing that I needed during this time was for me to keep figuratively punching myself in the face, or to become numb to the world by putting up a wall to save me from being hurt again.

I needed to give myself kindness. I needed to develop resilience. I needed to give myself some love.

Once I was able to do those things, I was finally in a place where I could release the pain of the terrible situation, while still retaining the lesson from it.

The Decision to be Free

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you.” -Lewis B. Smedes

If you’re reading these words and you’re in a place where you need to forgive someone who has deeply hurt you, just remember this:

It’s okay to be pissed off. It’s okay to still be sad. It’s okay to wish that the person who hurt you will someday experience the same amount of pain, if not worse, than what you’re feeling right now (yeah, I said it.)

What’s not okay is choosing to live in this state indefinitely.

In the end, holding onto resentment, vengeance and anger will destroy your life.

Trust me on this.

Choosing forgiveness means to make the life-changing decision to not allow your past pain to control your present happiness any longer.

Will you be able to reach this state overnight? Probably not.

In some extreme cases, it could take years to release the bitterness of the past in order to reclaim the possibilities of the present–and that’s okay. This is not a process that needs to be rushed.

It does need to happen, though.

As the famous quote goes, “he who angers you, controls you.” And in order to set yourself free (when you’re ready, of course), it can only happen when you’re willing to release the negativity of the past pain and focus on creating a better present and future.

In case you’re wondering, there is no magic, foolproof, 3-step formula to do this. Anyone who is trying to sell you one is officially the biggest B.S. artist alive. Forgiveness is an intensely personal and complicated process that varies wildly from situation to situation.

Here’s what I have personally tried that has worked for me (some of these things were much more successful than others):

  • I prayed for the other person and silently wished him/her well.
  • I wrote down all of my angry and hateful thoughts toward the other person in a journal, and then set the journal on fire.
  • I meditated and said to myself, “I consciously and purposely release you and the pain that you’ve caused me.”
  • I committed to stop staying in “victim mode” by continuing to share my story over and over again with anyone who would listen.
  • I got very rational and thought about the cost on my loved ones and me if I allowed this person to have continued power over my happiness and peace of mind.
  • I saw a therapist.

Either way, no matter what you try, one thing is for sure:

There is nothing easy or simple about this process at all. 

Most importantly, I can safely say that the process begins with the decision to no longer be a prisoner of your resentment, vengeance and pain.

After you make that decision, you officially become the person with the power to define how that relationship (and the rest of your life) will continue from that point forward. Speaking from personal experience, it is no exaggeration to say that making this decision has the power to save your life.

Fair warning, though–it’s going to require you to tap into some serious inner strength to make the decision to escape from the prison that your anger and resentment have created for you.

The good news is that once you’re finally ready to escape, you’ll discover that you’re the one holding the key.

It’s time to use it to set yourself free.

Your Turn

Is there an area of your life where you need to show forgiveness? Have you experienced the positive effects of forgiving someone who has hurt you? Either way, jump into the comments below and make your voice heard!

Shola

Shola

Founder of The Positivity Solution
Author, keynote speaker, and kindness extremist who is committed to changing the world by helping as many people as possible to live and work with more positivity.
Shola
Shola

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Comments

  1. Thank you Shola! Thank you for trusting there is a meaning, a positive and loving lesson to our struggles…. self-forgiviness is one of my biggest challenges! loved the post

  2. This has similar aspects to being in grief. No two people process grief the same way and the amount of time it takes varies from person to person and other variables.
    The test for grief severity is does this impact your activities of daily living for an extended period of time?
    This could also be a test for unforgiven situations.
    Personally I would throw therapy and prayer to the top of my list for getting unstuck from obsessive thoughts. 😊

    • Excellent point, Bert–there is definitely not a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to this forgiveness stuff. Like you said, the key is finding a way to release ourselves from the obsessive thoughts that negatively impact our daily activities. Once that happens, freedom is within reach 🙂

  3. Hello, Shola! I know we have talked about this before. I agree with you that forgiveness is so very, very important. It is the absolute best gift you can give yourself. It does not involve the person who hurt you, because they are on their own journey. When you forgive someone, you free up space in your own heart and mind for better things.

    I am actually really good at forgiving people. I can do it quite easily most of the time. But that has not always been the case. It has taken me years and lots of practice. That may sound silly, but each time I have forgiven someone, it has helped me to be better at forgiving the next person.

    And a note to those who may not know my story…. I have forgiven some really big things. I have forgiven a man for raping me. I have forgiven my ex-husband for years of abuse and neglect of both myself and our three children. I have forgiven numerous bullies who had made my life miserable.

    Once upon a time, I was a depressed doormat. No one should ever let that happen. But I did, because I didn’t understand the power of forgiveness. Forgiving someone does not give them power, it takes it back! I am now a very strong, fierce and extremely joy-filled person, all because of my singular choice to always forgive.

    I also want to say that my faith helps with this a lot. As a Christian, I cannot possibly let my heart hold on to anger when Jesus made the choice, not only to forgive me of all my sins, but to die for them. If he did that, who am I to hold on to unforgiveness?

    Happy Monday, Shola. I hope your readers will seriously think about this powerful message!

    Kathy

    • Kathy, I know that I have been telling you this for years, but you are such an inspiration not only to me, but to the rest of the readers here as well. Just knowing that you have the courage to tell your story here, AND that you have found the ability to forgive in those situations gives us all hope that we can do the same. As always, you said it beautifully and this is the core of forgiveness: “Forgiveness does not give them power, it takes it back!” I absolutely love that. Thanks again for being the awesome human being that you are!

  4. In my heart and prayer to God Almighty, I have forgiven all my human enemies, I do not have to go to them and say that I forgive them for all the evil and hurt they have caused to me and my family. And also forgiveness is a commandment of God, But that not mean to say that we must break bread with them, forgive and move on.

  5. Happy Monday Shola! Wow, this is a tough topic. Gandhi was right. It takes strength to forgive. I have spent probably 40 of my 57 years in a state of non-forgiveness toward my parents, for abusing and neglecting me and my brothers so cruelly. While I was wrapped up in outrage, I couldn’t forgive anybody, even myself, for the most minor mistakes. I did finally get therapy, and work on letting it go. Maybe you will like an Oprah Winfrey quote, that sums it up for me. (Paraphrasing here) She says forgiveness is letting go of the thought that the past should have been different, and accept that it was what it was. To me this means stop obsessing (Those people should have loved me and taken care of me! What they did was so wrong!). It means move on (Wow, what a horrific childhood. Those people are a mess. Thank God I survived. I’ll never let anyone treat me like that again, and I’ll be sure to act much better than the horrible example they set). Note I never said I’m fine with them or what they did. I just stopped wishing it had never happened, and I stopped focusing on the injustice of things that should never have happened. I learned to accept I had been damaged, redirected my energy to healing and making positive plans for the future. This really did set me free, to be forgiving and accepting of others, and myself. It also gave me courage to let myself be vulnerable to others. Now I feel comfortable that I can survive personal hurts and betrayals that do happen in life. This makes me more “whole” as a person, and more at peace. Thank you Shola, for revisiting forgiveness.

    • Donna, that Oprah quote is a great one, and it’s something that would have saved me from a TON of pain, if I had read it a few years ago. I was obsessesed with rewriting the past, and if I just accepted that I couldn’t change the past (but I could change my future!) I would have moved on much more quickly than I did. Like you said, you will never condone what your parents did, but forgiveness has allowed to learn from the situation, stop obsessing over why they treated you like that, and most importantly, you redirected your energy toward being loving to yourself and others. I could not have asked for a more powerful example of the benefits of forgiveness after a horrific situation. Thanks as always for sharing, my friend!

  6. Another great piece! I realized how important forgiveness was when I was 21 and in a group therapy session for people who grew up in less than desirable circumstances. Hearing people in their 40s, 50s, even 60s who were STILL not over what had happened to them as kids was a massive eye opener to me. It actually really scared me.

    It showed me that these feelings wouldn’t just magically get better with time. YOU have to work on them actively because unlike physical traits people don’t naturally mature emotionally as they get older. If you don’t work at it you stay stuck. At one point someone was talking emotionally (tearing up, angry, etc.) about what had happened to him as a child and I did the math and realized that this grown adult was agonizing over something that had literally happened in the 1960s. It was 2008.

    I just thought to myself, I cannot still be upset about childhood issues when I’m that old. I cannot be bogged down by this for over 40 years. There has got to be a better way. I got out of the complain-a-thon victimhood groups and put all my energy into forgiveness. I honestly don’t know what I would be like now, at 28, if I hadn’t done that back then. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be happily married, happy in general, well adjusted, etc.

    Forgiveness is the best gift you can give to yourself, but like most worthwhile pursuits it takes work and sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Now I can honestly say that I’m the happiest person I know 🙂 and it’s really all thanks to forgiveness.

    • Mona, that horrifies me too! The thought of spending an entire life stuck in misery due to childhood pain is a very steep price to pay. It’s almost like being victimized over and over again, by continually giving power to person (or people) who least deserve it. HUGE props to you for refusing to be victimized any more and put all of your energy into forgiveness. No one is saying that what you did was easy (I’m sure that it wasn’t), but the results of being the happiest person you know made the entire struggle worthwhile. Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. Hi Shola,
    What a powerful article, thank you for sharing. I will share this post with my Facebook friends. As someone who has forgiven acts others may perceive as unforgivable and actually telling the person you forgive them is the first step of truly healing at letting go of the pain. The releasing of its power and control over you is incredibly empowering. Once you forgive, you no longer or feel the pain… We also need to remember to forgive, most importantly, ourselves. So often, we are im-mobilized when we do something that is not in alignment with our values or integrity, so we beat ourselves up, instead of allowing the awareness of our mistake and the wisdom of knowing something different give us the freedom to forgive ourselves… Forgiving yourself, which is more than just taking responsibility it is the first step in putting the pain behind you… This is a topic very dear to my heart, blessings to those who struggle letting go, may one day you find peace in the Power to Forgive.

    • Hey Eileen, it’s so great to see you here! I 100% agree with everything that you said, especially that forgiving others is the first step of truly healing the pain, and how empowering it is to release the pain’s hold over you. The most important key of all (at least it was for me), was the ability to forgive myself–that is usually the hardest, and most necessary, step of all in this process. Hugs to you, my friend!

  8. Welcome back Shola! How was your Summer?
    You are right when you say forgiveness is hard.
    The major person I must forgive is my selfish grandmother. All she does is treat me poorly, tell me to do things (I mean that’s all she sees in me, an object of command and obedience) She feels little empathy and affection for me. She always pushes me too hard out of the desire to be in power, and make me feel weaker to her. I must work if I am to receive even a tiny bit of affection from her. She is one reason why I dislike most humans. I have never felt greater affection than the one I get from my dog. Other than that, I don’t empathize well.
    I have forgiven her way too many times, all I feel is anger and resentment. I have to avoid her most of the time, similar to avoiding an enemy character in a video game. I am aware that it takes a whole lot of strength to forgive, but all I see is that in order to truly forgive her she must be out of my life fully, that is me never seeing her again.

    • I totally get it, Cianna. There are people who I have forgiven, but I will never (and I mean, NEVER) be in contact with in any capacity. I can’t speak to your situation completely, but it is okay to forgive your grandmother for all of the pain that she has caused you (most likely, due to the pain she is feeling herself), while also fully distancing her from your life. As I’m sure you know, I believe one of the keys to living a fully positive life is to ruthlessly remove toxicity of any kind from our lives, and it sounds like you’re ready to do that with your grandmother. Either way, you know that you have my fullest support in your journey.

  9. Hello Shola,
    Thank you! I will be selfish for a moment and say that this was written specifically for me. I am the example where a co-worker lied about me and cost my job. For the last year I have been in a miserable state of resentment and loathing toward the person and the company. Although I may never forget what happened I know that it is time to forgive. My hatred of them has changed my personality for the worse. I have spread my ill feelings to friends and family. I ruined an entire year that could have been productive and happy all because of a few words from some one else’s mouth. I now accept that it is time to forgive and move on. Time to gather the blessings that I have let slip by because I was wrapped up in hate. I will not give up the fight but I will forgive. Thank you!

    • Oh man Ed, that’s a tough one. I have been on the wrong end of workplace lies before, and I know firsthand the damage that it can cause. Your bitterness toward that person and your former company is completely understandable and justified. But as you already realized, even though your anger is justified, it is not worth giving these horrible people any more power of your happiness, health and personal life. As you know, they have already taken enough. I have to give you huge credit not only for releasing the hate, but for making the life-affirming choice to reclaim your life, while still fighting for it. Good luck, and I’m rooting hard for you!

  10. I am grateful for you and the positivity you share. It’s not easy in this world!

    Let me politely share a different mindset that I have been going thru every since my world imploded this summer. First, I believe there is a bit too much victim shaming in our society. Were it not for those who have btdt, I would not know that I am not alone in my situation.

    Second, when the people who have hurt me are my parents–abusing me since I was a child, and culminating in them trying to take our son, falsely filling a report against us with child protection (they don’t condone I’m bisexual) and suing us and our 20 yo daughter (yep, their granddaughter)–forgiveness can’t even enter my vocabulary. I have completely cut them out of our lives, they are so toxic, and I can’t express how much it hurts to know they have never loved me (they have malignant Narcissistic personality disorder).

    Yes I’ve had to work to forgive myself. I feel like I wasted 45 years of my life trying to win their love.

    As I’ve processed this with family (what little is left), friends (SO grateful!) I came upon something that struck a chord with me–reconciling with the harm they did to me and my family. I encourage you to look it up, it’s an amazing paper by Dr. Nancy Stanlick. This makes me feel stronger than the social construct of forgiveness.

    Blessings to you always, and thank you for letting me share my thoughts.

    • Right on, Krista! The process of dealing with deep emotional wounds is a profoundly personal experience, and I will never tell someone how they should move forward in the process. If you have found a process that works and makes you feel stronger, then by all means keep using it :). Most importantly, congrats to you for reclaiming your life!

  11. Icarus was a Phoenix says:

    Dear Shola and Friends:

    What I eventually learned about forgiveness through adult experience is that I am usually capable of forgiving someone whom I perceive as having “wronged” me, as long as similar negative incidents with a particular person do not recur. If negative incidents are part of an ongoing pattern, I label the relationship as “toxic” (even if I have to continue interacting with the person, such as a relative or colleague), and remind myself, “people are who they are, and they value what (and whom) they value. All I can do is lead by example.”

    A strange story about forgiveness: during my first year in a small college at age 18, one of the professors in my intended major would not give me the recognition or grades I thought I deserved in his class. I knew I wasn’t his most talented first-year student, but I was certainly more talented than several of his favorites. In addition, I was willing to work hard, something that was always rewarded in my family and hometown. I was a nervous, bookish introvert; he seemed to prefer sanguine extroverts, especially those, I suspected, who “played politics” (which I have always found incompatible with personal dignity and self-respect) and treated him like a demigod.

    Each student in the professor’s class had a midterm conference with him. Mine did not go at all as planned: rather than praising or criticizing my work, the professor said he had been observing me in class for several weeks, and “wondered if you have ever been diagnosed with any type of learning disability.”

    Not only surprised, I was offended to the core: as a voracious reader for whom spelling was my most effortless subject in elementary school, I certainly wasn’t dyslexic. During my junior year in high school, I was told by a teacher that I was already doing college-level work above her own level in one subject. Also, was he completely unaware of my family background? Unless someone had a bona-fide developmental disability such as Down syndrome (like one of my second cousins), there was absolutely no excuse for not being at least on the “B” honor roll. “Learning disabilities” were suspect, most likely excuses for not working hard and earning above-average grades.

    Over 20 years later, as part of a neurological evaluation, I was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder/dyspraxia. Only then was I able to forgive the professor who never liked my classwork or, apparently, me as a person (ultimately, his indifferent attitude made me transfer to a larger university and change my major), yet was correct about one thing after all.

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