Forgiveness is an elusive topic, and yet possible with a “mindset to forgive.” Mindset is one’s mental disposition. Our automatic thoughts.

Forgiveness is a character strength. If you take a moment to visit the VIA Character Strengths Survey, you will learn how strong of a trait this is in your life. If it’s not a strength for you or for me, it can be developed.

In his book “Forgiving What you’ll never Forget,” David Stoop wrote the following: “To forgive is, in the English language, an extended, expanded, strengthened form of the verb to give. By intensifying the verb we speak of giving at its deepest level, of self-giving, or giving forth and giving up deeply held parts of the self. We give up the right to revenge, to perfection, to justice, and instead we give forth to ourselves—or to the other person—freedom from the past and an openness toward the future. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves and others.” (p. 21)

In order to need forgiveness, we must first have judged that something SHOULD have happened. Or, something should NOT have happened. Either way, something is very wrong, and based on what we believe to be true, we might also believe that someone should fix it, make it right, or pay for it.

These beliefs are stories that go with our thoughts about what happened.

About Forgiveness

For today’s podcast, we’ll consider whether forgiveness is a mindset, and these questions:

  • How have you typically defined forgiveness?
  • Why should we forgive?
  • How do we do it?

HOW HAVE YOU TYPICALLY DEFINED FORGIVENESS?

I used to define forgiveness as something I might want from others, when I have made a mistake. I thought it meant that I would apologize, try to fix whatever I did, and ask the other person involved to give me forgiveness.

When I thought about forgiveness this way, it seemed that I could never be in control of it. Someone else, outside of me, had the power over forgiveness. Perhaps I could never do enough to earn their forgiveness.

If that was true, then no matter how sorry I was, or how much I tried to fix things, ultimately someone else could decide whether I could let it go, feel better, and move on. Expecting forgiveness to come from someone else is a common way to think about it, but there are several reasons why this is a problem.

Have you ever defined forgiveness this way?

If we look at forgiveness as something someone else gives the offending person, there would be no forgiveness when someone has died, when there isn’t any way to contact the other person, or when the offender has truly changed and made things right but the victim is holding tightly with an unwilling heart.

So, for many reasons, forgiveness is not something we can expect to get from other people.

In his book “Bonds that Make Us Free,” Terry Warner defines forgiveness this way:

“Forgiveness, correctly understood, is the process by which we open ourselves to the reality of others and thereby undergo a profound personal change.”

When someone asked about how you can forgive another person and forget at the same time, Warner went on to say that “we cannot accuse someone in our heart and at the same time forget about the wrong we’re accusing them of doing.” After all, in order to forgive, we must first accuse someone of wrongdoing.

Accusation and Blame

Basically, when we believe that someone has offended us, or wronged us, we accuse and blame them.

We might hate, resent, or hurt them in return. We harden our hearts against the other person and build invisible walls to separate ourselves from them.

It’s like we start a war with someone who has hurt us, because we believe they have done something wrong. And, in doing this, we are doing something wrong ourselves. We are harboring blame and accusations toward the other person. And, we are justifying why we are stuck in some way, because of what the other person has done.

Examples of Being “Stuck”

I can think of so many instances where one person has clung so tightly to the offense, that they told that story all the time as justification for not moving on.

For example, last week I spoke to an adult man who said that he had not had any control over his life since third grade, because of what his third grade teacher did to him. This person still tells the story of events that happened when he was seven or eight years old, and how much he cannot do now because of those events. It’s unlikely that the third grade teacher thinks about it now, and they may never see each other again. By holding the story, this man avoids needing to learn how to write legibly and a few others skills that would help him now in adulthood. The story does not harm the third grade teacher, even if she really did wrong him. Instead, it hurts the man.

Another example is a woman whose husband was unfaithful during their marriage. Because of the adultery, the two decided to divorce and move on through life without each other. The man married again and worked to change himself over time, to learn how to discipline himself and become more the person he thought he should be. The woman chose not to date or remarry. As the years went by, she told the story repeatedly about how she had prepared for a long, committed marriage, and the man ruined her dreams by being unfaithful. Although it is a complex situation and difficult to live through, forgiveness in each situation is a tool for freedom and the space to live again.

WHY SHOULD WE FORGIVE?

First of all, it isn’t my goal to push anyone to forgive someone else. I understand that it can be very difficult to understand the choices people make, especially when they are very wrong to us. I want you to know that we’re exploring the topic today, not preaching how you should be.

When there is an offense or action taken by someone that hurts us, we accuse and blame them. Accusing others who we believe wronged or offended us puts us in the place as the victim. If we see ourselves as a victim, we give up our control and bind ourselves to the other person.

Our story becomes the reason we cannot heal or recover. We think that we are less than we might be, because of that other person’s problem or choices. We blame that other person for what we are or are not able to do now. In a sense, we relive the situation over and over in the present, every time we tell the story.

image of woman thinkingWithout even realizing it, by accusing and blaming the other person, we are doomed to bring them with us throughout our lives, and we tell the story of what happened over and over again, keeping us stuck to this other person for a very long time.

As we are thinking about what is going on when we sense the need to forgive someone else, it seems that in order to be open to the possibility of truly forgiving, our heart must be open to the possibility that there is another story to tell.

The First Step: Considering Possibilities

Even considering the possibility that there might be another story opens things up.

That person who cut us off in traffic, causing us to stop the car quickly and spill a milkshake all over our lap. At first, it would be easy to think they did it thoughtlessly, and they are a reckless driver. When we find that they have a family member in the car who is gravely injured and they are speeding to the hospital a mile away, it seems a bit easier to understand the situation. The new story means that we might have a mess to clean up, but perhaps we understand the emergency and even want to get out of their way to help them get to the hospital faster.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a way to become free from bondage to stories that don’t serve us. By forgiving, we open the door to moving forward.

Forgiveness is a Mindset

I propose that the disposition of our hearts, or our state of feeling forgiveness, begins in our mindset.

There’s this idea that we use a thinking process without even realizing it, called the ladder of inference. This thinking process starts with input, or facts, and it moves us through steps to a decision.


The ladder of inference, a metaphorical model of cognition and action created by Chris Argyris. Argyris’s original ladder had fewer rungs with different names. User: Biogeographist / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Thinking stages would be those rungs on the ladder, or the steps.Each one of us has different steps in our thought processes. These steps our thoughts take are things like these:

  • Look at the data or information from observations
  • Add meanings
  • Make assumptions based on our meanings
  • Paraphrase it in our mind
  • Think about it in the context to understand it more clearly
  • Name what’s happening
  • Again, with our own mental filters, we then explain and evaluate what is happening, and
  • After all of this, in a flash, we decide what to do.

This is a very fast process. Our minds move in microseconds through this pathway, taking each of these steps, to think through something.

If forgiveness begins in our minds, we are competing with some pretty rigid thought processes to get to the place where we are forgiving someone. In fact, because our brains are wired for efficiency, we think in patterns and have a difficult time changing the way we think.

Slowing things down and thinking something different could mean that we need a new habit.

HOW DO WE FORGIVE?

So, the idea is that forgiving others includes three parts that really are all within our own control:

  1. Focus on our part of the problem and address what is within our control.
  2. Open our hearts toward others and try to understand, rather than blaming and accusing. As we try to understand, we might learn about true stories that were behind what happened.
  3. Let go of accusations and blame, so that we can see the humanity of the other person. When we are accusing and blaming, we are motivated to carry a heart at war. Letting go transforms them in front of our eyes. By seeing them differently, we also transform ourselves.

Bringing it Together: Owning Our Part and Letting Go

As we bring these ideas together, I’d like to share a story of my own that involves forgiveness. And, to acknowledge that forgiveness is hard. It’s not an easy thing to do.  By working through the process and allowing our hearts to change, we become different. And I wouldn’t give that up to escape the challenging situations that come up, which lead to the need of forgiveness.

Forgiving a Friend

In my story, a friend hurt me in a personal way. It was no small thing. It was such a big offense to me that I wasn’t sure I wanted to understand it. Certainly, I would be justified letting go of the friendship and moving on. At the time, I even thought that anyone else would do that.

As time went on, I realized that my friend had some serious challenges they were trying to overcome. It took them several years to figure it all out and let go of their habits. As time passed, I tried to be a supportive friend and be a good example. At times, I thought this person in my life was spiteful and mean, and I couldn’t find any other explanation for the wrong they did. As the years went by, I learned about seeing my own role in a problem.

Pretty soon, I used my new perspective on that friendship. And, I realized that all the time I was trying to be a good friend and an example for this other person, I was judging them pretty harshly. I was NOT being understanding, supportive, or encouraging to my friend. In fact, the way I saw myself made it so very difficult for my friend to change and overcome the problem.

Initially, I had thought I needed to forgive my friend’s offense. After all, I saw it as a really big problem. And over time, I realized that I needed to fix whatever my role was in that problem. No, I didn’t cause my friend’s problem, but I wasn’t helping. And my accusations of the hurt they caused kept them stuck.

friends

Gifts of Forgiveness

In the end, I was able to completely let go of the offense my friend had given me. I apologized to them for not being there when they really needed me. I let go of the hurt and started doing my best to understand my friend and just work on my own flaws and problems.  This process took ten years. And as I think of that friend, I’m so amazed at their growth, their gifts and talents shared with others, and the direction they are headed. I would have missed seeing that if I had let go of the friendship with the hurt I felt, and I might have carried that story with me, struggling to let it go.

Consider a mindset to Forgive

Some things in life are small, and it can be good practice to let go of the offenses quickly.

Other things are big, and they might seem impossible to forgive.

Regardless of what has happened, I hope that today you are thinking about this idea that forgiveness is for the person who is hurt or offended much more than it is for the person who has hurt us.

If you are thinking about forgiveness you would like to feel, I hope you will find some tools here to think about to help you get started.

I wish you all the best this week becoming the best version of you and letting go of what might be holding you back.