Letting Go of Unforgiveness

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There is no better time for many than Easter weekend to ponder the idea of forgiveness and the profound role it plays in our lives. Much has been said about the virtues of forgiveness, so I don’t plan to exactly break new ground on that front. What may not be so obvious about forgiveness is the impact it has on our ability to lead and create extraordinary outcomes, personally and professionally.

When it comes to forgiving others, we all know why we should and yet we often hold on to unforgiveness. There are many potential reasons for this, but they all boil down to a misunderstanding of our relationship with the world and others, and of what forgiveness means. Commonly, we are so fixated on justifying our reasons for holding on to unforgiveness that we don’t even sufficiently consider the negative impacts on of doing so on ourselves. In the end, we end up like the person in the Buddhist proverb, holding a hot coal and hoping the other person gets burned. Holding a grudge against a spouse or significant other causes us to behave in a way that exacerbates the very dysfunction we complain about. In the workplace, unforgiveness often creates lose-lose relationships as we, for instance, hold someone else responsible for us not getting the promotion or the recognition we think we deserve, eroding our sense of personal empowerment.

Likewise in our personal lives, let’s say you blame your parents for something they did or didn’t do in your childhood for some negative outcome in your adult life? By forgiving them and accepting the way things are, you essentially free yourself up to become whoever you choose to be, because you are giving up relating to yourself as a victim of past circumstances and breaking the cycle of self-inflicted drama. On the other hand, if you don’t forgive your parents, then you continue to define yourself in relation to your childhood experiences of them, and thus enslave yourself to the negative events of the past forever. On top of that, because we would all usually rather be correct than happy, you are also likely to subconsciously sabotage your own success to vindicate yourself in the face of whatever wrongdoing you continue to hold against them. This seems like an extreme example of cutting off the nose to spite the face, but it is surprising how common this type of thinking is when it comes to unforgiveness; we all tend to fall prey to some combination of stereotype threat, self-fulfilling prophecy, and a vicious cycle of disempowering behavior. Now, to be clear, it isn’t “wrong” or “bad” to hold on to unforgiveness, but, as I intend to show, it is always extremely counterproductive for everyone involved, especially when it comes to leaders.

Before we move on, however, let me just clarify what I mean—and don’t mean—by forgiveness, because I know that it has a lot of baggage of its own to deal with. When I say forgiveness here, I don’t mean being happy with or condoning whatever negative action took place, or excusing it as if it never happened. If someone breaks established and agreed-upon organization policies, that person can be forgiven even as they are being put through the disciplinary process; there is no contradiction between the two. When I talk about forgiving someone, I also don’t mean that you have to like that person; forgiveness, like love, is not a feeling, but rather a particular way of relating to others that may or may not involve certain emotions. So, you can forgive someone even if you’d rather not sing “Kumbaya” with them. Forgiveness, the way I am using it here, means in its simplest form just letting go of the past. To be more specific, it means refusing to judge others or yourself in light of the past, and rather allowing each person the opportunity to show up completely different and new in the present moment. Unforgiveness, in the same vein, means relating to oneself or others almost entirely according to the past, at the expense of actively engaging with them in the present and of being open to the possibilities of the future.

To be and show up as a Transformative Leader, whether you are already in a leadership position or you are committed to increasing your influence and earning such a position, it is imperative that you focus on creating win-win outcomes. And the only way you will really ever be able to do that is by completing the past, by applying forgiveness to yourself and others. I have mentioned McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y before, and it especially relevant here with regard to the power of stereotype threat. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, stereotype threat is the name for the phenomenon whereby people act according to what they think other people believe about them, even if they know those beliefs are based on false stereotypes. Given that team members will unconsciously mirror the attitude and behavior of their leaders, it goes without saying that stereotype threat is greatly magnified when the expectations are coming from the leader. What this means practically is that if you subscribe to either Theory X or Theory Y, that is, if you believe employees are inherently lazy or inherently want to be productive, then you’re right, because you have made it so! If you think that a certain team or group is lazy and you act in a way that confirms that, then they will act in ways to confirm your expectation, even without them being conscious of it, and vice versa. So, simply for practical reasons, it is imperative that leaders not hold on to unforgiveness when it comes to their team members. As such, being a leader means relating to others not as one would expect them to behave based on the past, but rather according to the greatness they might achieve in the future. Another very important aspect of leadership is the powerful impact of forgiving yourself for past mistakes and shortcomings so you can move on to bigger and better things.

Being a leader means relating to others not as one would expect them to behave based on the past, but rather according to the greatness they might achieve in the future.

There is a direct relationship between a leader’s influence and effectiveness and their willingness to forgive themselves. The reason for this is that our ability to forgive ourselves is the exact same thing as our ability to generate ourselves, and to create from nothing. Because, remember, forgiveness means letting go of and completing the past, and that is the only way we can ever choose the present and thus create the future. Leaders don’t have the luxury of holding on to the past, because they are tasked with creating transformation—which is not a continuation of past progression, but something entirely new—as well as with generating themselves from nothing in accordance with the commitments they take on. A Transformative Leader’s responsibility is to contradict the default future, and to do that, they can’t be holding on to the past. That would be like trying to paint a masterpiece on a canvas that already has several paintings down on it. Choosing forgiveness is like tossing out the old canvas and starting with a fresh one; no matter how messy the old canvas was, or how long it had been there, you always have the opportunity to paint a new vision of the future you want to create.

I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become.
— C. G. Jung

Holding on to unforgiveness can be especially lethal for leaders. A Transformative Leader is called to “Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary,” so let’s see how each of these is affected by unforgiveness. If a leader, for instance, defines themselves by their past failures and refuses or is unable to let go of them, it is extremely unlikely that they will be willing to declare much of anything at all, and they certainly won’t be doing it boldly. Likewise, if someone relates to themselves are someone who doesn’t have integrity, then you can bet that they won’t be willing to trust themselves with a big game when it comes to courageously pursuing anything; they won’t be willing to take on the risk, but they will also miss out on the big reward that comes with it. Lastly, if a leader feels that they weren’t able to achieve all they aimed for in past projects and relates to the world with a scarcity mentality as a result, they will end up behaving in a way that is self-limiting when it comes to results and fulfillment for their team. In each of these cases, and in every case of unforgiveness, the damage is done not by the failures or shortcomings in the past, but by what we make them mean about us and how we allow them to change how we relate to ourselves and the world. And this is something that applies to all of us out there, not just leaders or those in the workplace.

The most powerful words a person can speak to liberate themselves from bondage to past mistakes and limiting thoughts related to them is “I forgive myself!” This is because, in reality, the only type of condemnation that we can ever experience is self-condemnation; even when we feel condemnation from someone else, we are really just agreeing to condemn ourselves on their behalf because we have decided they are right. While holding on to unforgiveness against others causes disease, against yourself, it is a double portion of a deadly poison. We are commanded to love our enemy. Your greatest enemy is sometimes the version of you that did something years ago that today’s version of you recognizes was wrong. We are also commanded to love others as we love ourselves, and that’s pretty hard to do if you don’t love yourself to begin with. Is there anything you have been holding against yourself for a while?

Most of us have had regrets about things we have said or done for years. Perhaps we wish we could have been a better friend, father, son, daughter, etc. Perhaps we blame ourselves for not being there when we should have. We dwell on these feelings and punish ourselves and everyone else around us. We lash out at anything and anybody who reminds us of that part of our past that we don’t like. We show up as insecure leaders or employees who can’t take feedback because we are overly sensitive. We don’t fully embrace the joy or being there for our loved ones right now, simply because we regret not having been there for them years ago. It is time to let go of all of that stuff and be fully present and create the future that we truly want, rather than settling for the future we feel we are stuck with. If you are struggling with forgiving yourself, please consider that if you had been sentenced to the maximum prison sentence for whatever it was that you did and continue to torment yourself for, you would have probably been out of prison by now. Set yourself free from bondage to your past mistakes. You have served your time and you have paid your dues. By forgiving ourselves, we tap into our inherent capability to seize the moment and live into the future of our choosing.

“I am …!” How would you finish this sentence? Whether you or realize it or not, you are repeating this sentence over and over again in your mind throughout your life and acting according to the label you give yourself. You decided long ago that you were a certain kind of character in the movie of your life, a certain type of person, and from then on, you decided to behave like that certain type of person is supposed to behave. In some cases, this serves you well; if you developed some confidence in your abilities and positive character traits, you find it in yourself to remain confident and in action when the challenges or your circumstances call for your skills and abilities. However, you have also constructed a ceiling, based upon nothing but the stories you have repeatedly told yourself, that limits you from trying new things and taking on greater challenges. You may be saying to yourself, “I am not a great communicator,” or, “I am terrible at math,” and essentially victimizing yourself with stereotype threat, so that those limiting thoughts become self-fulfilling prophecies and close doors that might otherwise have led to great accomplishments. Where and when did you get the idea of who and what you are or aren’t? They certainly didn’t come from you. When these thoughts of what type of person you are and how that type of person behaves come up, it may be useful to ask yourself, “Whose thoughts are those? Who did they come from?” It’s also helpful to identify the moment in your life, if you can remember, when you came up with a limiting definition about yourself and inspect it to see if it really holds up to scrutiny. It could be that you decided when you were 6 years old that you are not a fun person to be around, simply because the kids at your new school seemed to hang out together and nobody paid any attention to you. It is sometimes helpful to see that the opinion that the 6-year old version of you formed in a moment of emotional trauma is no longer valid. However, it isn’t always necessary to get to the bottom of when you first formed these limiting thoughts. Sometimes, it is just as simple as letting go of those thoughts and forgiving yourself for whatever inadequacies you might have had at some point in your life, and simply getting on with it.

Just because you’ve always behaved in a particular way doesn’t mean you’ve got no choice.
— Y. Joel Wong

If you have had the habit of labeling yourself a certain way because of the way you have acted in the past, how about breaking with that tradition and opting for affirmations that put you on a whole new path? Great options for finishing the sentence “I am …” are “enough” or “able” or “worthy.” In every circumstance when you don’t feel confident, remind yourself that you are enough. You may not have the means to accomplish your goal, but you can acquire them. You may not have sufficient knowledge or information, but you can learn. The most important thing is that you are enough and you can always become what it takes to accomplish extraordinary things. Since your automatic thoughts have been with you for a long time, it may take a bit of repetition to replace your old way of thinking with the new. Repeating your positive affirmations out loud may feel a bit awkward at first, but it helps to establish a new empowering language that will eventually replace your default self-deprecating thought patterns.

It is never too late to be what you might have been.
— George Eliot

The reason that it is so hard to forgive ourselves ultimately comes down to the fact that we don’t really know who we are. There has been a lot of confusion on that front. We go around thinking that we are a certain way, and so we only have a certain set of choices available to us, based on what have been told about the type of person we identify as being. But that’s an artificial limitation that doesn’t exist anywhere but in our minds. It isn’t that you are and then you choose; rather, you choose and then you become. In reality, you aren’t any particular way or type of person until you choose to act, and every choice is an opportunity to either continue the past or free the future from the bondage you have placed it in with your beliefs and actions. The truth is that the only thing preventing you from becoming who you want to be is who you think you already are.

You are now at a crossroads. This is your opportunity to make the most important decision you will ever make. Forget your past. [...] Don’t think about who you have been. Who are you now? Who have you decided to become?
— Tony Robbins

The Bottom Line:

Holding on to unforgiveness is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to us showing up as a transformative leader, as it keeps us anchored in the events of the past and hinders our progress in moving toward the future of our choosing. The causes and effects of unforgiveness all have to do with our scarcity mentality and our tendency to prefer to feel like a victim rather than rise above the challenges and declare, pursue, and achieve something extraordinary. We tend to not forgive others because we relate to ourselves as the victim who deserves some sort of restitution before we can grant our forgiveness. Meanwhile, we are the ones who end up shrinking to fit the size of our complaints and resentment.

Having said all of this, most of us who have not practiced forgiveness often enough for it to become second nature still have to work at it. The key, if you can’t find the strength to forgive, is to take some action that will make it easier to do so. Have the conversation you’ve been avoiding, apologize or accept someone else’s apology, right whatever wrongs you still hold against yourself, etc.

Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

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