Sometimes in therapy, the focus turns to forgiveness. This is because peace and resolution to current pain is often the outcome of meaningful forgiveness work.
But I understand it can be really hard to truly forgive those who have hurt us or those we love.
Perpetrators of pain.
When we have been wounded or have seen others whom we care about wounded it is natural to turn toward the perpetrator with a degree of anger, hate, and vengefulness.
This is natural. Our ancient brain reacts by getting ready to counterattack in order to defend ourselves and our families. We may spread word of the injustice in our community to ascertain lines of allegiance.
Or we may continue to hold our reaction deep inside.
So who is the ongoing perpetrator of pain after the actual perpetrator is no longer there? No judgment here, just gently posing the question.
React and retreat.
Sometimes we instantly react to an upsetting event. We take the opportunity in the moment to voice our hurt to counter attack.
Or we may plot to take revenge and find a way to get our own back.
Some psychological crimes against us are perpetrated subtly and over a period of time, so we don’t have the option for that immediate reaction.
Often, even after an initial reaction we silently retreat, and begin to build a tough outer shell to protect us.
When we do some or all of the above, we can still continue to carry the pain with us.
Eventually, it is so merged with our psyche, we may not recognise it as the same pain when it shows up in new situations.
Twin troubles: Pain and Shame
Often, the harms committed against us come with a big dollop of shame. So we say nothing, but inside we are changed forever.
We build walls of protection and heave that bundle of shame and pain into our hearts.
We continue to hold the hurt, sometimes for years, sometimes for a lifetime. It spills out into other areas of our life. It holds us back.
It’s like we carry the perpetrator with us. Even when they are no longer present, they keep on hurting us, all the time, keeping us stuck.
And we stop growing.
It is so unfair!
Then begins the onset of carrying that weight of hurt, hate, and injustice. We know we have been wronged and it can seem that the perpetrator is able to skip off into the sunset without a backward glance, whilst we are left crippled and bent over, still lugging around our heavy, shameful bundle.
Sad and exhausted.
Our sense of injustice against the person who has so thoughtlessly hurt us is sickening. Literally, our health is affected. It affects our physical wellbeing, our relationships, our motivation and our happiness.
The anger and injustice fill us up so much that there is little room for joy.
I understand why you think forgiving is like giving in.
After all of your suffering, your inability to extricate yourself from the effects of the crime committed against you, it can feel almost impossible to even entertain the merest whiff of forgiveness.
The very thought of forgiveness can feel like a weakness, like giving up, like our suffering was for nothing.
And haven’t we felt weak for long enough?
We can wrongly feel that to forgive is admitting that your hurt is somehow mistaken. That the damage can be brushed over.
But let me reassure you, forgiveness is far removed from weakness, giving up, excusing others, or dismissing our suffering.
Forgiveness does not deny the reality of your experiences.
That remains unchanged. When you embrace forgiveness work you are not excusing the perpetrator nor the crime against you.
When you forgive, you are not saying that you have had a re-think and now you don’t mind what they did after all.
No, not at all.
Forgiveness is not a promise.
Neither does forgiving someone carry an invitation to friendship or any other kind of relationship.
You might have an ongoing relationship with them (which will need to be navigated toward new terms) but not necessarily.
You can forgive someone who is no longer in your life. And you can forgive someone whom you have decided no longer has a place in your life.
Forgiveness is releasing.
Forgiveness is about saying, “I see who you are, I see what you did, it hurt me but does not belong to me, I forgive you and in doing so I release the pain and hurt, but I still see you and see what you did”.
It is not about saying “it doesn’t matter” because it did, and it does. Forgiveness lets you see it, acknowledge it, and then leave it at the feet of the perpetrator, so you no longer have to carry it around.
What of understanding and compassion for those who hurt us most.
I am not suggesting endless hypothesising over the brokenness or otherwise of our perpetrator, I do know that most humans are doing the best they can with the materials they perceive they have at any given point. We all have internal programmes that shape our behaviour. We all make mistakes.
If this understanding can be achieved it does inform our forgiveness work and is helpful.
This is not to excuse bad behaviour but it is true that if we can make sense of why someone might have done the things they did, we become able to access a well of acceptance and compassion within that is healing, freeing and a wonderful resource to have in all situations, not just forgiveness.
But we can all also choose not to understand, and yet still forgive.
Forgiveness works with mercy.
Awareness of the perpetrator’s motives behind their actions can be hugely helpful but it is not essential.
But it is not enough to simply say the words “I forgive you”. There has to be intent behind the words to effect psychological release. Where understanding or compassion can not yet be given, mercy can help.
Mercy is an old-fashioned word, but I like it.
Mercy is like an armoured version of kindness or compassion.
It is empowered. It is strong. To show mercy is to action kindness from a position of strength, which is why it is so helpful in forgiveness. There is no hint of giving up, of approving the wrong done, it is empowering.
Take back control.
When we are stuck in the pain of having been hurt and unfairly treated, we feel disempowered. We are suffering because of someone else.
We have no control over what is being done to us.
Mercy helps you rise up to reclaim your power and forgiveness allows you to release the burden of carrying that pain for a single moment more.
You have the power.
Showing mercy and forgiveness (ideally with compassion and understanding) puts you back in power.
You are the giver, you are the awarder, it’s your choice.
You are in charge; it is your forgiveness to give.
How does forgiving help?
Forgiveness is good for you. Feedback indicates forgiveness reduces depression, lessens stress and resentment, and interrupts cyclical negative thought patterns. This in turn, over time, encourages a more positive outlook that increases motivation, feelings of hope and empowerment which can also have a positive knock-on effect on physical health.
Why should I forgive them?
If you are still asking this at this point then I guess your instinct is to veer away from forgiveness.
But here are some reasons why you might consider it at some point:
With a smile and warm regards,
To read more of my musings