Forgiveness is hard. Experiencing hurt because of another’s actions leads to feelings of deep anger, sadness, betrayal, and sometimes a strong desire for vengeance. This process is even tougher when the perpetrator is someone we care about. As difficult as it is, forgiveness is also be a powerful healing experience. It is one of the more common and important topics that comes up in my work with clients. I believe that forgiveness is crucial to our emotional and relational health. I also believe it is achievable in any situation. That may be a strong stance to take, but I will explain in the following posts.
This is the first of a three-part series on forgiveness. In this post, we will look at the definition. In Part Two, I will address the potential benefits of forgiveness. Finally, Part Three will identify ways to work towards forgiveness in a healthy and productive way. First, a definition:
Forgiveness is an active, personal experience in which we work through our adverse feelings, thoughts, and behaviors related to an offense or offender and release our desire for retaliation. As this happens undeserved, affirmative feelings are fostered such as empathy, hope, and optimism.
To better understand the definition, let’s make an important distinction and debunk a few myths. I believe a significant reason that many of us struggle with forgiveness is because we include the concept of reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation are different. Forgiveness is an individual decision and experience. Reconciliation involves resuming a relationship by rebuilding mutual trust and involvement.
We are not obligated to reconcile relationships that we choose to forgive. This is a crucial distinction to make. We do not have to reconcile relationships with those who are not remorseful or continue to cause us pain. In fact, it is important that we maintain physical and emotional boundaries that keep us safe. Although we do not have to reconcile when we forgive, it is hard to imagine that reconciliation can occur without forgiveness.
Next, let’s set the record straight about a few myths regarding forgiveness:
- Forgiveness does not require an apology. Although important for reconciliation, apologies are not a prerequisite to forgiveness. Requiring an apology actually puts the power of forgiveness in the hands of the offender. What if they do not feel remorse? What if we never see them again? Are you comfortable giving someone that kind of power?
- Forgiveness does not require forgetting. The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. We certainly do not have to dwell in past hurts, but we do not have to forget them either. They are a part of our history and experience. They are influential. Remembering them helps us build and maintain important boundaries with others.
- Forgiveness does not deny our feelings. Forgiveness does not cause our feelings to be completely erased. Memories of past hurts also include recall of emotions. Remembering our feelings of anger and hurt are important reminders of our own self-worth. It symbolizes our belief that we are not deserving of hurtful actions. Although we remember those emotions, forgiveness allows us to not become consumed by them or cause us to project anger onto future relationships.
- Forgiveness does not mean you condone the hurtful actions. By forgiving, we are not suggesting we are OK with what happened. Instead, we are choosing to relieve ourselves of the burdens that come with carrying around negative feelings like hatred, bitterness, anger, guilt, resentment, and thoughts of revenge. We can both forgive and still believe the action was wrong.
- Forgiveness does not mean you have to cease seeking appropriate justice. I mentioned that forgiveness does lead us to let go of the desire for personal retribution. However, that does not mean that we cannot seek to hold others accountable to natural consequences. For example, if you are the victim of assault, you can work to ensure legal consequences are enforced. This is likely to be an important step in personal healing. With forgiveness, we seek natural consequences and even feel some degree of empathy or compassion towards the offender.
- Forgiveness does not make you more vulnerable to getting hurt again.Forgiveness itself does not give power to others. We are no more or less likely to experience the same hurts when we forgive. Forgiveness is strictly a decision to do something with our negative emotions and thoughts. On the other hand, we are vulnerable in reconciliation because we choose to move forward in a relationship. With reconciliation, we decide that its benefits outweigh the risks of being vulnerable. In fact, our experience of the offender treating our vulnerability with kindness, compassion, and care goes a long way to reestablishing trust.
It is important to remember that forgiveness is a process we control. It is about our own desire to heal and not what the perpetrator deserves or has earned. Notice the definition includes two important parts – decreasing adverse responses and increasing more affirmative thoughts and feelings. Research suggests that both elements are crucial.
First, we absorb the negative emotions and thoughts such as anger, bitterness, and ruminations about vengeance. Second, more positive feelings emerge about the offense or the offender, such as empathy or even compassion. We are also often times able to see “silver linings” in an otherwise hurtful experience. For example, having gone through this experience, is there a way I can help others? These thoughts lead to feelings of hope and empowerment.
Forgiveness is hard. However, not only is it achievable it is important. In fact, research identifies a number of significant emotional, physical, and relational benefits. We will explore those in Part II.