A Message from Dr. Starr
When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge — or embrace forgiveness and move forward. — Mayo Clinic
By Deborah R. Starr, Ed.D., Head of School
Easy to say, but hard to do. Who hasn’t been hurt by the actions or words of another? Perhaps you were continuously criticized by a parent, or a colleague took credit for your work? Perhaps you had a friend violate a secret, or a spouse cheated on you? God forbid, you may have been the victim of terrible physical or mental abuse? These episodes may result in feeling disappointment, sadness, confusion, anger, bitterness, even vengeance.
Being hurt by someone, particularly someone you love and trust, can be acutely problematic. You might then dwell on the hurtful events or situations; grudges become resentment, and then vengeance and hostility may take root. If you allow negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, you might find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice.
This then compounds the initial cause of distress and allows it to grow and continue on, thereby impacting more and more on your mental state and life. Specifically, holding on may:
• Bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience you have.
• Cause you to become so wrapped up in the wrong that you cannot enjoy the present.
• Cause depression and anxiety.
• Cause you to feel that your life lacks meaning or purpose, or that you are at odds with your spiritual beliefs.
• Cause you to lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others.
What to do? How to break this cycle? If you do not want to be the one to continuously pay dearly, consider practicing forgiveness. “By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy. Consider how forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.”
So, what is forgiveness and how to practice it? The dictionary definition is: “the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, forswears recompense from or punishment of the offender, however legally or morally justified it might be, and with an increased ability to wish the offender well.”
Practicing forgiveness can be challenging. Forgiveness is all about you, and does not always involve the perpetrator in any way. Forgiveness is a commitment to a personalized process of change. According to the Mayo Clinic, to move from suffering to forgiveness:
• Recognize the value of forgiveness and how it can improve your life.
• Identify what needs healing and who needs to be forgiven and for what.
• Consider joining a support group or seeing a counselor.
• Acknowledge your emotions about the harm done to you and how they affect your behavior, and work to release them.
• Choose to forgive the person who has offended you.
• Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life.
As you let go of grudges, you will no longer define your life by how you have been hurt. You might even find compassion and understanding.
However, it is important to note that forgiveness does not have to automatically mean reconciliation. We do not have to return to the same relationship or accept the same harmful behaviors from someone who has hurt us.
It is important for children to understand compassion, loving-kindness and forgiveness. Teaching your child to forgive is an essential life tool that will make navigating childhood and adolescence easier. It is clear that holding on to anger and resentment is a recipe for anxiety and depression for children and adults. The earlier forgiveness is taught, the earlier you can prevent children from taking on the victim role. That in turn helps prevent anxiety and depression.
Before asking your child to let go, forgive or excuse a behavior, it is first important to identify the feeling your child is experiencing. Do not discount or underplay your child’s emotions in the situation. Is he/she angry, embarrassed or disappointed? He or she needs to understand how the incident made him or her feel before he or she can forgive.
“Show your child how you forgive others. It is important for children to understand that learning to let go may take time. The important lesson is to keep trying, making efforts, understanding forgiveness and loving kindness. Anger plus anger only equals more anger. Compassion and love are what heals.” (psychcentral.com)
As psychologist Robert Enright and psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons write, “forgiveness is a choice to let go of anger toward someone who hurt you and to think, feel or act with kindness toward that person. They clarify that forgiveness is not being weak — it takes strength and courage to forgive. It is also not forgetting, condoning or putting up with being hurt. You can forgive while still seeking justice. And forgiveness is different than reconciling with someone; you can forgive without receiving an apology.”
Forgiveness might seem like an impossible feat for a child who doesn’t yet have all the tools in his/her toolbox that adults do to handle emotions like anger and the desire for vengeance. But a wide range of studies have found that forgiveness programs can help children of different ages feel better, strengthen their relationships and improve their academic performance. According to Enright, we can learn from these programs about how to teach age-appropriate forgiveness skills, so children grow up to be more peaceful and forgiving adults.
“Forgiveness is a virtue hard to exercise and challenging to implement in the face of injustice but one that offers a concrete hope for peace,” explain Enright and Fitzgibbons. Because conflict is inevitable, teaching children about forgiveness early on — starting with struggles with playmates over dolls and soccer balls — may indeed be a path toward building communities of people who prize and cultivate peace.
Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time to begin introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes we want to make. While we are repenting to God, and asking for forgiveness for our mistakes, perhaps we should add to our list: who do I need to forgive in order to move forward with a better emotional mindset and have a more fulfilling year?