Forgiveness is a weighty concept that can carry so many different connotations. If we were scientists in a lab trying to define this complex and nebulous idea, we would never truly reach the end of our study. That vagueness is why it can be so tough to consider the actual act of forgiving. People have subjective reactions to the idea of forgiveness, sometimes resistant, sometimes neutral, sometimes embracing. Many people have experienced feeling pressured to “forgive and forget” after being wronged. This application of forgiveness can be invalidating and even damaging when we are not in a place to do so.
On the other hand, we hear stories of Mother Theresa-type figures who have been horrifically violated, who are later miraculously able to release anger and offer forgiveness to their abusers. So, what is forgiveness, how might we benefit from it, and if we decide to forgive, what steps do we take to get there?
But first, what is forgiveness not?
It is important to establish that forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting. Nor does forgiveness let the other person off the hook, or absolve them of their responsibility in hurting you. Forgiveness does not mean it is okay for the other person to repeat their harmful behavior. Forgiveness does not mean that your pain is not real, or that you are partly to blame for the hurt you experienced. It also does not mean that your pain is over.
When we are in a state of unforgiveness, we have an ever-expanding negative narrative about the other person in our minds. We often ruminate on the injury, and tell ourselves, “That person will never change.” This narrative can become like a fortress in which we hide, in order to distance ourselves from the other person so that we do not get hurt again. It becomes harder to trust, and harder to see the good in the other person when we are locked in that negative narrative. We find ourselves waiting for the other person to apologize and change their behaviors before we will consider lowering our defenses.
All of this internal dialogue is accompanied by feelings of anger, sadness, and anxiety. The churning emotional distress may cause us to avoid interactions with the other person, which only reinforces our negative narratives and expectations. Thus we get stuck in a negative feedback loop. Exiting this loop takes motivation, humility, and lots of courage.
Ok then, what is forgiveness?
Rather than a single event, forgiveness is often a process of gradually releasing a negative narrative about another person. This happens when we are willing to consider alternative perspectives regarding their character and/or behavior. It also happens when we are willing to engage with the other person in a fresh, curious, and present-moment oriented way. When we engage in this way, we are able to collect new evidence that might help to reshape our inner narrative about their character. Forgiveness involves honoring our own pain, maintaining appropriate interpersonal boundaries, and allowing ourselves to see the good in the person who hurt us.
3 steps to practice forgiveness
Step 1: The first step to forgiving is to be an empathic witness to your own pain. This means having an honest and loving conversation with yourself about how you were hurt and why it matters. Try speaking to yourself in the same gentle way you would speak to a child who needs comfort.
Step 2: The second step is to be open to engaging with the other person in a curious way, while maintaining appropriate boundaries. This means trying to see the other person through fresh eyes, with an openness to experiencing them in a new and different way. This does not necessarily mean that you re-engage in conversation or interaction with the person who hurt you. It could be as simple as trying to imagine their pain and motivations for why they did what they did, and to stop punishing them for those actions. A loving-kindess meditation can help to practice a new narrative, and to release anger and hurt.
Step 3: The third step is to do the opposite behavior of what you have been doing. This could look like a variety of behaviors, both internal and external. For example, if you have been making lists of their negative qualities, interrupt that behavior, and make note of their positive qualities, instead. Another example would be to discontinue your quiet withdrawal during interactions, and instead practice speaking with that person in the same way you would speak with someone you are fond of. Once again, maintain appropriate boundaries, as needed.
Need a bit more help?
To forgive when we are deeply hurt is truly an act of courage. It takes humility, patience, and great self-love. Sometimes we will receive gratitude from those we extend forgiveness to; and sometimes all our labor will go unseen, behind the curtain. It is up to us to decide what we want, and to do the work in order to support ourselves and our relationships.
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