You’ve been hurt by someone, and the pain consumes you so much that you don’t know what to do. You’ve given yourself some time, you’ve practised meditation, and you’ve talked it through with a therapist. The sting of betrayal is still there, and friends are starting to say, “Why don’t you just forgive? Live and let live. Let it go.”
Our cultural, religious, and psychological communities all gather around the altar of forgiveness to help us release bitterness and reclaim a full life. Documented benefits for people who use forgiveness as a life strategy include less depression, anger, stress, cardiovascular disease, and pain; more hope, compassion, self-confidence, and a boost in our immune response. With results like that, who wouldn’t want to forgive life wounds and put those assets on our balance sheet?
The truth is that the benefits you reap from forgiving someone for hurting you are nuanced and dependent on many circumstances. While forgiving may be the antidote to your turmoil, it could also stand in the way of your deeper healing. Here are some key issues to consider when you’re bombarded by well-meaning advisors who encourage you to forgive and forget.
How do you define forgiveness?
This is a huge question and one that psychological and religious experts don’t agree on. So before you jump into the “lake of letting go,” you might try defining forgiveness for yourself. For instance, does forgiveness require the perpetrator to acknowledge their actions, feel remorse, and take steps to make it better? This is an appropriate expectation, but it limits the possibility of forgiveness.
If the transgression was bad enough to get you to a therapist, the perp probably isn’t owning their own stuff. What would forgiveness mean for you in your own situation?
Who is forgiveness for?
Some experts say forgiveness isn’t for the perpetrator but for the victim who can move forward after forgiving past wrongs. There’s much wisdom in this line of thinking because getting beyond the hurt is your goal. Other experts question why the victim must do the heavy lifting – scrub the slate clean as well as carry the original pain.
It’s ideal when both parties engage in healing the relationship, but It’s hard to forgive when there’s no participation from the perpetrator. If forgiving your perpetrator is for your benefit, are there other ways to reap those benefits without giving the perpetrator a free pass? Is forgiveness for you, is it for the person who hurt you or both?
How big or impactful was the hurt?
Some experts believe the process of forgiveness is the same regardless of the size of the hurt. In other words, it doesn’t matter if a friend passed you over at her bridal party or if a parent abused you as a small child – both transgressions are equal in terms of learning how to let go. From this point of view, either situation requires the same self-love, the same putting it in perspective, and the same desire to move beyond the pain.
Others, however, note the qualitative difference in hurt may interfere with a process of forgiveness or extend the length of time it takes a person to move through it. Was your betrayal an everyday slight that’s taken an oversized portion of your mental space, or was it traumatic or rooted in real, potential, or perceived violence? Do you think it will take a reordering of your thinking and feeling to get past it, or will it take a reordering of your entire life?
The process of forgiveness
Regardless of how you define forgiveness, who you believe it will benefit, or what impact the transgression has on your life, there’s always a “process” you must go through to get there. Just saying, “I forgive you” may not hack it if you haven’t done the inner work to heal your wound first. Some folks can do that exploration on their own or with a trusted friend, but many need the help of a therapist to guide them through the muddy morass of their wounded psyche.
Some questions you might ask yourself, or a therapist might ask you, are: What are your strengths that can help you through this process? What are the obstacles that seem to get in your way? Have you talked to this person about the transgression and, if so, are they open to understanding your hurt? Has this person been trustworthy with you in the past? Will this person respect the boundaries you set? Is it possible this person triggered a response in you that has more to do with your past than their act of perceived betrayal? If the answer to this last question is yes, then a deeper dive into your past may be warranted.
Don’t rush the process
The process of forgiving is really a process of healing, and healing takes time. As you explore the wounds underneath the wound, take care of yourself by setting healthy boundaries. Allow yourself to trust the people who deserve your trust and give yourself distance from anyone who doesn’t honour your boundaries. Don’t force yourself to forgive just because you think you should; premature forgiveness can get in the way of your healing process.
Depending on many circumstances, including your answers to the questions above, your journey may lead to a place of deep healing where forgiveness is possible but not your end goal. Your goal, in my estimation, is to lead a rich, full, happy life where the person who hurt you no longer controls your thinking and feelings. Are you willing to work on healing your inner landscape, knowing it may or may not lead to forgiving your perpetrator?
Good reading resources
There are many good books written by researchers who study the process of forgiveness. Fred Luskin, the author of Forgive for Good, suggests a variety of tools, including putting pain in perspective, breathing exercises, and refocusing on positive emotions. Robert Enright, the author of Forgiveness Is a Choice, focuses on uncovering anger, working toward compassion, accepting pain, and releasing yourself from emotional prison. Janis Abrahms Spring, the author of How Can I Forgive You? offers a four-tiered definition of forgiveness, including cheap forgiveness, refusing to forgive, acceptance, and genuine forgiveness.
In her book, Janis Abrahms Spring says that genuine forgiveness can happen only when the offender acknowledges their transgression, shows remorse and attempts to right the wrong with you collaboratively. If your offender is not willing or able to do this, then your best option is what she calls acceptance. Go through the healing process (note that I am now calling it a healing process rather than a forgiveness process), make peace with the past, let go of the pain, and move forward in life. Acceptance, according to Spring, isn’t the second-best alternative to forgiveness; it’s a co-equal partner that gives you a second chance at living a happy life without the pain of past wounds.
Ultimately, you have control over how you manage the hurt of betrayal. When you utilise your personal resources and the resources others have gathered, you can make peace with the past, own your own power, move forward with confidence, and create a fulfilling life with or without the person who hurt you. Whether you accept what is, or forgive and reconcile, you reap the full physical and emotional benefits that healing provides.
Lyn Barrett is the author of her memoir, Crazy: Reclaiming Life from the Shadow of Traumatic Memory, the story of her discovery of and recovery from dissociative identity disorder. You can connect with her on Facebook.