A few years back when “The Secret” was featured on the Oprah Winfrey show, I heard something that made me begin to reconsider what I’ve since come to call “unforgiveness”.
Lisa Nichols was one of the featured speakers for that episode, and she shared her definition of forgivness. She said, “Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different”.
I nearly went bananas when I heard her say this because it resonated with me so deeply. There are many things I love about this way of describing forgiveness. For example, it doesn’t let us off the hook for what we do when we get it wrong; it doesn’t sound like an obligation; it’s not presented as something we should do in order to purchase God’s approval.
What it does do, however, is position forgiveness as something we can do for ourselves. It’s a letting go. And yes, it puts the responsibility for importing the past into the present squarely on us.
It does all of this while preserving space for meaningful accountability – something I value a great deal (more about that another time!).
In other words, the definition Lisa Nichols offered was one that I found empowering. It’s not about being a doormat or a martyr. It’s not about being a saint. It’s about freeing ourselves from the burden of old stories / pain / emotional baggage, etc. so that we can make a space inside us where joy can live. Or kindness. Or tenderness. Or creativity. Or whatever good stuff you want more of in your life.
Do you ever replay negative scenarios in your head?
You know, that argument you had way back when? Or that thing that happened to you in high school that still makes you cringe when you think about it? Or that road-raging-twit whose hand was stuck to his / her horn in traffic today?
Yup. Me, too.
I used to do this whenever I was in the shower. Go figure, right? Seriously, I would replay what I call “mental movies” of all the shitty things that other people had done or said to me in my life. And given that I felt like an outsider for the first 30 or so years of my life, I had a lot of mental movies to provide variety.
Except, in the shower, I always re-wrote the script. I said that witty thing that put that other person in their place. Or I used all my powers of persuasion to change their mind about what they were doing, making them see the error of their ways. Or, if I was remembering getting bullied as a child, I would imagine busting out a ninja move that would make them sorry for every bit of torment they ever tried to visit on me.
Oh, yeah. I pitied the fools.
Even when I started to notice that I was doing this “mental movies” thing – in the shower or out of it – I couldn’t seem to stop doing it. And it always put me in a crappy mood.
This is because rehearsing painful events in our minds activates the emotions that accompanied these experiences: the grief, loss, humiliation, unworthiness, etc.
Before I saw that episode of Oprah, I had already begun to notice that keeping my resentment, bitterness, victimization, anger, pain, rage, and been-done-wrong feelings alive didn’t serve me.
What it did do was allow my ego the illusion that it can change the past. Seriously, the ego has delusions of grandeur, and this is one of them. Ego says, “If I just rehearse that past event again and again, I can change it!”.
Then the Universe put me in front of the television on the day that Lisa Nichols spoke her truth about forgiveness. Man, if I ever meet her, I am going to give her one big, squishy, grateful hug of thanks. She gave me a key piece of the puzzle on my journey to this realization:
I am not the things that have happened to me.
Once this thought arose in me, I started to ask myself if maybe I needed to forgive the folks who had treated me badly by letting go of my hope that the past could have been different.
And I discovered that I really, really didn’t want to forgive the people in my past who had caused me pain.
I wanted to hold onto my righteous victimhood.
I wanted to keep making them wrong, over and over again, in my mind – as if that could somehow even the score.
I wanted to cling to my moral certainty that the other person or people who had wronged me were less than me.
I wanted to preserve my belief that those other people who had been cruel or mean spirited or abusive didn’t deserve the time of day – let alone my forgiveness.
In effect, I was creating a victim-identity for myself out of my past, painful experiences. This was an identity I could use to position myself as morally superior. This is because, in the stories I was drawing on for the foundations of this victim identity, the other person was always the bad guy.
This meant that, in my mind, I got to be the good one – the one who was deserving of approval, love, respect, recognition, worthiness, and all the things I thought other people could withhold from me.
Over time, I created a forgiveness ritual for myself.
I find some time and space for stillness, close my eyes, and say something like this:
“Thank you, Universe, for helping me to surrender and release any unforgiveness towards myself and (person’s name) for what happened in x y z situation. I surrender and release this to you now, and I thank you for taking it from me”.
As I say this – giving it my fullest attention – I visualize the unforgiveness (read: bitterness, resentment, anger, grudge, etc.) leaving me.
Then, I say,
“And in the space I have made within by releasing this unforgiveness, thank you Universe for helping me to bring in _______”. I then bring in whatever feels appropriate on that day – peace, discernment, compassion, gratitude, grace, understanding, joy, etc. – to fill the space within me that used to be occupied by my unforgiveness about that event / person.
Now, this is my personal forgiveness ritual. Feel free to use it, change it, discard it and / or create your own. But I recommend having one. It sounds simple, but it’s deeply transformative. By practicing this little ritual myself, I’ve let go of a lot of anger, grief, loss, resentment, frustration, anger, shame, guilt, remorse, etc.
Guess what happened along the way?
Because I gradually but persistently put down my unforgiveness…I became more open.
I became more comfortable in my skin.
I became more aware of opportunities to offer kindness day to day.
I became more accountable to myself for the experiences I was creating, and more grateful for what I was learning about myself, my choices, my boundaries, etc.
I became less judgmental and more watchful for opportunities to be compassionate towards others who – like me – sometimes made mistakes, acted badly, or somehow showed up as less than they were for one reason or another.
And, boy, let me tell you…did I ever become less angry.
Most importantly, I became more…me.
Instead of carrying these victim stories, I became more reflective and creative in my self definition (instead of being reactive to what others thought about me).
For example, instead of mentally saying, “I’m not your doormat / emotional scratching post / target!”, I started saying, “Who do I want to be in the world?” – and then choosing that, acting and behaving and relating to others in ways that were more consistent with that.
Without the weight of all those grudges and grievances about being an outsider, a victim, misunderstood, or badly treated weighing me down, I had more room in my mind and heart to say, “what can that experience teach me about myself? About who I am? About who I want to be in relation to that person / circumstance / event?”.
I felt more empowered to make conscious choices, instead of feeling like a victim of my life.
And instead of creating mental movies where I re-lived all the stuff other people had done “to me”, I started using that mental energy to imagine how I wanted my life to feel.
This is very, very joyful. Because, yes, when we put down all that anger, fear, and pain…
We can create a space inside where joy can live and thrive and shine.
So what’s so shiny about shining? Because that’s when our REAL beauty emerges into the world, effortlessly. For real.
Click here to read my last post, “All Experience Is Generous”.