By Isa Gucciardi, Ph.D.
Summary: The following is an excerpt from Isa Gucciardi’s upcoming book, Coming to Peace (due out later this year).
True forgiveness is serious business. To forgive or be forgiven is a complex and stirring process that requires each party to dive deeply inward in order to restore peace. To reach a place of true forgiveness, we must set our sights on the heart of the conflict and begin the necessary work of self-examination required to find and release our attachment to the offense. Only then can we truly be free from our pain.
When it comes to forgiveness, there is a tendency—by both the offender and the offended—to rush toward the finish-line. But forgiving oneself or another is more akin to a journey than a race. While it is understandable that both parties would want to smooth over emotional wounds in order to quickly reestablish the relationship, rushing to do so is a mistake. Unless all parties engage in the hard work behind true forgiveness, the relationship will forever be affected by the offense. The relationship then bears the risk of becoming superficial, marked by compromise at best and hypocrisy at worst. Rushing forgiveness creates a mask of neutrality behind which volatile and sometimes destructive emotions loom.
True forgiveness is not for the faint of heart. And depending on which side of the offense we are on, the work necessary to receive forgiveness or grant it is markedly different. As you will see, “the offended” and “the offender,” while both responsible for their part of the forgiveness process, have distinctly different roads ahead.
If we have been offended and are in the position of granting forgiveness, the process is primarily one of release so that we may distance ourselves from the offense. But before we can release ourselves from the grip of the offense, we must examine all of the places inside us that remain attached to having been wounded.
The reasons for remaining attached to an offense vary widely from person to person. Some of us may not know we are attached to the offense and the resulting emotional wound. Or, it may not be clear how the offense has affected us and, therefore, we are unable to let go of it. And still yet, some of us are so angry that we decide to actively cultivate a grudge to punish the offending party in a passive aggressive way—sadly, this only binds us more permanently to the wound/offense.
But there is hope! When engaged in a serious and dedicated manner, the process of granting forgiveness actually helps uncover these attachments and allows for the healing required to release them.
Once our attachments to the offense have been dissected and we are ready to grant forgiveness, we move onto the ultimate healing process of releasing the offender to the consequences of his actions. It goes without saying that this is often the most difficult part of the process, especially if we are committed to the offending person or group taking responsibility for their behavior in a particular way. When we base our forgiveness on the actions of the offender, we remain tethered to the offender and the offense.
Once we are able to let go of our attachment to the level of responsibility the offender takes and release her to suffer the consequences of her actions, the process of forgiveness becomes one of liberation, both from the offender and the pain the violation has caused.
This last piece is particularly important for those of us wanting to forgive trespasses committed by someone with whom we no longer have contact. In this way, we are able to free ourselves from the offender through forgiveness, without the other person’s participation.
Through the process of forgiveness, we gain strength as we heal our own wounds on our own terms, allowing us to release the offender to the consequence of his actions. This creates a true field of neutrality between the offended and the offender. By doing so, we sever the invisible tie/chord that was created at the time of the offense, freeing us to move on with life and create a reality beyond the wound of the offense.
Sometimes, we feel unable to take this last step and the person or group requesting forgiveness feel as though they cannot move on if forgiveness is not granted. As we will see, this is not the case.
If we are the one who has committed an offense against another and are seeking forgiveness, the process is one of engagement whereby we move toward the offense and take responsibility for our actions. This is often easier said than done. Requesting forgiveness is an incredibly humbling experience. But if we approach the process with sincerity in our intention and softness in our heart, we may not only be granted the reprieve we desire, but also will learn deeply transformative lessons about ourselves.
For most, the process of seeking forgiveness is a daunting one with unclear instructions and overwhelming expectations. Perhaps we do not fully understand the level of commitment required. Or, we know full well what lies ahead and the inner work we must do, but feel paralyzed to take the steps needed to truly release the effect of our offense. So we do not take the level of responsibility requested by the offended person and make it harder for her to release us from our transgression. In this way, we continue to flounder, further ensnaring ourselves in the web of our own actions.
Freedom becomes possible when we choose to take full responsibility and examine all that is within us to determine what caused us to harm another. This begins by evaluating the root causes of the offending act: the intentions, thoughts, and actions leading up to the violation. Once we follow these back to their source, we will better understand why we committed the offense. This difficult process of self-examination, when engaged fully, can produce a vast understanding of ourselves at levels deeper than we have ever known. As we plumb further, we discover clues about ourselves that inform and give us the chance to shift our relationship to the root causes of the intentions and thoughts that lie behind the act of offense. For example, if we have a tendency to justify our behaviors or actions, we can begin to examine these justifications and their validity. In doing so, we may discover that old wounds are feeding our justification and defensiveness habits. Through the process of seeking forgiveness, we have the chance to confront and heal those wounds, releasing us from the constant need to justify and defend ourselves. Then the mountains of energy we desperately spent justifying and defending are freed up so we may embark on more expansive and creative endeavors.
By reaching deeply and honestly within and considering the feedback we receive about our actions from others, we may mitigate or transform the consequences of the offense. At this deeper level of self-understanding, we are now ripe to perform the next step in the process: self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is when we forgive ourselves for our infractions. What it is not is a rush to move past the hurt we have caused in an attempt to soothe our own discomfort. While it sounds simple, self-forgiveness is anything but. It requires that we hold a positive wish for our own happiness and freedom. Our ability to do this depends on the type of relationship we have with ourselves. For instance, if we are harboring negative intentions toward ourselves and do not truly believe we deserve to be happy and free of our emotional suffering, the road to self-forgiveness is, understandably, going to be difficult. Alternatively, if we are able to let go of our missteps with relative ease and feel loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves more often than not, it will be easier to step into self-forgiveness.
Rest assured, there is enough learning to go around when it comes to self-examination. So no matter which end of the self-forgiveness spectrum we fall on, the process of seeking forgiveness from another will undoubtedly illuminate our relationship to Self and any areas that need our attention. In this way, we are given the opportunity to deepen our self-forgiveness practice and the way we treat ourselves. Then we are better able to tap into the alchemy that becomes available to us when we practice true self-forgiveness and turn the poison of our offense into a flickering light of self-revelation. In doing so, we can finally leave behind our old black-and-white way of viewing the world with its enemies and allies, and step fully into a vibrant existence of peace and gratitude for the learning opportunity the offense has brought us. From this illuminated vantage point, we experience a new psychological orientation of wholeness and interrelatedness with others that is at the heart of all Coming to Peace processes and true happiness.
Unfortunately, for those of us unable to practice self-forgiveness, we remain stuck. Bound to the offending act, we continue to suffer from our actions. The other force that can keep us stuck is the misbelief that we must be forgiven by the person we have wronged in order to be released from the effect of the offense. But this is not true. The true path to liberation is through total self-responsibility and self-forgiveness.
Remembering that freedom from the offense is within our power is not easy when we are not getting the forgiveness we so desperately desire. We may agonize over this denial of forgiveness, but, in reality, the offended party may not be able to forgive us because he has not engaged in the inner work necessary to release the offense. Other cases are not so benign, such as when the offended person refuses to grant forgiveness in order to punish the offender and builds grudges that make the offense more solid and fixed. This practice of grudge-making is a trap—but not for the offender.
Through grudge-making and refusing to forgive in order to punish, the offended person actually becomes the offending party. She uses the wound caused by the offense to ensnare and harm the offender far beyond the consequences of the original offense. The person who is offended tries to make a prisoner of the offender, locking him in a prison of the offended party’s refusal to forgive.
The sooner we realize that the only way to move past the effect of the offense is to take full responsibility for our actions and forgive ourselves, the sooner we will be liberated from any imprisoning tactics employed by the offended party. It is worth noting that the only person harmed by grudge-making or refusal of forgiveness is the person practicing it.
The good news is, by engaging in the forgiveness process, we can free ourselves from the offense, no matter if we are the offended or the offender. If we do the work that is proscribed for our role in the offense, we can release the karmic pattern that is laid down as a result of the offense—whether or not the other person participates. This makes our liberation from the offense dependent on our actions alone.