Forgiveness is something that I talk to people about all the time in therapy and anytime I get together with other therapists, that topic also comes up in short order almost every single time at least at some point. It’s such a difficult topic for people and I often share that the whole process is a lot like “writing a letter to your grandmother …if you were doing so while looking into a mirror.” Let me explain how that could possibly make sense. First much like forgiveness is good to do for the sake of doing…so is writing a handwritten letter to your grandmother. But why does doing something that is so inherently wholesome and good have to be handwritten, and difficult (backwards)? Well because that’s what your grandmother would most appreciate, your handwriting and a stamp, and a physical note to hold in her hands and keep likely to hold it and you close to her heart. The difficult work of forgiveness is just the fullness of the process….it’s what works. Forgiveness is difficult because usually when we’re offended or hurt by someone the additional work of forgiveness is not a welcome addition to the burden of that hurt or offense. After all, it doesn’t seem fair that we should have to add the work of forgiveness to our lives when we did not choose to be offended or hurt by someone else. The resentment that prompts the need to go through the process of forgiveness is not something we collected with our own free will…it was thrust upon us against our will. We’re often lost in the thought process that forgiving someone is equivalent to “forgetting” what happened or somehow conveying to the offender that we’re ok with what happened or now that all is forgiven they have our permission to have hurt us. The process feels so unfair, and so overwhelming.
That unfairness brings the subject full circle though, because holding onto resentments in an effort to somehow punish the person in the only way available to us (withholding forgiveness or our affection or love) is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. Resentment is like sand at the beach. It will find it’s way into anything and everything you bring with you…your towel, your shoes, and even your sandwich, no matter how carefully you preserve and protect it. Resentment will leak into your work, your relationships with co-workers, your friendships, your love life, every single area will be tainted by it. Going through the work of forgiveness is difficult, its offensive, and it’s unfair….and it will also set you free. Forgiveness is the vehicle that transports you into the future free from your resentments.
Now whoever came up with the saying “forgive and forget” has created more trauma, and hardship for more people than can be counted. I can assure you that forgiveness has NOTHING to do with forgetting what happened, or allowing the same thing to happen to you again in the future. I mean come on…once we know the truth about a certain jolly old elf, and a mythical winged creature assigned certain dental duties…we cannot unknow that truth. We can’t “forget”. Forgetting isn’t even possible. That is however; where boundaries come in! If you have a friend that comes to your house and steals your car…and you go through the whole forgiveness process and make the choice to forgive that person and allow them to once again be part of your life, and eventually come over to your home for the backyard BBQ….you don’t have to leave your car keys on the counter. Those are boundaries.
Once you’ve contemplated, and gotten ready and proceeded into the dark waters of forgiveness, then I usually get some more questions like: “How will I know when I am finished with this?” Here comes the good news! You know when you’re finished with forgiveness when you don’t hurt anymore…and you can look back on history with clarity that will allow you to remember the good things, and the good times, and not only the bad things and the trauma. Like when you broke your arm…you remember that pain, you don’t forget that you broke the arm…but you acknowledge that it doesn’t hurt anymore because the injury has had time and space to heal.
“Why do I have to tell the person who hurt me that I forgive them?” That is something that you absolutely do not have to do! That is a choice that you get to make, if and when you are ready to do so. You can absolutely have a complete work of forgiveness and never share that information with the person who hurt you.
“Why would I forgive them I don’t want them in my life anymore!” This is where boundaries come in! You can absolutely have a complete work of forgiveness and NOT allow this person to be a part of your current life or your future. You can also change your mind and move boundaries as you need to in your future. Your contact with this person could be “No for now.” and be more inclusive later and going forward should you choose that to be more appropriate.
Forgiveness isn’t about letting go its about having some sense control over your life and your future! It’s about peace.....for yourself.