Forgiveness: How it Really Works

Similar to the term Mindfulness, I hear a lot of rhetoric about the benefit of Forgiveness and its practice. Many vocalize its power in helping people to overcome and let go of past hurts.  As one might assume, I am a big supporter of people learning to transcend past struggles and to not let adversity identify their quality of being.

That being said, I want to make a very strong clarification about the practice of Forgiveness: It IS about acceptance.  However, it is about accepting that something HAPPENED, not that what transpired is OK.  Huge and critical difference. I see many folks leaning towards telling themselves that they ‘should’ (here comes the shame talk) forgive and that they cannot find it in themselves to do so.  When explored further, it becomes apparent that they are trying to convince themselves that what happened was acceptable.  Of course that did not resonate as true and thus, it simply did not work. Forgiveness is not about reconciling negative things as positive.

Forgiveness is really an allowing for, and an acknowledgement of, something painful occurring.  It is not a condoning of that hurt though.  It is also not about tolerating, enabling, or permitting negative or hurtful behavior. Rather, it is recognizing that something transpired and that the event is not a reflection of one’s own value. Easier said than done, I know.  Forgiveness is by no means an easy journey. Here are a few insights for you to consider:

  • Forgiveness is acceptance that something (painful) happened. Obviously, it cannot be undone.  However, it is NOT about trying to convince oneself that it is acceptable in order to forgive.
  • Forgiveness can be complicated due to it getting entangled with feelings of shame and worthiness.
  • Sometimes self-forgiveness related to the circumstances which one sees as perpetuating or contributing to the painful event has to transpire before forgiveness towards another can manifest.
  • Situations involving Forgiveness may highlight areas of attention and growth in self.  This can be a bit prickly to consider. This is not about blaming self for all that happened but recognizing patterns to prevent unnecessary hurts in the future.
  • Forgiveness may challenge us to recognize our inherent WORTH and recognize the value of our needs. Truthfully, people often permit and tolerate too much from others, internalize it as reflections of their value, and keep investing in that relationship with hopes the other person will reciprocate.
  • “Letting Go” may include processing out one’s emotions and/or a distancing from the agent of hurt.  One might recognize a relationship to be destructive and the need to put emotional distance. Even if this is seen as a positive choice, there can be a sense of loss involved.
  • “Forgive and Forget” is unlikely to happen.  One is not required to delete painful experiences from his/her history. These dynamics do not have to define a person’s being but they are part of our growing process.

In the process of forgiving, it is important that we do not resist the involved hurt. Rather, I encourage a validation and processing out of this pain. This can take time and patience.  We tend to try and reframe negative emotions, dismiss or explain them away, rather than just sit in the actual emotionality of a situation. Furthermore, when appropriate, we may actually cultivate compassion and an understanding of what motivated a person in their decision making. This does not mean their actions were appropriate, fair, or even healthy. However, we might develop insight into what launched the other person into his/her own actions. All of this processing may help externalize emotional junk not belonging to oneself.

Learning to de-personalize the behaviors of others can be helpful in feeling more at peace and less defensive in life.  If we develop an understanding that many people stumble through life, sometimes just trying to survive a moment, we may be better able to let go of small infractions.  Hard to reconcile at times, but other people’s reactions towards us are NOT always actually about us.  The irritable person at the grocery store may be worrying about a sick child v. really caring how many items you have in your cart.  This is extremely helpful to consider in close and significant relationships as it generates an allowing for mistakes. People can love and care about you,  do insensitive things, all the while without foresight that it may actually cause hurt. Hard to believe, but very true.

This ability to observe and respond, versus just react, is invaluable when dealing with unexpected, negative responses from others. If we can see people’s behaviors as a reflection of where they exist emotionally or in life development, we may have greater success in circumventing unnecessary stress or conflict.  It does not indicate that one person is more advanced or superior, it is just recognizing that we are all in life training and are challenged daily to grow. Some days our performance is better than others.

Forgiveness is truly about recognizing and accepting that a range of hurts have occurred and truthfully, will continue to do so.  It is not about tolerating unacceptable behavior or dismissing our own emotional responses to them. As painful as it might be, these hurts often create opportunities to grow, identify blind spots, and validate the value of our needs.

I want to convey a simple truth: People make mistakes all the time. Some are quite unintentional and without malice.  Unfortunately, some may also be motivated by ego and self-serving reasons. Regardless, you have the right to feel your range of emotions.  You are also deserving of repair attempts from others. You just cannot control whether these are offered or not. Your emotions are not the issue, but they may challenge you to assess the quality of your relationships. If a another person continues to persist in decision making processes that cause you continued pain, you are encouraged to evaluate your needs and if the overtone of that relationship is positive or negative.  You may chose to accept the limitations of that relationship and the inherent consequences of doing so. Or, you may also decide to distance yourself emotionally for the present time, allowing the other person time and space to (hopefully) grow. This can be the true ‘letting go process”, which involves recognizing that a specific relationship and person is not a match for you in this moment.  Forgiveness never obligates a person to persist in a relationship or dynamic that causes him/her great pain, sadness, or despair.  Forgiveness can be manifested through surrendering control, emotional release and expression, and relational repair.


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