Forgiveness is one of those topics that brings up two very strong and opposing instincts—the desire to rise to our highest self vs the need to protect ourselves from harm. How to manage both together is where we can all do with a little help.
Let’s begin with an understanding of what forgiveness is, by first talking about what it isn’t.
It’s NOT about forgetting or overlooking the ways in which you’ve been harmed when you’re at risk of being harmed again. You can forgive without forgetting, and spare yourself the emotional pain of hanging onto grudges.
It’s NOT about forcing yourself to be the better person or take the higher moral road when you’re not ready to do so. That’s called “spiritual by-passing”; it goes against human nature and can lead to resentment or self-deprecation.
It’s NOT about letting people off the hook for their misdeeds. People do do bad things, and need to be held accountable for their behaviors, else we create power imbalances in relationships where one person or group gets away with wrong behavior.
At its core, forgiveness is about unhooking yourself from vengeful emotions.
It’s about refusing to feed the hurt or anger with your inner self-talk because you don’t want to hurt yourself beyond the initial harm done to you.
AND it’s about refusing to engage in ill-will because wanting revenge, holding others in contempt, or seeking sympathy through gossip and backbiting takes the power away from you.
This is not always easy, I know. There’s a certain gratification in holding onto grudges, or in wishing for revenge, or hoping karma will strike anytime soon. There’s also a sense of self-righteousness and superiority that comes with criticizing others and finding fault. And when you’ve been mistreated by others (or think they’re been unfair), it can feel so good.
But here’s the truth of these behaviors: they’re like the common saying: “drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Whether your behaviors harm the other person or not, they definitely harm you and keep you from being who you want to be in the world.
So how do you practice forgiveness in a way that moves you from victimhood to reclaiming your power? According to psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, there are two key ways of doing so:
Total forgiveness: where there’s a full restoration of the relationship and you start again from a clean slate.
Disentangled forgiveness: where you decide to curtail the relationship, cut yourself off from it, or pursue justice but without ill-will toward the other person or persons.
What you decide to do will depend on a few factors:
How bad was the offense?
Say your partner doesn’t put the lid back on the toothpaste even though you’ve repeated it every day since you got together. Or maybe your neighbor insists on doing their cooking while you’re putting your baby to bed and the noise through the common wall excites your little one. Is it worth boiling your blood over it every day? When you put the offense in perspective—how bad is the injustice really?—it’s easier to let go.
How important is the relationship?
If a relationship is important to you, it helps to work toward a full restoration. Say you find out that your partner wasn’t completely transparent with you, or lied to you, or worse lied about something that involves you. Much as your first instinct would be to walk away and never forgive them, it may be wiser to talk through the situation, deal with the consequences, and assert yourself as best you can.
How sincere is the apology?
If I were to make an educated guess on what makes people hang onto their hurts or anger when they’ve been harmed, it’s because the other person is insincere in their apology. They refuse to take full responsibility for their part. It may not be conscious—but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people react in one of these ways when they make a mistake:
Offer excuses / seek sympathy.
Deflect blame—it wouldn’t have happened if you had…
Minimize their mistake—seriously, you’re blowing it out of proportion…
Or perhaps the worst of all, ignore it completely.
A sincere apology needs an expression of remorse, an acknowledgement of hurt caused, and a plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again. When these criteria are met, you’ll feel confident that you won’t be harmed again, and will be drawn to forgive because human beings want to create bonds. That’s just how we’re wired.
So think back to the hurt, anger or resentment you’re carrying, and ask yourself whether it’s wise to let go and move on. Most times, it is.