In July 2021, I led a workshop on forgiveness. I shared some thoughts about this most sensitive and often misunderstood topic. It can feel so difficult to forgive, and to ask for forgiveness, and it’s important not to judge yourself harshly if you find it difficult and painful. Forgiveness can take considerable humility, kindness, vulnerability and courage.
There are different takes on forgiveness. For many years I couldn’t grasp why I would let someone off the hook for doing me wrong. I felt that forgiving them meant letting them get away with it, and that it meant they’d won because I’d written off their debt so to speak. If forgiveness meant letting go of anger and absolving the person who had wronged me, that felt like a tall order – especially if I believed they would repeat the same bad behaviour.
There’s one flaw that I can now see with that particular approach, with the benefit of hindsight. There’s a risk that it will keep you stuck in a cycle of anger and vengeful thoughts against that person. I once read that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting it to kill the other person (these words are often incorrectly attributed to the Buddha). Why would you destroy your own peace by harming yourself like that? Why would you let destructive feelings eat away at you? It doesn’t feel like a very effective strategy.
IS FORGIVING CONDONING? AND WHO GAINS FROM IT?
What if the main beneficiary of you forgiving someone was yourself? I learned to look at forgiveness in a totally new way when I read this perspective from the metaphysical teacher Louise L Hay. Her work helped me to understand that it doesn’t mean I’m condoning someone’s behaviour when I forgive them. With the act of forgiveness I’m simply setting myself free from holding on to the pain I’ve been caused. That part is primarily about me, not them. Now, were I condoning their bad behaviour I’d be giving them carte blanche to continue to hurt me. So what I propose is a twofold solution. I forgive what has happened and while setting myself free I also make a commitment to myself not to allow them to hurt or disrespect me all over again. This is where boundaries come in to play. It’s my job to let them know what I will and won’t accept moving forward, and how I’d like them to treat me. I’m setting that expectation and telling them clearly what I want from them going forward.
“I think the first step is to understand that forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim. It’s a gift you give yourself.” — T. D. Jakes
THE ACT OF FORGIVENESS
So how do you actually go about forgiving someone? My view is that if I decide to release myself from the pain someone has caused me, I don’t necessarily have to go to them and say ‘I forgive you for doing such and such a thing’, I just have to make that act in my heart to free MYSELF from the prison of pain I’ve got into as a result of what happened with that person. This would be particularly relevant if something had happened long ago, or if I no longer had contact with that person, or indeed if they had passed away. Now, what if someone asks me outright to forgive them, or they tell me I’ve offended them and that they’re unhappy with my behaviour? I remember a friend telling me I’d hurt him with something I’d said. I asked his forgiveness, and told him I hadn’t meant to hurt him with careless words. I felt mortified to have caused him pain. We made up and hugged. From the perspective of me as the person who had offended, it would have felt awful if he’d withheld his forgiveness and not accepted my apology. It would have created a kind of contract of unfinished business between us, and I was glad that he told me how he was feeling, and gave me the opportunity to make amends.
When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free. — Katherine Ponder
WHEN SOMEONE ABUSES YOUR BOUNDARY
What do you do when the person who has hurt you continue to hurt you and to abuse the boundaries you’ve set in order to protect yourself from harm from them? You don’t have to take abuse from anyone, even if they’re family and you’re ‘supposed’ to overlook their behaviour and allow them to mistreat you. You don’t have to engage in an abusive relationship which is hurting you. It’s a contract you can break for your own health and peace of mind. If you’re in this situation, you may benefit from some professional help if you’re finding it painful and difficult.