Exercising the Choice of Forgiveness
We’ve all heard the sayings, Forgive and forget and To err is human, to forgive, divine. But what if you feel like you can’t forgive, let alone forget, or you simply don’t know how?
A long time ago in a state far away I was an angsty twenty-something who was carting around a big ole U-Haul full of righteous anger and “woe-is-me” stories. There was no doubt in my mind that I had been dealt a shitty hand and I would share my grievances with anyone who asked (as well as plenty of people who didn’t). I was often rewarded with sympathy, empathy, and pity, which helped keep my stories alive and, well, it also kept me unwittingly stuck on repeat.
Cut to a few years later, the anger/resentment I was schlepping around was getting heavier. I had no idea how to put it down. The damage had been done long ago and the story of it had become part of my identity. If I put it all to rest and changed that story then who would I be?
You could say I was at a crossroads.
Luckily, I found a great therapist. She helped me grieve my past hurts, forgive the transgressors, and forgive myself for years of letting my past define me. It was painful — as grief usually is — but after the grief I was finally able to heal and reclaim my life.
I recognized that part of my holding on to anger and resentment for so long was because it was actually easier than dealing with the grief. Grief is terribly painful; humans notoriously try and avoid pain at all costs, even subconsciously.
In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown talks about how she had this same realization. She says it clicked for her when she heard her pastor explain to a divorcing couple that, “In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face the pain. You simply have to hurt.”
You might be angry at something that happened to you or something that should have happened for you, but obsessing and reliving how you were hurt is unproductive and can ultimately weigh you down even more.
When our anger feels righteous, holding on to it might make us feel superior in some way, like we earned the right to be truly pissed. But eventually righteousness will fade. And then it’s time to ask yourself if you want to be right or if you want to be free.
Please hear this: I’m not in any way downplaying being betrayed or wronged. It is difficult and can be a life long struggle. It’s not OK and most likely shouldn’t have happened. But it did. It’s comforting to know that you don’t have to stay stuck in the muck of your own mind forever. Forgiveness is always a choice. Forgiveness, in my experiences, equals freedom.
And now, here are some concrete ways to help you get to a place of forgiveness:
Sit with your feelings. Yep. We have to let ourselves actually feel the pain, anger, resentment and sadness that comes before forgiveness. And it can really suck. It’s uncomfortable to say the least. It’s tempting to power through it, numb it out or keep “story fondling” it - anything to get it over with or to suppress the emotions. The truth is that we have to go into the fire by letting ourselves feel the actual pain. You might need to give yourself a grieving period. Grieve what happened to you or grieve whatever it is that you deserved and were never given. As writer Anne Lamott says, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
Get those feelings out. Help move them along by journaling or writing a letter to the person or people who have wronged you, even if you never send it. This can help clarify your thoughts and feelings. You can also tell the person who hurt you directly, although I caution you to be comfortable with whatever their response might be. If you have an expectation that they should apologize and acknowledge their wrongdoing, you might be disappointed. You can also vent to your BFF or significant other. However, if you are tempted to post something vague on social media such as, I can’t believe they did that to me with no further explanation and then wait for the responses to pour in, please check your motives.
Find a good therapist, coach or support group. This can be life changing in the best possible way, especially for those transgressions that absolutely feel unforgivable. As I mentioned above, this was a game changer for me.
Flip the perspective. What if this happened for me and not to me? This is one of my favorite tools, and I find it invaluable in situations like this. What if your partner cheated on you but ultimately saved you from a life of misery? What if your troubled relationship with your parent was the thing that ultimately led you to deeper self-love? Or what if it happened for you and the reason just hasn’t been revealed yet? Sometimes we just have to trust that our hurts are part of the growth we need to become the people we are meant to be.
Let that shit go. Letting it go is a choice. You own that choice. Either hold on to the pain, or figure out how to live a future life without it. Just knowing that you have a choice can feel empowering to some.
Forgive them. You don’t have to forget if you don’t want to. You don’t have to ever agree with what went down. You’re not condoning or excusing someone’s actions. You are taking your life back. How others treat you is a reflection of THEIR belief system, their history and quite possibly their pain. It ultimately has nothing to do with you. When people are broken in some way it can impact their choices. If your father/mother was poorly parented then chances are they brought some of that to their own parenting game. At the end of the day, forgiveness is really not for them— it’s for you.
Forgive yourself. If you’ve spent lots of time stuck in pain, resentment or any other similar emotion, there’s no reason you need to keep beating yourself up over it. Don’t waste any more of your one precious life being angry at yourself.
Be here now. No matter how much you wish you could go back in time, you can’t undo the past. All you can do is to make today better. How do you want to feel going forward? What’s one small thing you can take from today to help you get a taste of that feeling?