It’s taken me a surprising number of years to understand what forgiveness really means.
If you’re anything like me, people have been talking to you about forgiveness for decades. Perhaps it began at primary school with the Lord’s Prayer in Assembly (“forgive us our trespasses…”), or graduated to shock-tactic television and heart-rending stories of mothers learning to forgive the man who murdered their child. Tough.
And yet, you’ll be pleased to know that forgiveness doesn’t have to come packaged in religiosity or unutterable struggle. It doesn’t need to be in big gestures or harrowing story arcs.
The most meaningful forgiveness actually comes in the every day.
The small events that matter to only you. The words you tell yourself of a morning. How you see your partner. How you process your past.
And forgiving everything, repeatedly, is what I call radical forgiveness.
It’s deceptively simple: Forgive. Everyone, and everything.
I see it as an extension of mindfulness – the idea that you can observe your thoughts without letting them negatively affect you. And it’s crucial, particularly in our own relationships, where we must interact with other humans to get along.
Because, to be kind and patient and generous and loving to other humans, we must first begin with being kind and patient and generous and loving to ourselves. No matter what.
Radical forgiveness is simply radical acceptance. It’s making a vow to continually, and without question, forgive everyone who has ever wronged you.
It’s forgiving yourself – and your constantly-critical inner dialogue for all the little things you tell yourself you’ve “done wrong”, and continue to “do wrong” – from the mental (“I always screw things up,”), to the physical (“I’m always the fat one in the photo”).
Every little thing you’ve ever criticised yourself for. All the negative stories you tell yourself, every day. It’s forgiving, drawing a mental line, and giving yourself space to start again.
It’s forgiving your ex-partners for all the things they did, all the acts of carelessness or unkindness, all the digging comments, all the betrayals and dismissals and moments they slowly broke your heart by chipping away at it daily, until it cracked.
It’s forgiving your parents for not being perfect. It’s forgiving your boss for all their failings, their poor management, their anger or their weakness. It’s forgiving your partner for all the ways they’re not quite faultless; all the times they do something mildly – or intensely – annoying. All the little ways they could perhaps be better.
Forgive them, as you forgive yourself, because – and it’s obvious, but bears repeating ‒ we’re all human. We’re all flawed, imperfect, tired, thoughtless, uncaring, angry, impatient, critical and hurtful at times ‒ even if we don’t ever mean it; even if only to our own dear selves.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting we should forgive all crimes or misdemeanours as if they were nothing, and that there’s no such thing as right or wrong. Nor am I suggesting that there is never any room for improvement, and we should all just marinade in mediocrity until the end of time. If you’ve done something hurtful or wrong, it makes sense to repair it.
But I don’t believe that’s possible until we forgive ourselves and others.
We hold the power within us to move on from negativity, and being wronged. To move on from the deep seam of pain we nearly all carry within us, from years of tiny slights and major heartbreaks and low self-esteem, and a society that tells us that we’re never good enough.
And within that radical forgiveness, comes the cool, healing balm of acceptance. From the clear, pure fresh air of acceptance – trust me, it really does feel like that ‒ comes compassion. From compassion, comes understanding. And from understanding, comes blessed autonomy.
You’re no longer at the mercy of the behaviour of others. When you’re in control of how you feel, rather than letting others control it, you can move from a place of clear-headedness, towards the life you want, rather than feeling pushed into emotions or situations thanks to fear or resentment or pain.
From this space, others can affect you and influence you somewhat, but only you can decide how to feel.
Take a moment, if you don’t already, to examine your own inner dialogue. You’re likely far more critical to yourself than you ever would be aloud to anyone else – and yet, this critical attitude is easily carried over to others in your life. If you hold yourself to impossibly-high standards, then you’re likely to do so with others, too.
This gap between your impossibly-high standards, and reality, is what will cause endless pain and anguish. Release that – forgive, with love – and you can start with a clean slate, and move on.
Try it today. Instead of letting yourself criticise or lament or chastise, forgive.
As writer and publisher Louise Hay says: “You’ve been criticising yourself for years, and it hasn’t worked. Try accepting yourself, and see what happens.”