04/30/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

The Extraordinary Power of Forgiveness

I was talking recently with Stephanie, a friend who had suffered several intense setbacks. She discovered her longtime boyfriend had been unfaithful and that he had lied to her about several financial dealings as well as his past. A former employee who needed money filed a frivolous lawsuit in hopes of cashing in. And a longtime, trusted friend betrayed an important confidence. All of that on top of the tail end of a difficult recession left her feeling hopeless.

"I feel... so... angry," she confided to me over dinner one evening. "In the past I've always been able to move through these things and move on. But maybe I've been through too much these past few years. Now I'm hardening in ways I don't want to. And honestly? I think I've completely lost my capacity to trust. How do you move forward when the past has you so anchored?"

"Maybe it isn't the past that anchors us so much, as our unwillingness to forgive," I suggested.

"But they don't deserve my forgiveness. These weren't accidents, this was pure greed and selfishness. It was pathetic."

"I get that. And you're not wrong. They don't deserve your forgiveness. But you do. And if you don't find a way to give the thing you need most, I don't see how you're going to find a way beyond this."

Her eyes welled up with tears, and with a childlike honesty she said, "I don't know how. I've always given forgiveness when I had it to give. But some of these betrayals cut too deeply. It's like I've lost faith in more than just these people. I've lost faith in humanity and in myself, somehow."

"Like most well-meaning women, you're too hard on yourself," I said. "Most of the time people are who they are. Maybe you wanted your boyfriend, your friend and your employee to be someone different, but that doesn't mean that's who they were or even who they were capable of being. It doesn't make what they did right or even permissible. But neither does it make you responsible for their behavior."

Stephanie took a deep breath, and when she exhaled I felt her letting go. "You're right," she said, "How do I begin?"

Forgiveness, in this case where there has been profound harm, begins by first having the solid intent to fully forgive, even when you don't know how you'll do it. True intent will bring forward new paths, resources and information to help you get to where you want to be.

Second, accept the other person for who they are.  Don't play games with yourself by pretending people are someone they're not. You may not like who the other person is or who they've become, but people are who they are. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you'll start making more insightful choices.

Third, you want to develop understanding for the other person's behavior.  This insight is crucial, since it leads you to the fourth step, which is compassion for the other person's suffering.

Understanding and compassion for another's behavior is not the same as acceptance or tolerance. I have deep understanding for others' choices and I have great compassion for their suffering that led them to certain choices. But that doesn't necessarily mean that someone deserves a second chance. Good judgment is everything. 

The fifth step is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a choice. It's not always a natural instinct. Particularly when someone we cared about hurt us. It's letting go of retaliation. It often requires prayer or spiritual intervention. And forgiveness, like understanding and compassion, does not equate to tolerating bad behavior.

Forgiveness is not the relaxing of a boundary; if anything, forgiveness builds and strengthens healthy boundaries. Forgiveness is letting go, which is something you need to do for yourself.

When you fully forgive, you are, in a moment, embracing steps 1-5.  You're ready to let go and move on. There's something in that moment where you allow others to handle their own mistakes and to make their own way forward that gives you real freedom and healing.

I met up with Stephanie a few weeks later, and she was lighter and brighter than before. "I finally found my wings," she said with a smile. "You know, one of the keys for me was letting myself off the hook. I may not have been perfect in these relationships, but as you said, I didn't cause their bad behavior. Once I got that, I was able to really, deeply forgive. I didn't need them to change so I could move forward. It was really profound."

"So now what's next?" I asked.

"You know, I can finally see my future again. My heart and mind are open, that darkness I felt everyday has vanished, I actually feel excited about moving forward and starting fresh. I even have a renewed sense of confidence about making good decisions.

"And if you ran into your former boyfriend or any of the others today? How do you think you would feel?"

"I get who they are now. I see them. I'm not angry about it, I just get it. I think for the most part I would feel compassion. I really wish for them the best. I don't want to be a part of their lives or their drama. But I wish for them the very best."

"Forgiveness really is the gift you give yourself, isn't it?"

"It really is."

For more by Melissa Van Rossum, click here.

For more on forgiveness, click here.

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