A friend betrays a confidence. A coworker undermines you with your boss. A neighbor borrows your car and returns it damaged without a word of apology. A trusted peer demeans your work to a mutual client. You had a fight with your overbearing sister-in-law and now your brother is giving you the silent treatment. Your husband has an affair.
To live is to accumulate experiences that bruise, irritate and throb, and occasionally leave permanent wounds. Over the years we warehouse an endless stockpile of resentments and develop an assortment of coping strategies: the silent treatment, denial, and forgetting, dissociating, and subtle (or not so subtle) forms of retribution. All of which enable us to avoid forgiveness, which is far more difficult work for most than the avoidance laden responses we choose to rely on.
How do you forgive someone when every fiber of your being resists? How do you look at them lovingly when you still have the memory of their unloving action? How do you let go of the way you wish things had worked out if only they had made a different choice? ~Author Unknown
Forgiveness as an Ideal
We admire and praise the virtues of forgiveness, the ability to forgive and forget and to freely let go of anger, resentment and the desire for revenge toward a person who has wronged or betrayed us in some way. And research has shown time and again that the act of forgiveness not only symbolically lifts a burden off our shoulders but can reward us physically with lower stress levels, a healthier heart, higher pain tolerance, lower blood pressure and even an extended life.
However, as with all lofty concepts, the actual act of forgiving is honored more in principle than in reality. The fact is that no matter how many “helpful tips” we’re presented, we already pretty much know what we need to do to embrace forgiveness; we just don’t want to do it.
To move beyond that barrier requires identifying your core attitude – the “why” behind the reason you struggle to forgive. Fortunately, this is not as difficult as you might imagine because chances are that if you take the time to think of a few examples in the past where you’ve faced the choice of whether or not to forgive you’ll find one of the following patterns will emerge.
Why it’s So Hard to Give Each Other a Break
Human behavior suggests that it is in our nature to retaliate when we have been hurt by another person. Our pride or self-esteem is injured. Our expectations end in disappointment, and dreams are shattered. We’ve lost a piece of ourselves and we feel we rightfully deserve compensation for the damages.
As if this weren’t enough, there are a few other compelling factors which block our motivation to forgive.
The Fundamental Attribution Error
Fundamental attribution means that in our effort to understand the behavior of others we tend to focus on their personality and disposition rather than external circumstances. On the other hand, when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we are more likely to do just the opposite.
An example would be if we get called into work at the last minute on our day off to cover for a coworker and in our emotional state, we forget about a hair appointment we had scheduled. We know that the situation we find ourselves in is not the result of our character, but our circumstances and so we regret the oversight but give ourselves a pass. But if our hairdresser no shows for an appointment we make a judgment on what led to the event based on assumptions about their personality and behavior … the inconsiderate jerk. Overcoming this tendency requires breaking the habit of making assumptions about others and whenever possible choosing to give people the benefit of the doubt.
The “It’s All About Me” Effect
Taking things personally is something that we all know we shouldn’t do, but that few of us are capable of suppressing. Logically we know that in the vast majority of missteps are not personal, and yet – whether good or bad – the tendency for most of us is to assume that things are all about us.
For instance, take a situation where you find out that a group of your friends went on a night out and didn’t invite you. It’s your choice whether to put it down to a misunderstanding or to nothing, or you can get upset and end up alienating your friends and reducing your chances of getting invited next time – or ever again. Of course, the former response is the healthier of the two, but it’s just so darn tempting to override good sense for the short-term satisfaction of making a point.
Our Old Nemesis: Fear
Our inherent survival instinct reminds us that if we forgive, we risk a repeat performance and the next time could be far worse. As if this weren’t bad enough this form of fear has a way of spilling over into other relationships. Anytime someone shows the slightest similarity, either in person or behavior, to the offending party your defenses go up even higher in an effort to prevent being hurt again.
We may not like to admit it but self-righteousness indignation can be very gratifying. Our refusal to forgive becomes a part of who we are. Initially, it’s our pass into the “victim” club and in time we assume the role of one who is standing firm and “true to his or her convictions” and take pride in our constancy of character, paying little heed to the impact of our performance on ourselves or others .
What it Takes to Forgive
Once you have a basic understanding of the motivation behind your resistance triggers you will be in a far better place to follow through on the steps to learn how to process forgiveness. But first, it’s worth taking a moment to become clear about what forgiveness is not because most of us hold at least a few misconceptions.
Forgiveness is Not Reconciliation: Although reconciliation may follow forgiveness, it is possible to forgive without reestablishing or continuing the relationship. The person you forgive may be deceased or no longer part of your life. You may also choose not to reconcile, perhaps because you believe a relationship with the other person is not healthy for you.
Forgiveness is Not Forgetting: Forgiveness is not about denying or suppressing feelings or your past. It’s when you can remember the wrong that was done without feeling resentment or a desire to pursue revenge.
Forgiveness is Neither Condoning or Excusing: Forgiveness does not minimize, justify, or excuse the wrong that was done. The harsh truth is that sometimes even good people do bad things, and we may find ourselves on the receiving end of that behavior. You can forgive someone and still take healthy steps to protect yourself, including choosing not to continue the relationship.
Anyone can hold a grudge, but it takes a person with character to forgive. When you forgive, you release yourself from a painful burden. Forgiveness doesn’t mean what happened was okay, and it doesn’t mean that person should still be welcome in your life. It just means you have made peace with the pain, and are ready to let it go. ~Doe Zantamata
The next time you find yourself in a situation where you must choose whether or not to forgive set aside some time to be alone with your thoughts. Then, keeping in mind your resistance triggers, take your time working through the following four steps.
Think About the Behavior That Angered or Hurt You
Accept that it happened, how it made you feel and how you reacted. In order to get to forgiveness, you need to first acknowledge the reality of what occurred and how you were affected.
Look for the Lesson
What did the incident teach you? Every experience changes us in some way and you have the power to choose how you will perceive that change. For example, maybe you learned something about yourself, your needs or boundaries that you can use to improve your overall life satisfaction in the future.
Try on the Other Person’s Shoes
As human beings, we are all flawed and sometimes we will disappoint each other. We can never truly know the full extent of another person’s burdens and while this is not an excuse to give others the green light to stomp on your feelings, it is a reminder that from time to time we all deserve the benefit of the doubt. When you were hurt, maybe the other person was dealing with a problem or hurt of their own and ignorant about the effect they were having on you.
Express Your Forgiveness
This is – as they say – where the rubber meets the road. If you are unable (or unwilling) to express forgiveness directly, then do it on your own. Write it down in your journal or say the words – “I forgive you” – out loud, adding as little or as much explanation as you feel is merited.
Forgiveness puts the final seal on what happened that hurt you. You will still remember what happened, but you will no longer be bound by it. By working through your feelings and learning what you need to do to strengthen your boundaries and having your needs met you will be far better able to take care of yourself in the future. Forgiving the other person is a wonderful way to honor yourself. It frees you from the burden of lugging around hurt and resentment and affirms to the universe that you deserve to be happy.
Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.
About Marquita Herald
Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.
She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.
To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click “here“.