Surprisingly, I’m not much of a New Year’s resolution type. I often think I would be or could be, sometimes even should be. But if I am resolved to make a change, I tend to make it, regardless of the date. When January comes rolling around I quite frankly tend to forget to put the mindshare into coming up with a particular resolution. I used to feel guilty about that sort of thing, but I’ve since resolved to stop feeling guilty. (Arf Arf).
While I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions I have noticed certain personal development “themes” that tend to show up, coincidentally, in Januaries. It started in 2011, the year my son was born (in January). I declared 2011 to be about “survival” – just making it through that newborn/infant period with a young preschooler already at home. As the pages turned to 2012 and I reflected back, I congratulated myself on the successful survival of me and my family, and declared 2012 to be about revival. 2012 was personal. I lost 40 lbs or so, learning a ton about nutrition and fitness and personal health. By the end of the year I was the healthiest, strongest, leanest, and I dare say sexiest version of me I had ever been. Towards the end of 2012 and into 2013 my attentions started to focus in on some emotional pain I had been carrying since childhood. What I realized, and it happened to be in January, was that 2013’s theme was going to be about becoming a forgiver. I spent most of the year figuring out how to do that and actively practicing at it.
Towards the end of the year I started to notice that this was not a challenge unique to me. A client decided she was ready to practice forgiveness and in a session, she very bluntly asked me “Ok, so, how do I forgive?” In fact, I have noticed that a handful of clients have been struggling with the topic of forgiveness as well. I’ve started to think that as a society we have somehow lost touch with the art of forgiveness, having allowed it to fall into a bucket of emotions and activities we label as “showing weakness.” It’s probably sitting there, next to apologies. What if we can value strength while still embracing our vulnerability? It became apparent to me that we need to rethink and relearn forgiveness. But how?
In my year of learning, I discovered that withholding forgiveness does not make us stronger; it breaks us. We tend to think of forgiveness as a gift we offer someone who has wronged us. One definition of forgiveness is to make a promise to no longer hold that wrong doing against someone. Sometimes, in the experience of that hurt we aren’t sure that we’re willing to offer that gift – that withholding forgiveness is a form of justified punishment. Retribution. Justice. The cost, however, is a gradual build-up of resentment and that takes a personal toll. Resentment fuels anger and rage, breeding ulcers and cancers. Holding resentment is like holding a weight that gets heavier and heavier. One client described it as “feeling like I swallowed an elephant” and the gradual act of forgiveness is like slowly digesting it, gradually lightening the load. When we forgive, we make a declaration to let go of the resentment that we we’re holding, letting go of the burden and recapturing that misspent energy. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves.
Often times, there isn’t even someone else involved to forgive. Some people find that forgiving others may be easy but forgiving themselves is almost impossible. This self-directed resentment tends to manifest as feelings of shame or guilt about some action that has happened. When I notice this I often ask, “from whom are you seeking forgiveness?” I usually get answers like, “my father” or “my daughter” or “my boss” and even “God.” While a heartfelt apology may help to mend a relationship, it isn’t always possible and even when it is, it isn’t always accepted. Moreover, we cannot accept their gift of forgiveness until we have first forgiven ourselves. Withholding forgiveness from ourselves is virtually a form of self flagellation. It is sentencing ourselves with the burden of guilt for all eternity while simultaneously limiting possibilities of a better future.
Replace the habit of resentment with another one – any one will do.
A sure sign of resentment being carried is reliving a particular pain over and over again, complaining about the experience with others, seeking their validation that you were indeed wronged. This practice of brooding and letting the wound fester actively fortifies the weight of resentment. While it sometimes feels good in the moment, it does not serve the goal of letting go. It indeed makes it harder and establishes a habit. Some habits are hard to stop but can be replaced with another instead. It doesn’t actually matter what habit we choose to replace it with. It could be to apply curiosity: “I wonder what was happening for her that she did that awful thing to me?” It could be to apply gratitude: “That experience was painful but I learned something powerful…” It could be lightness: “Sometimes you just have to laugh about it.” Replacing one habit with another is more about the act of replacing (which stops the old habit from continuing) than of finding the right replacement.
Examine your own attitudes and behaviors around resentment and forgiveness. Are you in the habit of withholding forgiveness? Some thought provokers for you:
– About whom or what are you holding resentment, where forgiveness may be a solution?
– What emotions are you experiencing over it?
– How do you feel resentment taking root in your body?
– What has been limited as a result of that resentment?
– What possibilities would become available were you to let go of that burden?
Practicing forgiveness is about taking on a new coherence in body, emotion AND language. Any one without the others may feel inauthentic or forced at first, but mastery comes with practice. Eventually, all of the elements will start to come together. A sample practice follows, but customize it to feel right for you:
The language of forgiveness: Make a declaration to forgive. It might sound something like: “I accept that X has happened and that that it is in the past. I choose to believe in a new possibility for the future. I am releasing the weight of resentment and am choosing no longer to carry the burden of this in my life any further.”
The body of forgiveness: When we forgive, we are lightening our own load. So imagine, as you speak the language of forgiveness, a great weight in the pit of your stomach (or wherever you noted you feel resentment held) dissolving and becoming smaller and lighter every time you practice it. Imagine it lifting from your body leaving you light, strong, and full of energy.
The emotion of forgiveness: For some, forgiveness may feel like peace and calmness. Others may experience exuberant excitement for the future. Allow yourself to fully experience the emotions that become available when resentment is released through your forgiveness practice. Enjoy that gift.