The Difficulty and Beauty of Forgiveness by Rebecca Roberts, MA, LPC
Friends, partners, colleagues, relatives. As humans, we engage in countless interactions and relationships throughout our lives. Each of those interactions has the potential to involve a violation of the relationship. Whether it be betrayal in a friendship, infidelity from a partner, ethical violations by strangers, we will all encounter a situation at some point where we are harmed by another. When we experience such a violation by another, a multitude of emotions can blossom, from grief, confusion, sadness, to anger, resentment, and everything in between.
As a therapist, a question I am often asked is if, after a betrayal, true forgiveness is possible. And the answer is yes. It takes a lot of work, but it is possible. When we process our feelings following a great hurt, it can feel like we’re climbing a mountain. As we get to the top of that mountain, we may start to entertain the idea of forgiving those who have hurt us. But what does it mean to forgive others for the pain they’ve caused? Why is it so difficult to forgive? How can we start our journey towards forgiveness if we so choose?
Forgiveness can be a heavy word. The word paints the picture of someone who has taken the high road and has risen above the experience that has left a mark in their hearts. When analyzing what it means to forgive, Frederic Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, once defined forgiveness as the “peace and understanding that comes from lessening the blame of that which has hurt you… and seeing the cost of holding a grudge.”
Why is it so hard to forgive?
When someone wrongs us, it is normal human behavior for us to expect them to apologize, explain their actions, and right the wrong. We’re taught from a young age that this is the most socially acceptable way to interact with those we’ve hurt. But when we are betrayed or violated and those reconciliatory actions don’t occur, we can be left feeling like the social transaction is incomplete. Sometimes, this leads us to put pressure on the offender or relationship. Often, we may find ourselves stuck with feelings of resentment, confusion, anger, or a desire to get revenge.
Sometimes, we hold onto those feelings as a way to protect us. As long as we have a hard guard up, we can’t get hurt again, right? Actually, keeping our guard up and harboring resentment can increase our stress level and send us in a spiral of uncomfortable and unwanted emotions.
Regardless of the reason for holding onto those feelings, when we do, we lose control of the situation. We inadvertently give the offender the power over our emotions and over our ability to heal.
Why it’s good
Forgiveness can lead to a reduction in stress. Several studies have shown that when we hold onto anger, resentment, bitterness following a betrayal, our stress levels go up, our fight-or-flight responses are more sensitive, and a toll on our body is taken. Moving on a path toward forgiveness decreases symptoms of distress. Forgiveness also helps you reclaim the power of your healing journey. Forgiveness can help you feel less powerless and at the mercy of someone’s ability to recognize how they may have hurt you. Additionally, forgiveness can help you practice empathy. In some cases, opening up to the idea of forgiving others requires exploring different perspectives of the situation.
Knowing the benefits of forgiveness is essential, and when you’re ready to work toward forgiving someone, start with these steps:
Acknowledge your feelings. Dip your toes in them. Allow yourself to recognize that what happened impacted you. Articulate it: put it into words, music, art, any way you can to express your unique situation. Remember, forgiveness is not to be confused with forgetting.
Recognize that forgiveness is a choice. You are never obligated to forgive anyone, especially if you are still experiencing harm or violations by others. I can think of many situations I myself would find it difficult to forgive another person for. For situations in which the harm has passed, by choosing to forgive, you have decided that holding on to these feelings of anger, resentment, frustration to not propel you further, but only hold you down. By working to forgive, you are affirming that your peace and wellbeing are important.
Set a goal. Set your boundaries. Identify what you are hoping to get out of forgiving this person. Forgiveness also does not mean you have to return to a previous level of intimacy or connectedness with the person who wronged you. Be realistic about the future of your relationship with this person, whether you want one or not.
Forgive for you. If you choose to address the person who wronged you and offer your forgiveness, do so in a way that focuses on you, not them. People tend to respond better when they don’t have to stand on the defensive, so communicate with “I” messages, rather than listing what the other person did wrong. Keep in mind, if at any point you find yourself visualizing the scenario where you forgive them and you become more focused on their potential reaction, reconsider your true intention for confronting them. True forgiveness is about you, not them.
If you decide you don’t need to confront the other person and verbalize your forgiveness, that’s great too. There’s no obligation to tell the other person and sometimes it’s not even a possibility.
Make the commitment and forgive. If you choose to take this step, you are making a conscious decision to let it go. Let go of the resentment. Let go of the expectation that the other person will show remorse and repent. Give yourself and the other person permission to move forward without keeping the situation in your back pocket for future ammo or protection.
The process of forgiving someone can be painful, transformative, and beautiful throughout. If you’re at a point in your life where you’re considering forgiving someone, congratulations. Take a deep breath, get real with yourself, and take a big leap forward.
By not forgiving, what power am I relinquishing to others?
What would it look like to forgive them?
What do I want out of this relationship?
Am I ready to let it go? How do I know?
Luskin, F. (1999). “The Art and Science of Forgiveness,” Volume 16, n. 4. Stanford Medicine.
Shortsleeve, Cassie (2019). How to Forgive Someone Who Hurt You–Even When It Feels Impossible. https://www.prevention.com/life/a29995725/how-to-forgive-someone/