The (He)art of Forgiveness: Four Distinctions to Help You Understand and Apply Forgiveness
Why is forgiving so hard, and how can we find it more possible?
Many of us carry a heavy load of anger and un-forgiveness toward someone who's hurt us. We often go through cycles of forgiveness and loathing, during which we feel relieved by forgiveness only for a short time, and can get upset when someone tells us to just "forgive and let go" - we want to hold onto our un-forgiveness for longer.
I'm here to tell you - it's ok! And to offer a way of looking at forgiveness that might be helpful.
1. Exercising Your Right - Forgiving Vs. Condoning
Forgiving is often hard when we are under the misconception that if we forgive the person - we would somehow be permitting their behavior, and even have the feeling of re-introducing the hurtful behavior into our experience. We may feel so damaged by the person's actions, that we can see no way to forgive them.
You probably already know that your words can be very powerful. So let's make a distinction:
To forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.
To condone is to accept, allow, regard or treat something as acceptable.
So forgiveness doesn't make the behavior ok, or acceptable. It does not. In fact, forgiveness means nothing about the other person, it's an exercise of your right to have your feelings and have control over your feelings. Period.
When I forgive someone - I say nothing about THEM.
2. Compassion for What "We are Capable"
Our willingness to forgive another is often a reflection of our willingness to forgive ourselves, and to let go of shame and guilt. Can you forgive yourself for not forgiving the other person?
If we understand that each person is only capable of what they are capable (or believe that they are, through their filtering of reality), then we can more easily apply compassion toward their limitations, as we would apply compassion toward our own limitations.
Would it be ok if I expected of you something of which you aren't capable? Probably not. But if I do, and you won't live up to it - I might be angry with you. Right?
The other person may feel ashamed, regretful, guilty and out of means to express themselves, or they are simply limited by patterns of their personality of which they are't aware, or even by their mental state. But what if YOU have a greater capacity for compassion than they do? Then, what would be the outcome of contracting your capacity to match theirs?
When you agree to have compassion toward each and their limitations, you build up your capacity for happiness, because you don't match yours to theirs.
Also, when you forgive yourself for not forgiving, you lay the infrastructure of compassion for yourself, which would then translate as compassion toward others in your life who truly "deserve" your understanding.
3. The Wells Mataphore - The Role of Expectations
I want you to think of each person in the world as the owner of their personal well of deep underground water that goes with them wherever they go. Now imagine that on a deeper level, all the wells are connected. So if I throw a pebble into my well, when the pebble reaches the water, it would ripple. Can I measure how long it would take for the ripple in my water to ripple in your water? All I know is that the wells are connected, and I don't know how long it would take for the ripples to occur in my well, let alone take effect in another person's well.
If my pebble is my forgiveness, then there is no assurance that it would have an effect of that person by which I feel hurt in the next hour, or even in this lifetime.
The role of expectations, is that they interfere with forgiveness, because we may expect that our forgiveness would somehow have an immediate effect in changing the other person's behavior. Perhaps we hope that they would suddenly be able to apologize for their actions, or that we would immediately feel relieved.
Trust that the water wells are connected. This way you can more easily let go of expectations that the ripples will occur sooner than later. Remember, forgiveness is about making fresh ripples in the water of your own well, first and foremost, without expectations.
4. Safety - Feeling Safe Enough to Forgive
We hold onto things for as long as they make us feel safe. We may even believe we would betray ourselves by forgiving the other. However, by the force of habit, we might keep holding onto things that no longer contribute to our sense of safety, and even diminish it.
It's not surprising that often the re-emergence of un-forgiveness occurs when we feel less safe in the world on a general level, for instance: when we lose a job, or a romantic love, or during major life transitions. In times of perceived lack of safety - we hold on to our resentment for another because it makes us feel safe. But does it?
I like to look at things from the point of view of the final emotional outcome. Let's examine forgiveness from this perspective. If I forgive myself for not forgiving, forgive the other without condoning their behavior, have compassion for every person's limitations, and without expectation, then my emotional outcome is likely to be of some sort of relief, which in turn would make more space in my life for things that I can do or can receive that would contribute to my feelings of safety. However, if I don't - I have already been there long enough that I know how it ends. Do I end up feeling safer without forgiveness than with it? Can I stand by the part of me that is wronged and allow it to be fully intergraded, without over- identifying with the story which it is telling me?
In my practice, I often use these distinctions in combination with the Power of Pause, EFT (Emotional freedom Techniques), the Emotional Equation Technique, and NLP and embodiment practices to help reframe the negative emotions and memories, and reduce the charge of painful emotions, to restore feelings of safety and propel personal growth.