How do we forgive someone who has hurt us, or offended us in some way? Forgiveness means letting go and most of us struggle, at times, to forgive.
Even when the offender apologises, we may hang onto the hurt, replaying the scenario over and over in our mind, wondering “how could they do such a thing to me?” We may even profess a desire to move on but find it impossible to let go.
In truth, we hang on to the hurt for a very good reason: to protect ourselves. To forgive and let go is opening ourselves to the hurt all over again. Some people find it easier to forgive than others. Possibly some are predisposed to forgive, while others nurse their pain and find it difficult to let go. Even if you find it difficult, it is better for your emotional and physical health if you can find a way to forgive and let go.
Forgiveness is usually conditional, we expect the offender to treat us well in future. Our expectations can set us up for disappointment if they are not realised. If we cannot trust the offender to treat us well in future we must lower our expectations of them.
It is easy to forgive when we gloss over the offence or when we suppress our hurt. I call this cheap forgiveness. Although we believe it to be genuine we are deceiving ourselves. True forgiveness begins with the heart. Until we have accepted and experienced the full range of emotions stirring within us, we cannot look objectively at our own behaviour and our values, or at the behaviour of the offender. Only then can we find peace within ourselves, and make peace with our offender.
Forgiveness does not mean we will tolerate more bad treatment. Indeed, we can refuse to put up with offensive behaviour even if it means letting the relationship go. Forgiveness means we are judging the person, not on their past behaviour, but on the way they treat us now. We either expect them to treat us well because we have redeveloped trust in them, or we lower our expectations because they continue their offensive behaviour, and we let the relationship go.
One of my clients was poorly treated in childhood by her parents. She thought she had forgiven them, but in truth she had locked the hurt away. She was frequently hurt and disappointed when they continued to discount her opinions and feelings. In therapy she revisited her childhood and began to realise how alone and unsupported she felt as a child.
She grieved for herself as a child and became very angry with her parents. She decided to break off all contact with them. However, after a few months when she felt calmer, she wrote them a letter outlining how she would like to be treated if they wished to continue their relationship. After several weeks her mother made contact and they developed a new relationship. This relationship was limited in some ways as there were boundaries that needed to be respected. However my client was happy having grandparents for her children, and finally being treated respectfully and like an adult, by her parents.
She never set out to forgive them or nor did she tell them that she forgave them. The process itself led her to a state of forgiveness and it was evident in her behaviour.