To Forgive or Not to Forgive
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As you think back about some of those times, do the memories bring anger, resentment, fear, or other strong feelings?
Some offenses may have been less hurtful. Maybe an insult that embarrassed you, a social “slight,” an “unfair” performance evaluation at work, etc.
Other hurts may have been huge. Childhood abuse, violent criminal acts against you, affairs or other betrayals of the heart, etc.
There is good news. You always have a choice!
One choice is to do nothing and stoically live with the pain.
If you have lived with hurts, you are well aware of how it limits your life. Someone mentions the offender’s name, or you experience a situation that is similar to the original offense, or you read about a related circumstance – and it all comes back. The anger, resentment, visions of revenge, etc. all surface. Your day takes an unhappy turn.
Research has linked gastrointestinal problems, compromised immune systems, cardiac difficulties, depression, anxiety, and other ailments to prolonged anger, bitterness and resentment.
Another choice is to commit to forgiving. But, it is not easy to forgive.
A number of myths get in the way. For example, some people think that if they forgive an offender, it means that the offense didn’t matter or wasn’t serious. These individuals feel that they will lose self-respect and discount the pain if they forgive. You can, however, affirm the gravity of an offense and even gain self-respect by forgiving from a mature moral position.
Others believe the saying that they must “forgive and forget.” But, there is no delete key for the offense. The point is to manage the memory, not create selective amnesia for the event.
There are those who think that forgiving means that they must surrender and not enforce consequences on the offender. Not so. Even if they have forgiven the person, justice is still important. Forgiveness is not an invitation to be mistreated again.
Sometimes people think that if they forgive an individual they must reconcile with that person. Reconciliation may follow forgiveness. But, there may be good reason to protect oneself and establish boundaries between the victim and the offender.
Still other victims of an offense withhold forgiveness until the offender expresses remorse. That kind of thinking just keeps the victim stuck in the past and bitterness. It makes no sense to give control of the victim’s happiness to the offender.
There are also occasions when a victim withholds forgiveness, even after apologies from the offender. It may give the victim a sense of power and control to embrace the hurt and use it to win others’ compassion and continue to punish the offender. This sort of behavior just keeps the victim and the offender in the unhappy past.
What can you do?
• Give yourself permission to recall the offense and acknowledge the anger, grief and other consequences that other you have experienced. Honor your feelings and yourself. Talk about it with a trustworthy, good listener.
• Realize that the situation is not good for you. You have no control over the offender. He or she may or may not care about your situation. If things are going to get better for you, it is 100% up to you.
• Recognize that forgiveness is for you, not necessarily for the offender. You care enough about yourself and your happiness to practice forgiveness and letting go for your own sake. The offender is responsible for his or her own accountability.
• Commit to forgiving. Say it aloud. Write it down. If it will help, share your commitment with someone you trust.
• Attempt to understand the offense in new ways. As much as possible, explore the humanity of the person who hurt you. Frequently, offenders have their own stories of victimization. The offense may have had little to do with you personally and mostly been the way the offender was acting out personal problems and needs. This doesn’t excuse the offense. It just provides a different perspective. Recall times when you have hurt others. Understand how easily that can happen.
• Explore the ways in which the offense may have, paradoxically, been valuable for you. How might it have been an important learning experience? Maybe it contributed to your sense of purpose and meaning in life. Perhaps it became a positive turning point in your life.
• If you are a person of faith, call on your spiritual values that support forgiving and moving on with your life.
• As they may be helpful, use meditation, visualization, and other stress management techniques to help you.
• As appropriate, take steps to protect yourself from the offender. Redefine your relationship if that is necessary.
• Use the same energy that you expended to hold onto the offense and hurt feelings in the past to create new possibilities for yourself.
Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute says, “People are finally waking up to the great importance that forgiving plays in the human condition. It’s one of the more vital aspects to the good life. … Forgiveness can give you back your life.”
© Glen Rediehs, Ph.D.