I was recently at a school with a coworker of mine doing a program on vulnerability. During the class we asked the students to all stand on one side of the room and move to the other side if they had ever experienced being bullied or ever been the bully. Immediately, more than half of the students crossed over to the other side of the room. We then started a discussion on bullying—going back and forth—asking questions and processing as they shared their individual stories.
Paul who is only 11 or 12, raised his hand. “I need to get something off my chest. See that boy over there? Jake? I bullied him throughout 4th and 5th grade and I feel awful about it.” He pointed at Jake, and in that moment, Jake made eye contact with Paul and said, “Me? I didn’t realize you felt that way. I knew that I got bullied in 4th and 5th grade but I never just blamed you. I had no idea you felt badly about it.” Apparently, even though Jake hadn’t blamed Paul for bullying him, Paul had felt guilty about it for a couple years and was suffering over it. My coworker then asked Paul and Jake if they wanted to make amends. Instantly, both boys got up and walked towards each other. Paul said he was really sorry for hurting Jake, Jake forgave him, and they both grabbed each other for a big hug. The other students burst out in applause. We were all impressed that Paul had the courage to come forward and say how he felt. It took real guts to do that, especially in a middle school classroom among his peers. Afterwards, Paul told the class that he felt like weights were lifted off his shoulders and that he could finally forgive himself.
Forgiveness is a very powerful tool. Whether you are forgiving someone who has harmed you in some way or you are the person asking for forgiveness, there can be a deep satisfaction in being able to let go. There’s a lot of guilt and shame that can happen when we believe we hurt others. Shame needs three things to flourish—secrecy, silence, and judgment. When we keep feelings inside, do not share them with others, and judge ourselves for our experience, we can wind up hurting ourselves, our friends, and our loved ones. We even end up wasting tons of energy beating ourselves up over something that happened in the past.
Tips on forgiveness:
- Reach out to the person you hurt in some way. This doesn’t have to be face to face, although those interactions are usually the best. You can send a letter, an e-mail, or make a phone call. You could say, for example, “In whatever ways I have hurt you, I sincerely ask you to please forgive me.” Then, try to forgive yourself the same way. Even if you don’t think you will ever get the actual forgiveness from the other person who you hurt, there is no reason why you can’t forgive yourself. Try saying, “In whatever ways I have hurt you, I sincerely ask you to please forgive me.”
- It doesn’t matter how much time has passed. You can always reconnect with whoever you’ve wronged and ask for forgiveness. There is always the risk of rejection but the potential relief might very well be worth the risk.
- Everyone wants to know that they matter and feel heard. Mental health practitioners have a saying, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” By having the courage to share what is hardest for us, we find a deeper and truer connection to friends and family. After all, we are only human and make tons of mistakes. By being honest with someone else, especially during a tough conversation, they can gain greater empathy with you and develop trust and respect once again. Just like Paul said, maybe you’ll feel like weights were lifted off your shoulders, too.