I’ve been studying and teaching forgiveness for over 20 years now, and the more I really dig into the topic, the better I understand just how crucial it is for our wellbeing, and how forgiveness frees you.
I find myself getting really stirred up about it, because it so often gets overlooked and the consequences of not forgiving are profound, yet poorly understood.
Essentially there are two types of forgiveness: forgiveness of others, and forgiveness of self.
There’s way more written about forgiveness of others than there is about forgiveness of self, yet I am coming to believe that self-forgiveness may be even more important than forgiveness of others. It’s certainly the harder of the two!
The psychologists who research forgiveness have coined a term, ‘unforgiveness’ for the state of not forgiving. They have built up a fair body of research to demonstrate that unforgiveness can lead to both physical and mental health disorders, from heart disease and ulcers to depression and anxiety.
Clients and friends have described their deeper feelings of unforgiveness as pain in the neck jaw or upper body, being in a really dark place, or even as rotting flesh.
What unforgiveness does
The problem is that unforgiveness acts like a stressor in the body.
A certain level of ‘good’ stress is important to keep us motivated, but too much stress can literally be a killer, particularly if it continues for a prolonged period. Stress activates the fight/flight/freeze response in our bodies, designed to get us out of trouble when facing that sabre-toothed tiger.
Unfortunately for us, the sabre-toothed tigers of today tend to be workplace demands, the challenge of juggling childcare, care of ageing relatives and a demanding job, or just dealing day in, day out with an unpleasant boss, financial difficulties, or even a partner we’ve fallen out of love with.
These stresses don’t last for a few minutes or a few hours – which was usually the case with your sabre-toothed tiger.
They go on, and on, and cause our hormonal system to go badly out of balance.
Unforgiveness can have the same effect, particularly unforgiveness of self.
The role of shame
Have you ever felt shame about yourself? Have you let that shame go?
Most of us have felt shame at some point, but don’t know how to let it go.
For many of my coaching clients, shame can be a real energy blocker and stops them stepping up to their full potential and doing what they really want to do.
What kind of things do we commonly feel shame about?
- Shame about how we are somehow less than we should be.
- Shame that we are not enough.
- Shame that we SHOULD be able to juggle, but we struggle.
- Shame that everyone else around us is apparently doing so well, and we aren’t.
- Shame that we haven’t fulfilled our potential, or done anything meaningful or extraordinary.
The list goes on.
How forgiveness frees you
Self-forgiveness is the antidote to shame.
When I forgive myself for the things I am ashamed of, life somehow becomes lighter, fear of stepping out of my comfort zone evaporates, and I do amazing things.
For years I was deeply, deeply ashamed of the fact that I had succumbed to clinical depression. As a child I had learned from my mother that our family didn’t do that sort of thing: it was a sign of weakness and some kind of attention-seeking. (This from a woman who tried to kill herself when I was 18, but we didn’t talk about that, either, because it was too shameful).
When I finally owned my depression, and forgave myself for it, the shame lifted and, in due time, so did the depression.
I also forgave my mother for her mixed messages, and for the impact that her suicide attempt had on me, which in turn massively improved my relationship with her and allowed me to feel a real compassion for her, which I’d never previously been able to feel.
Forgiveness over generations
Unforgiveness of self and others isn’t just an individual issue. It’s also a generational issue.
A student of mine recently realised that her unforgiveness wasn’t entirely hers. It was also generational, going back several generations in her family, who tended to be of an unforgiving nature. This realisation enabled her to take forgiveness to a whole new level, and she is experiencing it as life-changing.
Forgiveness is also potentially beneficial for pregnant mothers and their babies, particularly if the baby is a girl. In the womb, the ovaries of a female baby develop within the first trimester. In the fifth month of pregnancy the eggs that will become that child’s children also develop.
Maternal stress can have a negative impact on not just the baby in the womb but on that baby’s children.
So forgiveness really is a well-being issue, for ourselves and for our families. I’m not saying it’s easy, and very often it takes a lot of courage to forgive.
Yet forgiveness is incredibly liberating. For most people, the act of forgiving takes a nano-second. It’s the build-up to feeling able and willing to forgive that can take a lifetime, and thankfully there are tools and techniques that can actually make it happen.
About Jane Lewis
Dr Jane Lewis is a One of many in-house coach and ‘shaper of leaders’ with a long career in the corporate world.
She’s also an expert on forgiveness, and on Huna, the secret spiritual, healing and energetic practices of the ancient Hawaiians.
Jane is passionate about sharing her knowledge of self-healing through the release of mental and emotional blocks, including unforgiveness, to enable us women to be the leaders and role-models we were meant to be.
To find out more about Jane’s work, click here.