How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get on with Your Life
Educator and Author Sidney B. Simon, with his then wife, Suzanne Simon, wrote the book Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get on with Your Life. The Simons maintained that forgiveness is a by-product of a long process of healing, and only after you acknowledge, work through and let go of hurt can you lead a full life.
Suzanne Simon knows about hurt. From the time she was 5 years old until she was 12, she was sexually molested by her father. “For so many years,” she says, “I was my sexual abuse. I used to see myself as ‘Suzanne, incest survivor.’ It wasn’t until my thirties, after doing a lot of healing work, that I realized I was more than what had happened to me, and that my father was more than what he did to me. This freed me to let go of the fury I felt toward him, which then allowed me to move on with my own life and come to a place of forgiving him.”
What do you get from forgiving someone who harmed you? You get released from your anger at them. Many people find that forgiveness – even years after a hurt has been inflicted – opens the way to resolving seemingly unconnected problems such as drug or alcohol abuse, compulsive overeating or depression.
“Forgiving implies that you’re responsible for yourself,” says Joseph Newirth, Ph.D., psychoanalyst and professor of psychology at Adelphi University. He stresses that forgiving another person helps you become less judgmental of yourself. By forgiving your parents in particular, says Dwight Lee Wolter, author of Forgiving Our Parents, “You’re giving yourself a great big insurance policy that your children will not view you the way you viewed your parents.”
Many people who have tried to forgive but find themselves stuck in self-pity, blame and anger have discovered that it helps to consider a six-step model of healing and forgiveness.
1. In the first stage, denial, people may forget what happened. Or they minimize the event or its impact. But failing to recognize the hurt can keep you from treating your wound or letting it heal. First, then, you have to acknowledge how you were hurt.
2. In the second stage, self-blame, you believe you brought your injury on yourself. You think “If only I had been a better person, had been smarter, nicer, or …” Here you have to sort out what you were not accountable for and what you do have to assume some responsibility for.
3. Victimhood: You grieve and mourn and weep for the love and nurturing that you needed but didn’t get. You can name the person who hurt you, but you still can’t confront that person. You express your hurt in other ways, possibly drugs, food or sex.
4. Indignation: righteous or justified anger focused on the person who hurt you can motivate you to action. You may feel angry, but you need to ask yourself whether your anger is proportionate to the hurt. Sometimes understanding the other person can dispel some of your anger. Writing yourself a letter from the person who hurt you lets you put yourself in their shoes and imagine how they felt when they hurt you.
5. Survivor: You realize that you are here. You made it through, you’re alive, you’re functioning. You can now celebrate what you got from being hurt – perhaps a special sensitivity to other people’s pain.
6. This final stage of integration lets you realize that yes, this happened to you, it is part of you and it helped to make you the person you are today, but it is not all of you. This marks your healing and it also lets you see that the person who hurt you is more than the abuser or the betrayer. You can see his or her good qualities and you can understand what might have led to the hurtful behavior. While you neither forget nor condone the injury, you can see beyond it to view the injurer as a fallible human being who has made mistakes, sometimes terrible ones. You are now healed, and you can now forgive.
Before you attempt a reconciliation with the person who hurt you, you need to think hard about what you want, what you want to say, and what you want to ask of the other person.
Forgiveness is a thorny issue. Is it always possible? Many of us who have tried and not succeeded may say no. And is it always appropriate? A number of mental health professionals – even those who, by and large, hold forgiveness as a worthy goal – say no.
“Not everything can be patched up,” says Newirth. “Or necessarily should be. Before you forgive someone, that person may need to make some sort of effort to accept responsibility for what she or he did. If not, it may be more appropriate, more empowering to say, “I’m not going to forgive you,” and just walk away and leave your hut in its raw form for the time being.
Inner peace often eludes us. We may strive for it, work toward it – and still be unable to achieve it with regard to a particular issue or person. The intertwined processes of healing and forgiving are not achieved effortlessly.
Sometimes, despite all our efforts, we still can’t heal. And then we can’t forgive. At times like these, then, we need to tell ourselves, It’s okay. You did the best you could.
We need, finally, to forgive ourselves.
Sally Wendkos Olds has written extensively about child development, family life, human relationship and health, and has won national awards for both her book and magazine writing. She is the author or co-author of eleven books and hundreds of articles that have appeared in major national magazines. She received the lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.