This phrase frequently comes up during in the course of counseling. Many have injuries from past and even current relationships that continue to cause pain thus hindering advancement to fuller productive lives. The desire to move on is present but former feelings of being hurt, mistreated, ignored, and/or neglected keep cropping up causing re-injury. The desire to eliminate these sensations and memories is strong but for some reason there is an inability to move on. Efforts to “stuff it down” and “forget about it” just don’t seem to work. Exasperated, they conclude that they are unforgiving simply based on the remaining sensation of pain and recurring memories. The feelings can snowball by adding layer upon layer of frustration, guilt, and anger.
Emotions are the GPS system given to us by God.
One big misconception is that all emotions are bad. But truthfully emotions are a type of natural GPS (Global Positioning System) given by God to help figure out where we are, where we have been, and what is going forward in our lives. It can be viewed as a warning device when we are getting off course. Emotions are meant to flow and not to be blocked. According to Karla McLaren, the author of The Language of Emotions, every experienced emotion contains a message and we must learn how to read the message. Mistakes are made when instead of properly “reading a message” we decide to ignore it or impulsively overreact to it. No one likes the feeling of being angry, hurt, sad, anxious, guilty, etc. But in reality we must learn to be mindful of what we are experiencing and be able to take away from it useful information to help us have fuller lives and better relationships.
Common emotions that appear to block our ability to forgive
A common emotion associated with an inability to forgive is that of fear. Another one is anger. In some ways these two go hand in hand. Fear is the most primal of emotions and is a trigger for the need for protection. Fears can be real or unfounded due to habit. Anger is a response to the threats that cause fear. According to McLaren, the message of anger is basically one of protection and contains two main questions that we must ask ourselves: (1) What must be protected? And (2) What must be restored? Anger is the result of some type of event/stimulus that threatens one’s sense of self, standpoint, or voice. Another common emotion is that of guilt. The message associated with guilt is the feeling that we ourselves might have violated someone or compromised a code of ethics. Shame is very similar in that one feels lessened by being untrue to the community with which they identify or to their own personal set of core values.
To act or not to act
Validating one’s emotions is important, but on the other hand, interpreting the message in our emotions doesn’t give a license to blow one’s stack or fly into a rage. We must understand a couple of important points. First,even if an emotion exists, our interpretation of what it means might not always be correct. There is a time and place for “righteous anger” and some persons/relationships in our lives might even be dangerous or pathological to continue. Even Jesus became angry at the money changers in the Temple. However, prudence and discernment must be used so that we are not flowing with unbridled destructive passions and become like a volcano ready to blow. Fear is one emotion that can very often become out of control and manifest as chronic anxiety as a result of habit. Fortunately the brain has plasticity and can unlearn such patterns. Secondly, being able to set clear boundaries and to restore one’s sense of self without offending the dignity of ourselves, another, or others are better indications of success, particularly when dealing with forgiveness. Without realizing it, more injury can be caused to ourselves and others by improperly reacting to an emotion. It is important in the cycle of forgiveness to not perpetuate re-injury with others and particularly within ourselves.
How to check the reliability of the message in our emotions
The basic principle behind cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that our perception and belief of an event effects how we will feel and behave. Checking in with ourselves is essential. Looking for cognitive distortions and exaggerations are important. Asking further questions such as “Have I really been violated?” ; “Am I blowing this out of proportion?”: “Have I really violated someone or some code of ethics?”; “What have I really lost?”; and “What is the worst thing that can happen?” are examples. Challenging our own perceptions can sometimes be quite revealing if we do it with complete honesty.
Remember that past emotional wounds leave scars just like physical injuries.
A cut or a broken bone can leave a scar, so it is with emotions. I still have a scar on my knee from when I was 6 years old when learning how to ride a bike with training wheels on it. I also have a mark on my finger from a cut from a can of tomatoes after making stew when I was in my early 20s. These cuts no longer cause me pain but the memory of the event is still there and I can see the scars. If they had not healed properly in the first place, they could have potentially caused me much more difficulties down the road. If anyone has ever broken a bone, they can tell us that the place of breakage is prone to arthritis in later years. But on the other hand, some physicians will tell you that sometimes the place of healing of a broken bone can become much stronger because of the abundance of scar tissue.
Forgiveness is an act of the will.
Sometimes when we have made the effort to forgive, the recurring emotions are remnants of earlier wounds that have not had a chance to heal or require longer time. Forgiveness is an act of the will that occurs most often way before the feelings subside. The emotions are the baggage that still can drag behind. In most cases it takes patience and grace from God for the pain to go away long after the commitment to forgive has been made. It is important to remember that it is always possible to forgive in spite of how grave and difficult the situation. This is possible only because of the example that Jesus gives us. If we attempt with the best of our human intentions, our feelings inevitably get in the way.
Forgiving with the Heart of God
The key to forgiving is actually with God’s heart. A look at the Gospels shows that Jesus put a lot of emphasis on forgiveness. In fact, often when healing a person physically many times Jesus also said, “Your sins are forgiven”. The whole point of His dying on the Cross was to atone for sin. He who was not sin became sin. It is important to leave the door open when considering forgiveness. That means the door to our heart. If we approach the situation with a closed heart, we might miss out on someone’s attempt to reconcile with us. Also when dealing with persons, often it is a matter of swallowing our pride and taking the first step to repair a relationship. This is like being a sacrificial lamb. If efforts are met with rejection, don’t feel defeated but rather pray for the oppressor then go in peace knowing that you have given it your best shot. Don’t be surprised if by praying you find your heart softening. That is a healing by-product of prayer.
Remembering without the pain
Persons challenged with post-traumatic syndrome can testify that recurring memories and flashbacks are frequent obstacles in trying to heal from a past hurt. Fortunately there are some psychotherapeutic techniques that work well in eliminating the emotional charge from bad memories. One can learn to remember without feeling the hurt. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a method that is very helpful in assisting clients to properly reprocess emotions that have become stuck in parts of the brain. There is also help in various mindfulness techniques through meditation and prayer. Prayer not only helps a person to solicit help from God but also teaches discipline in ways to quiet the soul and helps one to achieve greater control over unbridled emotions.
One final note is that in order to be able to receive and give forgiveness one must be able to forgive oneself. Just about everyone has difficulty with self-compassion. Even the narcissist has a wounded inner sense of self. True humility is not being a doormat but acknowledging one’s self worth in relationship to God. It is realizing that one is created in His image and likeness and as such is loved by God unconditionally. True self-compassion is different from self-esteem. Self-esteem has worldly overtones of competitiveness in that one has to do things better than others in order to have value. Self-compassion is different in that it acknowledges that everyone has shortcomings and imperfections but they still have worth. Forgiving oneself allows one “to get over it” by realizing that it is normal to sometimes make mistakes.