What does it mean to forgive? Forgiveness is the practice of releasing resentment, anger, vengefulness, disappointment, or related feelings around a situation, whether the situation involves another person or ourselves.
Forgiveness is not an endorsement or erasure of something that happened. It doesn’t mean that you were hurt for a while, but you’re okay now, so you can finally forgive. It doesn’t mean you want to welcome anyone involved in the situation back into your life (or not). It doesn’t carry any particular set of actions, outcomes, or feelings. Like closure, it’s also not something that involves anyone besides you alone. Saying “I forgive you,” whether you’re talking to someone else or a part of yourself, only involves you. It doesn’t mean that something will now happen, or not happen, or that you need to do something, or not do something. It simply means you are practicing releasing the feelings you have around a situation that may be weighing you down.
Why practice forgiveness? Holding onto anger and resentment is damaging to the self. To practice forgiveness means to practice putting down those heavy feelings by the side of the road and moving on. When it comes to others, forgiveness involves compassion and empathy. It’s an opportunity to live in alignment with your personal value system – not because forgiving someone means saying their behavior lined up with your moral compass (it does not mean this), but because letting go of past resentment in order to move forward does.
When it comes to ourselves, forgiveness is an act of self-love and self-care. It doesn’t mean making excuses, or not being accountable or responsible for your behavior, or erasing the past. Rather, it means acknowledging what happened, looking at the lessons and growth opportunities you can take away from the situation, and releasing the rest in order to move forward in your life. It means self-compassion. It means empathizing with a past self or selves. We are all works in progress. Self-forgiveness is part of the work.
So what goes into a toolkit for releasing resentment to start the journey to forgiveness?
The first part of forgiveness, for others or yourself, is release. If they’re available to you, lifting weights can be a great way to exert that extra energy. Boxing, tennis, running, hiking, spinning, machine rowing, and lots of other ways to move and engage your body can both get the good brain chemicals flowing and simply make you too tired to hold onto your anger and resentment as tightly.
If those are not available to you, or even if they are, getting in touch with your breath is a mindfulness technique that you can return to over and over across different circumstances. Either in a quiet space or right where you are, simply focus on the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body. Start by setting a timer for five minutes – it will feel longer than it sounds. Pay attention to any other feelings that come up as you focus on your breath. If you feel curious about them, try to feel where they exist in your body. Either way, breathe into them and let them go.
Processing is another part of practicing forgiveness, and it’s where journaling can be particularly effective. Regular journaling can help you transfer your thoughts out of your body and give you room to examine or release them. It can allow you to organize them. It can allow you to prioritize them. It can allow you to contextualize them in your larger situation. If something positive has come to you from the situation, it can allow you to identify that. It can also, crucially, help you figure out how to approach them and the situation with kindness and care while respecting your own personal boundaries.
If you’ve never journaled before, or aren’t in the regular habit of journaling to process your feelings, it can feel intimidating to do so for the first time. Sit down with a pen and paper and, similarly to focusing on your breath, set a timer for five minutes. For five minutes, write down how you feel about the situation without self-judgment. If other thoughts come up, feel free to honor them. When your timer is up, put your pen down. How do you feel? As you work through the situation, you may benefit from a brief daily journaling practice, or once might be enough.
In some situations, it’s possible to sit with the situation, release your negative feelings, forgive, and move on. But some situations aren’t as clear. They require releasing, processing, and releasing again. Give yourself room and time. Seek support if you need it. Learning to release anger and resentment – learning to forgive – is an ongoing process.