I have felt so much these past few months, been shown so much about myself, that my sense of reality has cracked and shifted many times. Sometimes, I feel this incredible sense of strength and lightness radiating from deep inside my core. And other times the despair is so deep that I wonder if I can ever overcome what lies before me. My compass spins madly or is just stuck frozen in place, my ability to discern and decide suffocated by no longer understanding who I am, what I stand for, or what is possible. My only way forward seems to be to sort through and shed the burden of the past, but I am unsure whether I need to forgive others or forgive myself. And I wonder what it really means to forgive anything at all.
For the past two months, I have been facilitating a weekly on-line discussion group that began by exploring the theme of forgiveness. Those who joined were all struggling in some way with their personal losses, their anger over the injustices in the world, and their shame or frustration over not knowing what to do or not doing enough. As each woman shared their intimate pain and their struggle for peace and clarity, it became evident that there’s a broad, nebulous, and often dark and scary abyss between an experience that hurts or angers us and the place we are trying to reach of fully allowing others, the world, and especially ourselves to be exactly as we are; the place where we can love all things, and know exactly where we stand in relationship to each one.
Feeling eager to release my anger and resentment, reach a place of forgiveness during my own process of grief, and support those in the group, I began reflecting on my spiritual practices, various psychological tools I’ve learned, and the teachings of some of my favorite authors. What surfaced almost immediately is that forgiveness is less a way to resolve our grief and anger, and more of a natural outcome and benefit of feeling our feelings fully and well.
What stops us from relating directly to our anger and grief?
Many things can make us eager to jump to forgiveness instead of allowing the process of anger and grief to go its course. Perhaps we were shamed for these feelings in the past by those who didn’t have the skill to support us, were distressed by their inability to help us, or felt our own pain triggering unresolved feelings they are unable to tolerate. Perhaps it was unsafe for us to express our feelings as children because we needed to be pleasing or invisible, or confrontation was dangerous. Perhaps we now believe that good or strong people don’t feel these “negative” emotions, and that to express or feel stuck in them reveals some defect in our character, lack of maturity, or spiritual failure. But while avoiding our feelings may make us feel safer in the moment, what we sacrifice in the long-term threatens our wholeness, vitality, and even our humanity.
“When we don’t make room for the unfolding and expression of what must proceed forgiveness,” Robert Masters writes in Spiritual Bypassing, “we tend to confuse forgiveness and condoning, trying in the name of acceptance to pardon those who have hurt us before their behavior has been examined and felt in any real depth.” He cautions us against what he calls “blind compassion”, which makes us too quick to forgive because we want to feel like good people and would rather put on a polite face, assume best intentions, and avoid making waves.
How do we benefit from fully experiencing our anger and grief?
Fully experiencing our feelings enables us to more quickly and effectively release their energy, tap their wisdom, uncover our unique gifts, and access a truly genuine state of forgiveness that combines love, wisdom, and accountability. Bill Plotkin reflects in SoulCraft on the relationship between wounding, deep transformation, and authentic forgiveness. Times of great suffering open our sacred wounds, wounds often experienced in early childhood. This sense of feeling abandoned, even annihilated, breaches the soul, inviting us to release old stories and ask new questions.
“Allow the wound to do its work on you, even should you descend into a pit of hopelessness,” Bill Plotkin advises in SoulCraft. “If you remain there long enough, you will be shorn of those personal patterns and attachments that must die so you may be born into a greater life. You will learn to forgive and love again.” Annie Bloom encourages us to open to our sacred wounds in order to fall in love with ourselves, with who we really are, and recover that treasure we were born to carry into the world.
“Empathy is the antidote to shame and the heart of connection,” Brene Brown adds. Moving through intense feelings is crucial to developing our compassion, both for others and ourselves. When we can move into the shadow that scares us, we can draw from the wholeness of our experience and relate to others as equals, even in their darkest moments. Sympathy communicates feeling from a safe distance, which triggers shame and disconnect, but when we reach back into our experience to touch what another is experiencing, we choose curiosity and connection instead of shutting down and walking away.
Forgiveness often arises naturally when we see the struggle in others as part of our own struggle, and find we are no longer in a position to condemn. Staying stuck in anger or hatred keeps us trapped in victimhood, while the healthiest and most vital people are those who have raged, grieved, and forgiven.
What can we do to support the organic process of forgiveness?
Few things are as difficult as experiencing pain, feeling lonely and lost, and being torn apart by rage. There is a strong desire to understand what is happening, how long it will take, and what to do. Much has been written, especially by the authors quoted above, about the stages of grief, techniques for being present with but not consumed by our feelings, and the process of descending into our inner world. These tools and stories are vital allies for our journey.
“Nothing is more generous and loving than the willingness to face into grief in order to forgive,” Brene Brown shares in her newest book, Rising Strong. She continues by recounting the process of reconciliation described by Desmond Tutu in The Book of Forgiving. In order to reach forgiveness, we must first tell our story and identify our pain. This process has healed individual and collective wounds even as atrocious as genocide.
Bill Plotkin urges us to dive into our pain, neither indulging nor repressing it, avoiding making sense of it too soon, finding relief too quickly, blaming someone, playing victim, or abandoning our own dreams. Robert Masters agrees that authentic forgiveness arises through a process of feeling our hurt, as well as expressing our needs. Setting boundaries protects us and what is sacred to us, enables us to practice discernment, and honors everyone’s inherent ability to choose and innate power to craft their own reality.
Brene Brown is also clear that we need safety to feel and talk about the entirety of our experience. We can’t be open or vulnerable with people who are hurting us, so sometimes we have to create distance between ourselves and those are attached to, even when the longing for familiar comfort is strong. This may trigger vulnerable feelings of guilt for hurting them or fear that the relationship may be damaged. It requires faith that clarity will come in time and that our truest friends will understand and forgive any harm done. The first priority is to create a safe cocoon for ourselves. We may be asked to release commitments so we have more spaciousness for ourselves or to compromise our usually high expectations of ourselves while energy is diverted into our process. Being more disciplined about our diet, exercise, and sleep habits is also crucial.
While wisdom about the process of getting to forgiveness, setting boundaries, and being gentle with ourselves are all vital, for me the most important element has been surrendering to the process. This requires letting go of perhaps the most powerful aspect of my limiting ego: the sense of being in control. When I let myself get angry, let myself sob over a lost person, lifestyle, or worldview, even allow a descent into hopelessness and despair, I also open myself to things arising that I never could have predicted or fabricated. Memories of past patterns emerge, shapes, colors, and sensations move in my body, dreams become vibrant with support, and ideas for healing and action spontaneously arise. And one day, I suddenly understand how my experience has changed me, I see more clearly what gifts have been revealed in my deepest places, and I feel a sense of gratitude and awe at the rightness of the painful, chaotic, and twisting journey I have taken. But even though I know this moment is coming, there remains no way out but through.
“As we shed our blinders and clearly see our pain, our anger, hurt, frustration and moral outrage, we reenter a realm of love that has been closed off but from which we can now freely give and receive.” – Robert Masters, Spiritual Bypassing
“To love is a constant process of heart-break, death, grief, and forgiveness.” – Brene Brown, Rising Strong
“The depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.” – Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving