“It’s impossible to be healthy and free when we keep ourselves bound to the past” —Louise Hay
Forgiveness is a powerful topic in therapy and at BPAR. Many clients struggle with letting go of self-criticism and forgiving themselves. Many others are holding onto old hurts and disappointments around loss, perceived and real rejections, and failed relationships. We find this theme reverberates throughout the adoption constellation—for adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents. Throughout my research and reading, I have found that forgiveness is a significant topic in our self-help and self-care-conscious society. The question is: How do we forgive? And for some, why?
Why Forgiving Is Important
There is a need to forgive in order to heal. In her book Raising Adopted Children (1998), Lois Ruskai Melina notes, “Although some people believe that forgiveness follows healing, experts in the field say…forgiveness promotes healing. It involves understanding that everyone is imperfect…. By being empathic, we can accept the failings of the person who hurt us.” In our field, we encounter many people in the adoption constellation who are bearing pain due to loss, abandonment and rejection. Desmond Tutu wrote in The Book of Forgiveness that holding onto old hurt and resentment causes mental and emotional stress which can lead to stress-related physical problems, whereas choosing forgiveness can lead to decreased depression (Tutu, 2014).
There are many different scenarios where forgiveness might feel helpful for members of the adoption constellation. Here are some examples where forgiveness is woven into the adoption journey and narrative:
- Adoptees often need to forgive their birth parent or adoptive parents for not being there for them when they were needed. In other circumstances, adoptees may need to forgive their birth parents for substance use, neglect or even rape or violence.
- Birth parents may need to forgive themselves for making an adoption plan, or for circumstances around the adoption.
- Adoptive parents may need to forgive birth parents for hurting their child (Melina, 1998). Adoptive parents need to forgive their children for hurting them when they lashed out in anger. Most of all, adoptive parents need to forgive themselves for feeling responsible for their children’s happiness. Heather Forbes talks about letting go of this expectation as a way parents can heal (Forbes, 2019 Adoption Journeys presentation).
How to Forgive
“There is nothing that can’t be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness.” (Tutu, 2014) At BPAR, we wanted to find a book that provided guidance around forgiveness, both self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others. Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu, were a part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid to help heal the country after oppression and conflict. Their book is called The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. In the book, Tutu details four steps to forgiveness with moving and relevant stories to highlight the process. He highlights meditations and healing practices around affirmations and journaling throughout the process.
Desmond Tutu’s Four Phases of Forgiveness:
1. Telling the Story
This phase allows you to recover your dignity after being harmed. Memories are often fragmented from trauma, and telling the story can allow you to start to make sense and meaning of your traumatic past. Tutu believes that ideally people can exchange stories with each other to promote understanding. To avoid defensiveness, he stresses the importance of affirming relationships before telling the story to a perpetrator or someone who did the harming. You can offer affirmation by saying what you appreciate about the person. Lastly, in this phase it is important to practice acceptance, and remind yourself the harm cannot be undone.
2. Naming the Hurt
This phase combined with telling the story encourages you to assign emotions to facts, and can help you move out of denial. It allows for the grieving process to start. Not naming the hurt for yourself has consequences including internalizing negative emotions and negative self-worth.
3. Granting Forgiveness
This phase focuses on shifting from feeling like a victim to a hero. Granting forgiveness can empower you to choose the path of forgiveness to allow yourself to let go of anger. You can remind yourself in this phase that forgiveness is not forgetting. Tutu talks about the sureness of suffering in life. He challenges, “How do we let our suffering strengthen us?” And how do we find meaning in our suffering?
4. Renewing or Releasing the Relationship
Tutu’s final phase is to decide on the path the relationship will take in the future by asking yourself: “Is this relationship worth re-starting?” If you decide the answer is yes, and you decide to move forward, then you can expect that the relationship will be different and new. The other choice is to release the relationship, which includes forgiving and letting it go.
More Thoughts About Forgiveness
Other noteworthy works on forgiveness include Iyanla Vanzant’s book titled Forgiveness: 21 Days to Forgive Everyone for Everything (2017). She incorporates meditations, forgiveness statements, and emotion-focused tapping (EFT) to aid in forgiveness. For more on EFT, please see my blog called “Stress Relief Techniques to Break the Stress Cycle.” Author and spiritualist Louise Hay talks about letting go of the past to move forward to a future we desire in the book Trust Life: Love Yourself Every Day with Wisdom (2018). “Being unwilling to forgive is a terrible thing to do to ourselves.”
So how do we give ourselves permission to “forgive all perceived wrongs and release them with love?” (Hay, 2018). Maybe some don’t feel ready for this. What we do know is that forgiveness is a powerful tool and a choice. Forgiveness used to be studied almost solely in religion. The importance of forgiveness is now recognized in science, psychology and philosophy to have a great impact on one’s overall health, well-being and spirituality (Tutu, 2014).
Written by KC Craig, LICSW
Boston Post Adoption Resources