Part I: What Forgiveness is Not
Are you here because you have been struggling through the idea of forgiveness? If so, you’re not alone. It’s taken me a long time to try and write this post…not because I wasn’t actually able to do the forgiveness part. That was almost the easier part of things for me. It’s really because I constantly had the thought running through my mind “how can I write an article on forgiveness, like I’m an expert, when I feel like I’ve had to go through an internal battle to do the forgiving.” Then, I realized there may be other people like me who would do the forgiving if they could just get past the internal battle to get them there. This article, my friends, is for you!
There’s No Right or Wrong Way to Forgive
The process of forgiveness is not the same for every individual. You may receive advice from a lot of different people on the “right” way to forgive. There is no “right” or “wrong” way! It’s a journey that an individual has to navigate on his/her own in his/her own timing.
I had some individuals who were close to me tell me early on in my divorce that I had to forgive. One day, when I was venting about not being able to forgive yet, I had someone wisely tell me “You can’t begin to forgive when you don’t really know all that you need to forgive. You have to start first with understanding what it is you need to forgive.” That was an “aha” moment for me. Surprisingly, for whatever reason, forgiving my ex-husband wasn’t an issue for me, and I had some people who could not understand that. I had a lot of compassion for him throughout my entire divorce. What I discovered is that I really had to deal with forgiving other individuals, and that was a process.
The most important thing I realized in my journey is that there may not be a “right” or “wrong” time to forgive, but I had to start making the steps to forgive. Not forgiving was just keeping me stuck in a place I didn’t want to be any longer. To give myself my life back, I had to do what I thought was an unfair request of me…forgive those who had hurt me. What I found was that in forgiving others, I was the one who gained back my peace, emotional freedom, and joy.
What Forgiveness Doesn’t Mean:
Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting the other person off the hook or saying what happened is ok.
As children, when we hurt someone, we are taught to tell them “I’m sorry.” The other person is supposed to say “it’s ok,” and then life goes on. But, that’s not really the way it works as adults when there is deep hurt that can’t be fixed with a simple “I’m sorry.” When we choose to forgive, we are not excusing the behavior of the other person. We are not saying that what he or she did was right. It’s not justifying the behavior, sweeping it under the rug, or making excuses for it. We are acknowledging the behavior for what it was and recognizing the hurt it caused.
It took me a long time to get past the “it’s not fair that I have to forgive” dialogue in my mind. In all honesty, I didn’t want to forgive…for a long time. I didn’t think the other person deserved to be let off the hook, and I didn’t think I should be the one who had to do it. It wasn’t until I learned that forgiving the other person didn’t excuse them (or their behavior). It just meant I wasn’t going to constantly allow the hurt to run my emotions towards them. In reality, I was letting my emotions off the hook, and it felt good!
It’s not putting yourself in a position to be hurt over and over again.
You can forgive and also keep clear boundaries. Boundaries are healthy. We have doors and walls to our homes for a reason. They give a clear signal to individuals who don’t live there that it’s a boundary that isn’t crossed without permission. In the same way, forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to eliminate all boundaries and allow them the same access to hurt you again. In fact, you can forgive and not allow the person to have any access to your life, and that’s ok. You just can’t put up the boundaries with hatred in your heart and establish walls that come from dark places of emotion. You establish the boundaries by releasing the past hurt and peaceably acknowledging within yourself the need for defined areas in your life that you preserve for only those you trust to protect those areas.
Forgiveness is not a feeling.
Many people think they have to wait for a feeling to start to forgive. But, if you wait for the feeling, you may not actually ever get to the forgiving part. The fact is, it’s hard to feel ready to forgive. We’re just not typically wired to readily forgive. Rather, you have to intellectually make the choice to forgive. When you make the choice to forgive, your feelings will eventually follow.
It’s not “one and done.”
More than likely, you will have to forgive the same hurt again…maybe even over and over again. When that happens, it doesn’t mean you haven’t forgiven. It means a new emotion has risen to the surface or something has triggered old emotions that are causing you to need to release the hurt again, and that’s ok. Every time you feel the hurt come up and the resentment begin to settle in, you have to let it go and choose to forgive once again. (Don’t you just love that word choose? It can be one of the hardest parts of this process.)
Forgiveness is not necessarily for the other person.
Finally, I want to share with you the more important idea that helped me in finally making the step to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t really about the person who hurt you, and it isn’t for the person who hurt you. Sure…it can definitely have a healing effect for them as well. But, in the end, forgiveness is about you! In reality, although forgiveness seems very unselfish, it can actually be for a selfish reason that you begin the process. When you forgive, you give yourself permission to release the anger, bitterness, and resentment. From there, you allow yourself to welcome freedom and peace. That, my friend, is a gift to yourself!
Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation
While forgiveness can often bring about reconciliation, it doesn’t have to be part of the equation in order for forgiveness to truly happen. In fact, there may be some situations where physical reconciliation is not appropriate, and emotional reconciliation must come with some serious boundaries. (Read Part II and III of the forgiveness series for more information on this.) A lot of people hesitate to begin the process of forgiving because they think the other person has to accept the act of forgiveness. Or, they really don’t want to have the other person in their sphere of influence, and they think they have to reconcile in order to forgive. That simply is not the case.
- Can I really forgive if the other person isn’t willing to accept it?
- Yes! In all honesty, unless the situation is conducive to letting the other person know he/she has been forgiven, the process really is about you letting go. If it’s something that will bring wanted reconciliation, then letting the other person know may be a good option. But, there are some situations that will only worsen if the “I forgive you” conversation is initiated.
- Aren’t there some things that are just too bad to be forgiven?
- The simple answer is no. Again, I go back to the first point. Forgiveness isn’t about saying it was ok. It’s about letting the hurt go so you don’t relive it over and over again.
- How do I make the choice to forgive?
- Go to my follow-up article on steps to take to forgive. (Coming soon). It will give you some tips on what to do to get started. Remember, it’s not the same process for everyone, but it will give you some ideas on where to begin.
The Last Thing You Need to Know about Forgiveness
You know the reason I started the forgiveness series with describing what forgiveness isn’t? It’s because most of us don’t really want to do it. We have spent our lives being conditioned to “play nice” and forgive. When we are deeply hurt, our human nature is to defend ourselves, attack back, and get even. We are not wired to release and let go, and we’ve been taught that forgiveness is something much different than what it is.
Go to Part II of the series, “What Forgiveness Is.” (Coming soon) I hope the follow-up article will give some insight on what forgiveness really does as well as some tips to begin the healing through forgiveness. My friend, you’re worth the journey it’s going to take to let go and experience the freedom that can only come when you forgive.