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Exercises in Forgiveness

Posted May 5th, 2016 in Couples Counseling, Featured, Individual Counseling, Relationship Issues

Article 6-A of the Forgiveness Section of the Positive Psychology Series

My previous articles have discussed the psychological benefits and in-depth definitions of forgiveness. And, most recently, I have discussed the moral nature of forgiveness. In this concluding section of my series on forgiveness, I suggest a few exercises that you can use to enter deeper into the practice of forgiveness. In this introduction, I summarize the central concepts of action that I have detailed in the many articles in this series.

Forgiveness is a Process

Forgiveness is an ongoing process. You do not need to wait to forgive, nor are you “done” after the first time you have forgiven someone. And you are not expected to simply “forgive and forget.” You should just identify a need to forgive, release the person, and repeat this again when it comes up in your heart. Try to be conscious of forgiving by acknowledging – and saying – when you have been wronged, if only to yourself. (This will keep you accountable for your own behavior and will help you to treat others better). To forgive is not to condone the behavior of the transgressor, but is rather a personal act of freedom. By hoping to hurt someone who has hurt you, and by dwelling on their guilt and your harm, you dig yourself into a pit of negativity. You become trapped as you live your life as a reaction to someone else’s actions. Instead, focus on what it would be like to let go of the pain you have been carrying. When you release someone in forgiveness, you also release yourself.

Forgive Boldly

We should pity those who are too trapped to apologize – they are also in a negative, reactive pit. We are called to love those who are so fragile that almost anything can hurt them, setting them on edge so that they hurt others out of vengeance. To do this is an act of empathy – a vehicle of forgiveness. The same is true of apology. We need to apologize boldly and specifically – the very vulnerability of apology demands forgiveness. By both forgiving and apologizing, you take a powerful stance in asserting yourself – you refuse to allow someone else’s actions to control the state of your heart, but instead take responsibility for your own actions. In both forgiveness and apology, you need to do it for yourself rather than for any reaction you may receive as to do otherwise may defeat your very purpose. Remember that Christ calls human beings to forgive boldly because God has forgiven us with complete abandon.

Exercise 1: A Forgiveness Letter

This is not a letter that is intended to be sent but is rather a device geared to reflection and release. It is important to be able to both process this letter and to present it to another person. Therefore, if at all possible, a group of friends or even one close friend should be involved in this. Because a therapist is specifically trained in helping people to process issues, more difficult cases of forgiveness would fit well in the context of therapy.

To do this exercise, simply write a letter that describes a transgression that was committed against you. Write it out as it comes to you – it is more important to connect with your experience than to do it “right.” Make sure that you include the emotions that were related to the transgression. You will find it easier to be able to fully process and emote this if you don’t have to focus on wording it in such a way that will be either readable or particularly cutting to your transgressor. Instead, focus on your own process, and let your partners in the exercise be your witnesses, rather than your transgressor. It can be tempting to want to “make” your transgressor know how much they have hurt you, or to hurt them back. But that is at best an act of control and at worst an act of vengeance, which will simply hand your own power and well-being over to your transgressor. It is actually the opposite of forgiveness, which means taking back that power and releasing your transgressor from the hurt place in your life.

Once you have written your letter, read it to your friend, group, or therapist. Ask them to process these questions with you:

  • What was it like for you to write this letter?
  • What was it like to read it out loud?
  • What is it like to carry the pain of this transgression?
  • What would it be like to forgive the transgressor?
  • Do you feel ready to begin the forgiveness process?
  • Is there someone out there who might write a forgiveness letter concerning you?

A Forgiveness Letter to Someone Who has Died

A forgiveness letter can be a powerful experience. A related exercise is to write this letter to someone who is deceased. This letter can either be a final draft of the first one, or it may be one that was initially written more directly to another person. Once you have done this, find some ritual that suits you and “deliver” your letter to them: Throw it in the ocean, burn it and bury the ashes somewhere meaningful, put it under a rock at the house or place where they hurt you, etc. Release the letter as you are releasing them.

This can also be applied to yourself, for it is sometimes critical to be able to forgive ourselves. Take some time to engage with the idea, and write yourself a letter about how you have hurt and wronged yourself. Read it, from yourself and give and receive forgiveness.

Christian Counseling to Tap into the Power of Forgiveness

It is my pleasure to join with clients and help them to see the ways in which they have already overcome in life, and how God has uniquely shaped them both to do great things and to experience joy and goodness in their lives and relationships.

Photos
“Lord, Help me Forgive,” courtesy of Unsplash, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Difference of Night and Day” by Jamie McCaffrey, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Thinking,” courtesy of Ray Tsang, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Author Info

Andrew Engstrom

Andrew Engstrom, MS, LMFTA

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapy Associate

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(425) 354-5472 | andrewe@seattlechristiancounseling.com

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Couples and Individual Counselor

Seattle Downtown and Bothell

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