BY HAILEY EISEN
The ribbons of resentment can be soft as silk. If we nurse and hold grudges (and who doesn’t have at least a few?), eventually we can’t recognize their smooth constraints. But their effects, namely pain and struggle, slowly become part of our personality, drive and motivation. Finding forgiveness for the things that were done to us and for things we did to ourselves is the way to clear the path. You aren’t letting anyone off the hook when you declare that all is forgiven. You are giving yourself the gift of freedom and the chance to move on in peace. Here’s how it’s done…
NO MATTER HOW well she did in life, the resentment Elfreda Pretorius felt toward her mother always seemed to hold her
back. Despite the growing success of her first book, the 51-year-old Oakville, Ont., writer was still filled with negative feelings, blaming her mother for not providing a nurturing childhood. It started in South Africa, when, as a girl, Pretorius began to question her rigid Christian upbringing. “My father was open to helping me explore my belief in God, but my mother became withdrawn and cold,” she says. “My dad died when I was just 21 and left the rift between my mom and me to grow wider.” After moving to Canada with her husband and children when she was 38, Pretorius spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to forgive her mother.
She pored over dozens of self-help books, eventually penning her own, Stop Struggling and Start Living—The Rules of the Game, which dealt with the everyday struggles people face in order to achieve balance in their lives. But despite all the self-help knowledge she had gained, whenever she thought about her mother, the old feelings came flooding back.
Then, this past spring, after 13 years of trying to achieve forgiveness, something finally shifted. Pretorius flew to Cape Town for her mother’s 80th birthday. Over dinner the evening before the celebration, Pretorius decided the time had come to make things right. “All these years I just wanted my mom to understand me,” she says. “And I finally realized that if I didn’t make an effort to explain myself this might never happen.” She put all of her feelings on the table, launching a heavy three-hour conversation about God, religion and faith—the first time the two had really talked about the issues that had so deeply affected their relationship. Pretorius was able to open herself up completely and, in turn, was at last able to see her mother for who she was: “Just my mom. A human being with her own failings and fears.” On the heels of this new-found understanding of her mother came the forgiveness Pretorius had been trying to find for so long. “In the process, I was able to forgive myself for all the negative feelings and guilt I was holding on to,” she says. “I am a happier and freer person now, and a more tolerant and understanding mother to my own sons.”
Although it’s an age-old practice, Pretorius’s desire to forgive her mother is indicative of an increasing realization of and respect for the transformative power forgiveness can have on our lives. Even the scientific, psychological and wellness communities have begun to take interest in forgiveness, funding research that can help us understand the scope of its impact, both in positive and negative terms. Studies now show that addiction, eating disorders, heart disease and illness can result from the inability to forgive. The evidence continues to show that forgiveness primarily benefits the forgiver. In other words, explains Toronto-based life coach Ellen Goldhar, “forgiveness is an act of selfishness. As long as you hold on to resentment, you are holding yourself back. But the instant you forgive, your world will begin to change.”
Here’s how it works: the resentment and anger you feel for another person or toward yourself is carried with you every day of your life. Imagine working out at the gym with a personal trainer. The trainer asks you to pull a 75-lb. weight behind you. At first it’s no problem, you move with relative ease. But, after a few minutes, the weight seems much heavierand soon you are out of breath. “In life, it’s the same thing,” says Goldhar. “You start out walking lightly, free to move in any direction, but with each grudge you hold, your body feels heavier and you become tired, unmotivated and fearful.”
While most people agree that the feelings associated with holding grudges aren’t good, many have trouble letting go of them —especially if they think that in order to forgive they’ll have to interact with the person who wronged them. Not necessarily, says Dr. Michael Wohl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa.“I’m of the camp that believes you can forgive someone without wanting to have anything to do with them,” he says. “There are times when I’ve let go of all negative feelings toward a person but still didn’t choose to welcome them back into my life.” So, if your goal is to free yourself of negativity
and maintain no ties with the person you’re forgiving, then, Wohl says, the process can be 100 percent personal.
However, if you want to maintain a relationship with the person, you need to choose a different forgiveness route. Studies show that while forgiveness can be achieved without the other person ever knowing, the bond between you and that individual will often deteriorate as a result. In order to preserve the relationship, it’s best (as in Pretorius’s case) to get the issues out on the table and, in doing so, truly let go of those negative feelings. “According to my research,” says Wohl, “this type of forgiveness results in an improved relationship and shows indicators of improved health and well-being.”
THE GIFT OF FORGIVENESS
“I remember hating my father when I was growing up,” says Joshua Zuchter, a London, Ont.-born empowerment specialist. “My dad was the disciplinarian in the house and I remember him being very strict with us.” Zuchter also has memories of his father and mother fighting when he was a child. At the age of six or seven, he remembers writing in his diary that he wanted his parents to get a divorce. He’d been living with pent-up anger and resentmentfor years when a movie suddenly opened the floodgate. In My Life, Michael Keaton stars as a man diagnosed with a terminal disease. His wife is pregnant with their child, whom Keaton will never meet, so Keaton records a video about his life and views as a legacy. “All I can remember is sitting in the theatre trying not to cry,” Zuchter says. “I realized that if I were to die the next day, I wouldn’t want to leave our relationship the way it was.” Zuchter went to his father the next morning to offer his forgiveness.
Although not many words were exchanged, Zuchter recalls seeing tears in his father’s eyes and recognizing that this was a significant opening for him as well.“I realized my father really did love me and had done the best he was capable of all those years,” he says. “By forgiving him, I accepted all of his shortcomings and released all of the tension between us.”
Today their relationship is transformed as they both make an effort to understand each other. “Forgiveness always starts with forgiving yourself,” says Zuchter, who now teaches workshops for parents looking tolearn how to support their children with unconditional love. “Once I forgave myself for the anger I felt toward my father, I was able to forgive him for the way he treated me. The experience wiped our slate clean and allowed us a fresh start—it left me feeling more confident and full of joy.”
Whether it’s brought on at a crowded movie theatre or a quiet dinner table in Cape Town, that fresh start begins with a shift in perspective. As Pretorius and Zuchter experienced, changing your thoughts can have a tremendous impact when it comes to letting go of negative feelings. Without that extra 75-lb. weight on their backs, both were revitalized. “When I couldn’t forgive my
mother I was a prisoner to our negative relationship,” says Pretorius. “But, when I forgave her unconditionally, all of that heavy
weight, judgment, hurt and anger fell away and I was free.”
Learning how to forgive is not an easy task and, often, the longer you’ve held on to negative feelings, the harder it is to let go of them. However, Toronto-based life coach Ellen Goldhar has a few practical techniques to jump-start the forgiveness process.
“For those who feel they need closure, a letter works wonders,” she says. “Write to the person you are forgiving and be completely
open and honest—if you aren’t interested in sending it, simply burn it.”
Role-playing also helps people let go of their resentment. “Use a friend or even a pillow and speak out loud the things you are feeling.” Offering forgiveness verbally, Goldhar says, can solidify your intentions and may help prepare you for an actual conversation. Forgiveness does require some courage, she notes, and while there is no single quick fix, these techniques
have helped many of her clients. But in order for these techniques to really be effective, it’s necessary to get into the right frame of mind.
“One of the most important steps in forgiving is releasing all judgment,” she says. “You can’t change what has happened to you, but you can change how you feel about what has happened.”
Ellen Goldhar is now Ellen White and she can be found online at http://ellenwhite.co
First published in Sears New Outlook Magazine