One of the most challenging topics to talk about is the topic of forgiveness. As a therapist, how do I tell someone who is sitting across from me, sharing their intense pain, that at some point they will need to forgive the person who they feel has inflicted that pain. A person who they love or have loved in the past. Someone said to me recently that they make forgiving sound so easy in the books. Clearly, it is not easy to forgive. I want to share with you some of my thoughts on forgiveness. I hope you find it helpful.
I don’t believe that forgiveness applies when someone repeatedly does the same thing again and again to hurt you. Especially when you have repeatedly expressed that you are hurt based on the actions of another. For example, if someone we love continues to berate, humiliate, and blame you to the degree of tearing you down, you would not forgive him or her so that they can continue to do it again and again. You might persist to let them know that this is hurtful and unacceptable to you.
One of the most important aspects to understand about forgiveness is that it does not mean that we forget nor does it mean that we accept, approve or agree with how someone has hurt us. I have heard volumes of stories from people who describe how they’ve been hurt. I’ve cried with the people who I work with in therapy. I have felt their anguish and their sorrow and their anger and their pain. Why would I ever want someone to forgive others for painful and sometimes traumatic experiences? Well, because it is ultimately liberating to be free from hurt and pain.
I don’t believe that forgiveness is the first step. First, It is important to recognize that hurt and therefore injury comes in degrees. We can feel hurt ranging from a one to a ten. Identify the degree to which you have been hurt. I think that another step is to make an attempt, as best that we can, to understand why someone has hurt us. Was it unintentional? Believe it or not, most hurt (of course, not all) is unintentional. Was an unfair accusation made that was prompted by fear from the other person? Was it a total misunderstanding due to miscommunication? Did this person bump in to an emotional trigger? (read FB post on 2/18 about emotional triggers) That being said, it doesn’t always mean that it hurts any less.
Forgiveness in a relationship can be attained easier if the person who hurt you responds to you with empathy. If your partner asks for forgiveness and they are willing to do the work involved so that you can reach a place where you are willing to forgive them, then your task is to work toward that state of forgiveness so you can both move forward. A few months ago I wrote a brief blog post about how it isn’t so much that time heals all wounds, it is more about what we do with that time. And one thing that I empathize with in that post is the situation where someone is doing everything possible to gain your forgiveness and you are still struggling. Keep in mind that it feels awful “not” to be forgiven. For me, imagining what it would feel like to not be forgiven when I have hurt someone who I love, has enabled me to shift to forgiveness when someone has hurt me. Ultimately, forgiving was liberating for me, but I will say more about that soon. Pain does not have a timeline; we may not know how long it will take to forgive. However, if that is the goal for both people involved, you will eventually get there.
If you are no longer in a relationship that has been hurtful to you, forgiveness can be a long and hard process. I think it is important to realize that when someone continues to hurt you again and again, despite your attempts to ask them to stop and recognize how they hurt you, this says more about the person than it could ever say about you. Some people get stuck in believing that if they were “more loveable” then the person would stop hurting them. This is simply not true.
Most people struggle to forgive because they want the other person to claim ownership of how they have been hurtful. I think that if the person will not take ownership then you can, in your own mind, assign them ownership anyway. It is a slow process, it doesn’t just magically happen. Remember that it is burdensome to carry hurt, pain, and anger. If you are no longer in a relationship that caused you hurt, in most cases the person who has hurt you is unaffected by your hurt and anger. In essence, it is adding insult to injury to be hurt and then carry the hurt with you. But, give it time, be kind to yourself and think about how you will benefit from forgiving. If you don’t want to use the word forgiveness, find words that work better for you, such as “moving forward”. Eventually, you will be free from hurt and pain.
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