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  • Ken Clark

How to Forgive: Using Gratitude as a First Step


No one makes it through life without some pretty big relational hurts. It’s a by-product of our beautiful capacity to fall in love, find best friends and pour our lives into our family. Because these relationships are so central to who we are, they carry a profound ability to wound us when they fall short and those wounds can nag at us our whole lives.

Learning to forgive and forgiving before it is too late are keys to a life filled with joy. Forgiveness is critical for anyone wishing to fully experience the present instead of living a life shackled to the past. Finding the good in the people who have made bad choices is critical to not becoming a hardened cynic who expects their new relationships to implode before they’ve ever had a chance to prove otherwise.

The irony of course is that the more egregious the act is that requires forgiveness, the harder it is to forgive. In other words, the more deeply and permanently someone has injured us, the more impossible it seems to not think about it every moment we’re in that person’s presence.

The art of forgiving is NOT about forgetting what about what has been done. As anyone in my field will tell you, pretending like something didn’t happen through a combination of denial, internalization and numbing ourselves, is a recipe for greater disaster. Rather, the art of forgiving is about finding and celebrating that there is more that we are grateful for in a person than those things that we wish weren’t part of our shared journey.

Gratitude and Admiration as the Stepping Stones to Healing

Gratitude is a parallel truth. It can exist simultaneously with other negative emotions. I can be thankful that someone I don’t like held the door open for me. I can be grateful that someone that regularly seems to argue with me also stood up for me to a common foe. I can see it as admirable that someone whose flaws are plain for all to see also has the courage to take baby steps and work on them, even though they continue to make mistakes.

As we’ve said all throughout the Thanks A Billion Project, gratitude is often easiest to find and most powerful when it is found in the small moments of life. When we are grateful for our favorite jeans or the smile on our pizza delivery person’s face or the willingness of a stranger to hold a door, we can experience joy right now, even though we don’t have answers about what’s next.

Relationships are often so complex that they can never be fully sorted through in this lifetime. Yet, many people make their own healing contingent on someone else having complete clarity and massive amounts of remorse about some past event that becomes more and more blurry with every passing day. They fail to realize they’re holding out for something that is likely going to never come in the way they need. They’re trading days that could be filled with joy and enjoyment for days filled with a bitter hopefulness and passive-aggressive attempts to show someone how much they’ve wounded us.

When we, as hurting humans, instead decide to focus on the small things that make us thankful for those people instead of the big ways they’ve hurt us, we cease being held captive to something that will very likely never come. It allows us to take (or leave) the relationship for what it is, instead of obsessing over what it should be.

Ready to Heal: Say Thank You to That Person You Can’t Forgive

Are you ready to begin healing from the wounds that were dealt to you? Try reaching out to that person, the one who doesn’t deserve your attention, and tell them something small you’re thankful for. Remind them of a good memory you share, without any attempt to bring up the past or the future. Just be grateful for a moment or action or gift that was a good thing in your life.

Don’t do it for them. Don’t do it because they deserve it. Do it because you’re tired of living this way and you're ready to move on. Do it because you believe that gratitude eliminates fear (for you and them) and that maybe practicing small moments of joy will lead to bigger moments of joy. You don’t have to pretend the bad things in the past didn’t happen, but you also need to stop pretending like the good things in the past didn’t happen.

And, while you’re at it, get thee to therapy or into a support group or into an online forum for people carrying your kind of baggage. Find someone to talk to and lean on, because once the healing starts, the floodgates will open. They’ll be a lot to deal with (good and bad), but no one should ever carry those burdens alone.

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