Learning How to Forgive

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Dr. Mirgain on NBC-15

Dr. Shilagh Mirgain discusses forgiveness during a recent NBC-15 interview. Watch the interview


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Contemplative womanMadison, Wisconsin - It sounds so simple, yet forgiving someone can be one of the most difficult things we ever do. And, when we do, it can actually improve our physical and emotional well-being. Research shows that holding on to anger and resentments can lead to depression, stress and is even a risk factor for heart disease. But what does it mean to forgive?


Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, UW Health psychologist, explains, "Forgiveness is a skill that has to be learned and practiced. It is more than just accepting someone's apology; it is actually a process within us."


Forgiveness is often confused with forgetting, but Mirgain quickly points out that is not the case.


"Forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook for their behavior, or denying something actually happened," she says. "And it is not about trusting someone who has proven themselves untrustworthy, or even trying to reconcile with the person. Forgiveness is about letting go of the pain and being ready to begin the process of healing."


Take Responsibility for Your Feelings


Recognizing that you've been hurt and accepting your anger or pain is really the first step in the process.


"Take responsibility for your emotions," says Mirgain. "We can often deny how we truly feel about something and say, ‘I'm fine.' But you need to be very clear with yourself about what happened that was unacceptable, and how you feel about it. Then you can begin to release any emotions that the injury caused."


Make the Choice to Forgive


Once we recognize how we feel, we can choose to move beyond it. Forgiveness is a conscious choice that we make for ourselves. When we hold on to anger or resentment, we lose control over our feelings. However, when we stop blaming the other person for what happened and how we feel, we begin to take control back. We regain our power when we recognize that past hurts do not have to continue to impact us in the present.


Focus on the Present


We can't heal the past by dwelling there. And, we can become so locked in thinking about past experiences and our feelings of hurt, that we lose sight of the positive aspects of our life. Instead, we need to focus on finding and appreciating the beauty, love and positive things that are present in life, and reconnect with our positive goals and intentions. We can only heal by fully living in the present.


Mirgain suggests that when you find yourself ruminating on the past, acknowledge your feelings, but consciously bring your mind back to the present. When you do that, you help put the focus back on yourself and your life.


"When we've experienced an emotional hurt, it can disrupt the steps we are trying to take toward a goal. Reconnecting with that goal, like going back to school, enables us to move forward and away from being stuck in the past," says Mirgain.


Recognize it is a Process


Forgiveness is a process, and it's possible that feelings of anger or frustration may ebb and flow like a wave. You may find yourself slipping back into feelings of pain and anger from time to time. That's natural. Eventually though, the goal is to begin feeling empathy with the individual who caused the pain and recognize their "human-ness."


There are many different exercises that individuals can use to help work through the different feelings that come up. It could be writing a letter to the individual who caused the pain. Rather than mailing it, symbolically burning it can be a way of releasing the feelings. Imagining a conversation with the individual in which you can honestly share feelings can help open the door to a real-life conversation, or at least help move you closer to being able to let go. Journaling about feelings and meditation are also examples of exercises that can help. As you work through the emotions, remember to live in the solution, not the problem. Mirgain suggests making yourself the hero of your own story.


"Tell a story where you are the hero capable of overcoming difficult obstacles, rather than being the victim," she says. "Learn from the situation, grieve, move on and grow into a strong, better and happier you."


Often, we encounter similar situations throughout our lives and those close to us may encounter them as well. Mirgain points out that it's possible to inspire others through our own efforts to forgive.


"As we work to forgive others, we also have to be loving and forgiving with ourselves," says Mirgain. "Forgiveness is a powerful way to create peace for yourself and those around you, and it's built on the decisions we make every day."


If you find yourself overwhelmed by negative feelings, or if they interfere with normal activities, then consider finding professional help. You can also learn more at the International Forgiveness Institute.

Date Published: 07/22/2013

News tag(s):  shilagh a mirgain

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