Let’s Talk About… Forgiveness

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.

This is Episode 44 and this week I’m talking about self-esteem – I’ll be discussing what it is, how it can improve your wellbeing, and how to work on forgiving yourself and others. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service) or continue reading for the article/transcript version. Let’s talk!

Find links to other available podcasting services here.

Just quickly before I begin today, if you haven’t already signed up to receive updates and weekly episodes in your email then please take a moment to head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/subscribe — I have lots of exciting stuff coming up over the next few months which will be announced exclusively to my mailing list before anywhere else, so make sure you’re included! Now, on with this week’s episode…

FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
  • Forgiveness is choosing to let go of anger so that you can work through and release all of the stuff that often goes with holding on to negative past events: hurt, betrayal, sadness, disappointment, bitterness, fear, loss of power, loss of confidence, etc.
  • Forgiveness is quite possibly the only generous act that is also a selfish act. In forgiving someone, we do more for ourselves than we do the other person — because the opposite of forgiveness is punishment, and when we hold on to hurt, anger and betrayal then what we’re really doing is punishing ourselves.
  • It is not about approving of or excusing another person’s actions; instead, it’s about making your peace with what has happened since the past cannot be changed.
  • Holding on to anger and grudges is wasted energy; anything that isn’t in your best interests will weigh you down, and so forgiveness helps you to release that stuff so you can focus on living your best possible life in the here and now.
  • Like all things it takes time, effort and perseverance (and you may have to revisit forgiveness more than once, because the negative emotions can resurface), but it’s a choice you make for your peace of mind and it’s one which enables you to take back your power.

Introduction

Elton John once sang, “sorry seems to be the hardest word,” and if you think apologising is difficult then let me introduce you to its much-tougher cousin: forgiveness. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness and letting go recently — for many months now actually, I think due to everything that’s been happening in the world with COVID-19 and something quite surprising happened to me recently. 

I’ve talked before about the fact that I haven’t spoken to my mother since the end of 2012 and even though making that change helped to improve my mental health, rarely a day went by where I didn’t think about her and consider getting in touch. But what I haven’t discussed here is that in recent years that questioning has taken on a greater intensity due to the fact my mother has been diagnosed with dementia, which is now getting much worse, and she has a number of other health issues, all of which landed her back in hospital at the beginning of July (and she’s still there now). 

The other week I was talking to my aunt (her sister) about what I could do to help, since she’s carrying the load of sorting everything out, and she said that what she thought would make the most difference would be for me to talk to Mum, even just for a couple of minutes, but that she understood why I couldn’t. The next words out of my mouth surprised me as much as they surprised her: I said I’d do it, but that I was doing it for my aunt and not my mother. I’ve already talked about my long and damaged history with my mother many times before so I won’t revisit all the why’s, but suffice it to say that I’ve got a lifetime’s worth of reasons to leave that relationship in the past. We arranged that I’d call while she was at the hospital for visiting hours the next day, and as the time to call drew near I’ll admit that I started feeling very apprehensive and my anxiety started playing the “I don’t wanna!” game (which I’m sure anyone with anxiety would be familiar with…!), but I pushed through and made the call.

I had planned on being casual and nonchalant when I talked to Mum for the first time in seven and a half years, and just getting in and out of the call quickly without becoming emotionally invested, but that all went out the window when I heard her voice. All of the anger and hurt that I had harboured for many, many years just evaporated and I suddenly realised that there was no longer any point in holding on to the hurt. I could either keep on clinging on and doing more damage to myself, or I could let it go. So, I chose to let go and forgive. I chatted with her a few minutes about how the hospital was treating her and asked if she was behaving, and she was so happy to hear from me (even though it was clear she didn’t really know we hadn’t spoken in years, and I just left it alone and didn’t say anything)… but it made me realise I had made the right decision to forgive — the right decision for me, and my peace of mind. She’s my mother and who knows how long she’s going to be around for, and it doesn’t mean I need to go and be best friends with her… but I can choose to let go and focus on the now, instead of hanging on to the past.

Forgiveness is quite possibly the only generous act that is also a selfish act. In forgiving someone, we do more for ourselves than we do the other person — because the opposite of forgiveness is punishment, and when we hold on to hurt, anger and betrayal then what we’re really doing is punishing ourselves. That doesn’t mean that you let yourself be taken advantage of or manipulated, but it means that you release the negative and focus instead on realistic optimism: having the belief that things can and will get better, and being prepared to make changes if somebody tries to take advantage of that optimism.

So, what is forgiveness?

What forgiveness is (and what it’s not)

Forgiveness is choosing to let go of anger so that you can work through and release all of the stuff that often goes with holding on to negative past events: hurt, betrayal, sadness, disappointment, bitterness, fear, loss of power, loss of confidence, etc. The Mayo Clinic (in the US) describes it as “a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.” (source: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692). There are two main types of forgiveness: forgiving another person and forgiving yourself (and sometimes they can be happening at the same time depending on the situation or event… I’ll be exploring both throughout the episode).

According to the Mayo Clinic:

“The act that hurt or offended you might always be with you, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help free you from the control of the person who harmed you. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or excusing the harm done to you or making up with the person who caused the harm. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”

Source: Mayo Clinic (find it here)

It’s that ‘peace’ bit that I really want to focus on for a moment. One of the key aspects of good mental health is your ability to live in the present — to learn from the past and let go of negative stuff that has happened, to hope and plan for the future whilst knowing that nothing is ever set in stone (and the only constant in life is change, so being prepared to not be prepared and learning how to be okay with that), and to fully live in this moment and be completely present in the present… that stuff all takes time, daily effort and perseverance (and helping you to do that is pretty much the whole point of this podcast!), and doing so helps you to find moments of peace and calm, regardless of what might be going on in your head or in the world around you. The more you work on the things that bring you peace and calm, the more of those moments you will experience until eventually that becomes the norm and the negative stuff becomes the exception (although even then it still requires daily effort — nothing in life is just ‘set and forget’). Forgiveness helps you to release the stuff that holds you back from peace and calm; it allows you to let go of grudges so that they don’t follow you into your future (where they have a habit of tainting all the good stuff in life).

What ‘forgiveness’ looks and feels like will be different to each of us. Let me quote from GoodTherapy.org

“For many, forgiveness is simply the act of moving past a slight and not holding a grudge. For others, the process of forgiving someone requires repairing the relationship. While many people do feel that reconciliation is a step in the process of forgiveness, they are generally able to see the two processes as separate.”

(Source: GoodTherapy https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/forgiveness)

Let’s also talk about what it’s not. Forgiveness is not about religion, although the notion of forgiveness is common to many faiths. It’s not about approving of or excusing another person’s actions; instead, it’s about making your peace with what has happened since the past cannot be changed.

It’s also not about:

  • forgetting about what happened (or pretending it never happened) — good mental health is found through genuine acceptance of events (as I discussed back in Episode 36)
  • just ‘moving on’ or ‘getting over it’ (by the way I think I’ve said this before… not a single person in the history of the world has ever just gotten over something or even calmed down as a result of being told to get over it or calm down… it’s like a red rag to a bull, so please be really conscious of not saying it to other people or even to yourself!)
  • reconciliation or a repairing of trust… those take time as well as seeing change through actions rather than words
  • just being a one-off thing — it takes time, and it’s a journey; sometimes you can find yourself re-experiencing some or even all of the hurt and pain later on, which may lead you to need to re-focus on forgiveness more than once
  • letting ourselves be taken advantage of in the future — I’ve said many times in this program that the only true mistake is the one that you don’t learn from, and so true forgiveness doesn’t work unless you learn the lessons so that you can make changes where necessary
  • wanting revenge — there’s an old saying which has been incorrectly attributed to Confucius (it’s actually something that evolved over time) that goes “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” What that means is that it might seem appealing to deliver your own justice, but when you focus on the negative then that is what you will experience more of in your life. Forgiveness is about finding positive ways to channel your energy — and positivity breeds more positivity. Plus, seeking revenge is the very opposite of processing things and letting go; it’s holding on to the hurt and betrayal… actually, it’s not just holding on; it’s clinging on for dear life, and when you hold on to bitterness then, over time, you become bitter. And life is WAY too valuable to waste it being bitter.
  • it’s not about the other person — forgiveness is about you, not the other person. It’s about consciously choosing to let go of anger and pain, and instead to focus on your peace of mind. Whether or not the other person accepts your forgiveness is irrelevant; hell, they don’t even have to know that you forgive them, because it’s something you do for your own peace of mind.

Why does forgiveness help to improve your mental health?

Anger is toxic. Over time it has a tendency to fester and turn into bitterness and resentment, which has a way of turning you into a more negative person. The thing about negative energy is that it attracts more negative energy — which is the exact opposite of what anyone who is looking to improve their mental health should be focused on! Holding on to anger and grudges is wasted energy; anything that isn’t in your best interests will weigh you down, and so forgiveness helps you to release that stuff so you can focus on living your best possible life in the here and now.

According to the Mayo Clinic (in the same article as mentioned earlier):

“If you’re unforgiving, you might: bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience; become so wrapped up in the wrong that you can’t enjoy the present; become depressed or anxious; feel that your life lacks meaning or purpose, or that you’re at odds with your spiritual beliefs; [and] lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others.”  

Source: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adulthealth/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692

Not being able to forgive can cause health issues such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, self-harm and even substance abuse. So in a nutshell, holding on to negative feelings towards others or towards yourself (or even both) can lead to a decrease in your overall health (mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, social and even financial, because it can lead you to make unhealthy decisions that affect one or many of these aspects of health).

I think it also comes back to just realising and accepting that most of what other people do is about them and their baggage, not you.

And so with that said, let’s get into the ‘how to’ part of this week’s episode… 

How to practice greater forgiveness

I’m going to start out with a few bits of general advice which didn’t seem to specifically fit anywhere when I was writing this but which I felt were important enough to still be covered, and then I’ll move in to the how-to steps.

So my four main bits of general advice about forgiveness is:

  • Be clear about who you’re really angry with or hurt by — sometimes we can be mad at another person when in fact we’re actually angry or disappointed with ourselves… so be clear about who you’re really angry with or hurt by.
  • Don’t compare one person to another — this can be especially common in relationships, where you might have been hurt by the actions of an ex-partner and so may then have suspicions or doubts when you’re with someone new. Every person is unique and developing healthy relationships requires trust, which takes time to grow, and so often we have to take a leap of faith with your heart open but also with our eyes open… I talked about that topic back in Episode 38 and I encourage you to check that out for more about healthy relationships.
  • Forgiveness isn’t conditional — either you forgive or you don’t, end of discussion. If you want to put conditions on the situation or the other person, you’re actually still holding on to the hurt or the anger or whatever it was. You can sit and wait a thousand years for an apology and even if you do eventually get one, it doesn’t necessarily change anything. If you’re having a tough time with it, I recommend working with a counsellor or therapist, or you might also find some of my past episodes to be helpful; Episode 7: Baggage and Episode 32: Letting Go are particularly relevant here (depending on your circumstances).
  • ‘What if?’ is a dangerous game to play — when you sit and think about the event and start to consider the “shoulda, woulda, coulda” what you’re doing is ruminating which can be connected with conditions like anxiety and depression (to name just a couple), especially if it becomes more frequent and harder to control. I talked about this topic extensively in Episode 4: Over-thinking so check that out, however let me just say that the past has passed and cannot be changed, and so no amount of sitting and thinking about what might have happened if this had been different or that had been said will make any difference; it is wasted energy which will potentially make things worse, because it takes you away from acceptance. If you’re doing that, notice it and then refocus your energy on the present and what you need to do to resolve things based on where you are at today.

I think there’s also a piece here to be said about the way that time tends to mellow most wounds, and that as you age you often begin to slowly reprioritise (and I talked about priorities a lot back in Episode 3). That shift in priorities can mean that you might get to the point where the things that used to seem to be of the most monumental importance begin to become background noise over time until they become just a distant blip on the radar somewhere in the past. Once you can distance yourself from the difficult stuff you begin to see it more objectively, because it becomes less weighed down by emotion and so it becomes a bit more possible to forgive and to move forward. And when I say ‘moving forward’ let’s be clear that doesn’t mean just moving on; ‘moving on’ is pretending it didn’t happen, ‘moving forward’ is about proceeding with acceptance of what has happened. For me, part of this probably comes down to the fact that I’m a bit older (only a little bit) and hopefully a bit wiser than I once was, and there’s a common saying “20/20 vision in hindsight” which means that with time we gain a greater perspective on the whole picture, with less raw emotion attached to it, so we’re then better able to make objective assessments of past events rather than subjective ones.

Okay, so with that in mind let’s get into the ‘how-to’ part of the episode, speaking about forgiveness broadly (regardless of whether it’s about other people or about yourself):

  • Work out how you feel about forgiveness — all journeys start with working out where you are at the beginning, and when it comes to forgiveness it’s important to be honest with yourself about your feelings towards it. Do you believe in forgiveness? Do you think it’s a strength? Or do you think it’s a weakness? Because if you think it’s the latter then you’re going to have a tough time actually forgiving someone (or yourself), so I recommend dealing with that first; being open to forgiveness means actually being open to the value of forgiveness, wholeheartedly… and that’s something only you can do.
  • Identify the ‘what’ — what the situation or event was, who was involved, and what the result of their actions was for you. Also at this point I encourage you to consider what your role in the situation was as well — in many cases involving other people and yourself, there’s often three versions of events: their version, your version, and the truth which tends to lie somewhere in the middle. Why? Because when you’re looking back on events, you’re usually judging yourself based on your intentions as well as your actions (since you know what you meant or didn’t mean), whereas you only have the other person’s actions to judge the situation on as you can never truly know what their intentions were and the majority of people don’t set out to be horrible; it often just happens… so this is where some compassion, empathy and understanding can go a long way towards forgiveness. Of course, if you’re seeing the same pattern of behaviour over and over from the other person (especially if you’ve previously addressed it with them in a kind-yet-assertive way) then that’s a very different story; forgiveness is about being kind, not being a doormat, so never let yourself be deliberately or repeatedly taken advantage of. Also let me be very clear and say that all of the stuff I just said about empathy and your role in the situation absolutely does not apply where you have been on the receiving end of abuse or seriously traumatic events; there is still very much a road towards forgiveness and it will definitely help you to heal so you can get on with your life, but you are not at fault for the bad things that have happened where your power has been stripped away from you (so let’s focus on the things we can all do to regain our power regardless of the situation or event).
  • Next, focus on identifying and acknowledging your emotions — be clear about how you feel but do so in an objective way rather than allowing yourself to get bogged down by them. Name your emotions and be sure you identify what you’re really feeling: for example, I can be prone to feel angry when I feel wronged but that anger is actually masking hurt or betrayal or insecurity or rejection; this goes back to what I’ve said in previous episodes which is that not all of your thoughts are true, and indeed often they’re masking a deeper pain or a bigger issue because we’re just instinctively reacting rather than taking the time to respond in a more thoughtful way. Name your emotions and their root causes, so that you can then…
  • Understand your reactions — once you know what you really feel, take the time to understand those feelings. If it’s rejection, why? If it’s betrayal, why? When we look our demons in the eye they begin to lose their ability to whisper away in dark corners of our minds, because when we really see them we can finally confront them and begin to take away their power. If this ‘why’ stuff is proving difficult for you (and it definitely can be, especially for serious trauma), then work with a counsellor/therapist or consider joining a support group that aligns to your values and beliefs so you can process and understand your emotions about the situation, event or person.
  • Choose to forgive — forgiveness is a choice. It’s a choice we make for our own peace of mind, and it doesn’t just magically happen because we blink our eyes like the genie in I Dream of Jeannie, but by making the choice to let go and then turning that decision into reality every day. I said it before and I will say it again: forgiveness takes time, daily effort and perseverance. It’s a journey, not a destination, and you may find yourself having to consciously forgive over and over again; if so, that’s okay. Take things one step at a time, one day at a time, and remind yourself why you chose to forgive in the first place.
  • Choose to prioritise your growth over all things — I talked about growth back in Episode 37, and I talked broadly about growth as being the desire to be and do better today than yesterday, and then tomorrow being and doing better than today. Since you can only move forward, it’s up to you decide if you want to stay stuck in your past or if you want to grow from whatever has happened. That doesn’t mean that you’re not still affected by what happened; it means that it no longer controls you. Again, that takes conscious daily effort… but it’s worth it for your long-term happiness.
  • Be kind — whether you’re forgiving someone else or forgiving yourself, consciously choosing to practice kindness (which I discussed in Episode 41) is a decision to prioritise your peace of mind above anything else. And if it’s yourself that you are working to forgive, I encourage you to check out specific episodes I’ve done before which cover topics related to things we can tend to hold on to anger towards ourselves; Episode 2: Mistakes, Episode 7: Baggage, Episode 22: Regrets and Episode 28: Feelings. All past episodes of Let’s Talk About Mental Health are available to listen to or read in full at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes (so you can always refer to the written version and go back over the things I’ve talked about in each episode). 
  • Choose to take back your power — you are in control of your life. No matter what happened in the past, it’s in the past so you can leave it there. You live here, now… so live here, now. Make decisions every day that are in the best interests of your overall health and wellbeing, and strive to put what you’ve learned from your experiences into practice so that you can make changes for the better in order to rebuild and maintain your power. You are not a victim nor are you just a survivor; you are a thriver and you have the power to shape your life into whatever you want it to be… the choice to do so is yours. All you have control over are your own words, actions and feelings… however they are the three most powerful defences in the world when wielded positively and assertively. 

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to forgiveness and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: forgiveness is about acceptance and letting go, and it’s something you choose to do for yourself rather than for others. Pretty much all of us on this planet have been hurt by others (and even by ourselves) at one point in our lives, and many of us have had to face injustices of some sort or another… but if you cling on to the unfairness and wrongness of it all then all you’re doing is prolonging the agony and preventing yourself from growing as a person. Forgiveness is an opportunity to take back your power and to take back your ability to steer your life towards greater satisfaction, one step at a time. It’s not easy but then again most things in life that are worth something involve a lot of hard work. In the case of forgiveness, that’s some hard work that’s going to pay off both today and in the future by helping you to let go and find greater peace.

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the 18th century English poet Alexander Pope, and it is:

“To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

Alexander Pope

Next week I’ll be talking about assertiveness. I’ll be talking about what it is (and isn’t), why it’s important for your mental health, and I’ll be sharing simple ideas for how to be more assertive every day.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK, Ireland & Europe, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada.

You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, and discover additional content on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health YouTube channel (click here).

If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your preferred podcast platform and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).

Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About… Forgiveness

  1. I am with with someone, we both care and deeply love each other. She is having these messages sent to her from her ex.

    She ended the relationship a year ago, but is still feeling guilt about the ending, hence the ex is still taking advantage of it.

    Thank you for this Podcast, I cant tell her what to to do, but I can at least guide her there, to forgive herself and try to move forward.

    Like

    1. Thanks for your message Iain and I’m glad to hear the episode resonated with you, sounds like a challenging situation but it also sounds like you’re working through positive ways to move forward together. Good luck!

      Like

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