We’ve all been hurt by someone. Perhaps it happened today, or it might have been 50 years ago. And just maybe you’ve been consistently hurt and been walked on by people throughout your life. (If you are continuing to be harmed by your perpetrator you need to take steps to extract yourself from that situation, even if temporarily. This is another conversation, but I would encourage you to consider learning more about enhancing personal boundaries, self-esteem, and self-respect as potential starting points for your journey toward safety in your relationships.)
It may have been someone close to you. It may have been a complete stranger. It may have even been an impersonal event like a natural disaster. Whomever or whatever you identify as the perpetrator of your pain, you may have never been able to completely move on. Perhaps there are unpleasant feelings that linger on the fringes of your daily existence. It may be that those feelings are strong enough to direct your every movement in life and relationships. If this sounds like you, chances are there is someone you need to forgive.
At this point you may be asking yourself, “Why should I forgive him/her? They don’t deserve it. They were inconsiderate. They insulted me. They embarrassed me. They took everything from me.” These may all be true. The problem is that as much as that person is all those things, or at minimum had a weak moment in which they hurt you, the event is in the past. By continuing to live in pain in the present and refusing to forgive him/her you are allowing that person to continue controlling your feelings. If you can bring yourself to forgive them, you free up yourself to take back control of your emotions.
If this last bit sounds unfair, you may have an inaccurate view of what forgiveness really means. Forgiveness does NOT mean condoning, agreeing with, or being okay with an event in which someone harmed you. It does NOT mean forgetting the event, its significance, or its consequences. Some dictionaries define “forgive” as, “to stop feeling anger toward someone/thing that has done you wrong” or “to stop requiring payment of/for” something (as in the government forgiving/eliminating your student loan debt once you have worked a certain number of years in an underserved area).
What does this really mean for you? It means acknowledging the event, making peace with your personal reactions to the event, and telling yourself (and possibly the perpetrator) that you’re moving on. You stop thinking that someday the perpetrator will pay you some penance to make you feel okay. It may never happen. You thus refuse to let the perpetrator/event control your feelings from this point forward, you let go of the desire to have them pay for what they did, and you stop thinking so much about that person/event.
Forgiveness can be an internal experience. It can happen when you are alone, and the perpetrator need not know you have forgiven them. They do not need to be present, or even alive for you to experience the freedom of forgiveness. Forgiveness is about acknowledging, learning from, and moving beyond the unwanted event so that you can begin living in the present. Every moment spent dwelling in the past is a moment of today that cannot be regained.
So why do you continue to refuse to forgive? Because you are still angry? Because they don’t deserve it? You may be punishing yourself, thinking that if you suffer constantly the perpetrator will see your suffering and understand the magnitude of their wrongdoing. Maybe they will finally grasp the depth of your pain and feel remorse. Maybe they’ll even change their behavior. Perhaps you can teach them a lesson and prevent harm to someone else?
The unfortunate truth is that, in all likelihood, the person to whom you are desperately trying to demonstrate your pain may be unaware of or indifferent to that pain. This is why your decision to forgive cannot be about the person you are trying to forgive. Once you stop hoping that they fall into a manhole walking down the street and decide to forgive them, you can choose to wish good things for them, pray blessings on them, or simply live as though they no longer exist. The thing is, forgiveness may be end up benefiting the perpetrator, but forgiveness is really about the forgiver.
Waiting until you feel like forgiving is another way to prevent moving forward. Given the degree to which you were (are) upset by this person, chances are good that you may never actually want to forgive them. It needs to be a conscious decision. However, it does not need to happen all at once. To be successful, you may need to move forward in small increments. It is okay to forgive a bit at a time, as you are ready (for instance, you may initially decide that you can forgive someone 10% and bump that number up over time). Remember that this process is about you moving forward, and it can only happen at your pace.
Finally, forgiveness involves grace, which must be given, not earned. In this sense, you never forgive someone because they deserve it. You forgive them because you deserve it. Ultimately you need to square yourself with the idea that you deserve to move on. That it’s better for you to move on. That it is okay to leave the past in the past and live in the present. The people you love will be grateful to have you back, no longer shackled to the emotions of yesterday’s drama and trauma, fully engaged in the moments spent with them. It’s time to think differently about forgiveness. Not as a way for your abuser to escape responsibility, but as a way for you to escape resentment and live in emotional freedom.
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.
(Dr. Everett Worthington has written several works dedicated to helping people achieve forgiveness. He speaks out of his research and personal experience (his mother was murdered years ago and he has worked to cultivate forgiveness in his own life). His books are definitely worth a read if you are looking to move forward with this process.)