It is a human instinct to hold onto anger, grow resentful, and plot revenge when we have been wronged in some way. These feelings are normal responses to pain, betrayal, or injustice. It is easy to forgive when there is a true recognition by the offender, a heartfelt apology, and some form of retribution equal to the act, but this does not always happen, which can be an additional form of pain for the largest offenses done against us. We can easily get entangled in a swamp of dark feelings, only moving out when enough time has elapsed to eclipse the events, unless they are big enough that even this does not work. Holding on to this anger can keep us locked in the past and can even take a toll on our physical health.
Working on real forgiveness, not just superficial “lip service” forgiveness, can be long and treacherous work, especially when some part of us feels like the offender just doesn’t deserve it. It can seem like a paradox, like we are letting someone get away with their horrific acts, but that charge binds us to the pain (and to them) indefinitely, and gives them continued power in our lives. Forgiveness offers a path of healing and moving on.
Steps of Forgiveness
So what does it take? There are several models of forgiveness (the Stanford Forgiveness Project is a good alternative), but I believe the key elements of forgiveness of all kinds are:
1) Readiness: You have to be ready to forgive
2) Acceptance: Accepting of the weakness and fear, meanness and defensiveness, unconscious actions or inaction, inadvertent mistakes and oversight, or deliberate malice and destruction that the person (or people) has caused
3)Recognition: We need to recognize and acknowledge the person’s humanity and flaws, and understanding their situation and history that led to the events
4) Empathy: We can open our hearts to deep forgiveness when we empathize with the aggressor’s life history by connecting to our own humanity, flaws, and weaknesses, and remember the malice and mistakes we have made
5) Action: We can solidify this for ourselves by making an act of forgiveness that can either be between you and the other person (a gesture, discussion, letter, or symbolic gift), or on your own (some symbolic action to mark it)
Myths of Forgiveness
The myths of forgiveness are typically ways that our minds and culture tie certain things to forgiveness, rather than seeing it as an independent process.
1. Forgiving means that what happened was OK: this is the #1 obstacle to forgiving that I encounter with my clients. There is a perception that if we forgive someone, that it either let’s the person off the hook, or is somehow an indication that what happened did not cause harm. I see these as two separate things, the understanding that the act was not OK and that the person remains accountable, and the process of forgiveness can happen in parallel.
2. If I forgive, it might happen to me again: for people that have experienced something traumatic, one of the outcomes is often vigilant stance of self-protection to make sure we are not victims again. For some people with these experiences, the anger, pain, and anxiety related to the event, operate as fuel to help remain on guard. Through counseling, many people can develop new ways to protect themselves physically and emotionally, which allows for a forgiveness process to begin without the fear of being harmed again.
3. I need to “forgive and forget”: this is a common phrase I hear for people that want to begin working on forgiveness. However, if we forget what happened, we can also lose the learning that came from the experience. Therefore, I usually advocate more for “forgive and remember”.
4. If I forgive, it means I have to reconcile with the person: When we are harmed in a relationship and have taken steps to distance ourselves, forgiving the person does not mean we have to go back. If we ultimately want to return to the relationship, forgiveness can help it be successful, but if you are done with it, you can forgive and still decide that it is over.
5. If I don’t forgive, then I am a bad person: some people feel a pressure to forgive even the most terrible acts due to pressure from others and a belief that being unforgiving makes you a “bad person.” My view is that we are never required to forgive someone to remain a “good person”, but instead I see forgiveness as an option we have when we are looking for peace and healing.
6. After I forgive, I will never feel angry or hurt about it again: this final myth is one that can eventually be true after some time. One of the most inspiring stories of forgiveness came from members of the Amish community after a school shooting where many Amish children were killed. Members of the Amish community extended forgiveness to the aggressor and his family less than a day after the shooting (read more here). I was shocked at this ability, and could not understand how those emotions could change so quickly. Later, I saw a film about the events and the father of one of the victims clarified that he is often thrown back into anger and pain, but works for “forgiveness everyday”. I think this can serve as an amazing example of what a daily forgiveness process and practice would look like.