To Forgive or Not to Forgive. Is that Your Question?
Should you forgive? It’s a big question; an important question. Or maybe your question is more like: Can you forgive? What happens if you do forgive? What happens if you do not forgive? The questions are real, and they can be daunting.
You have been hurt. I’m guessing you have been hurt badly. What’s worse – that hurt very likely came by someone you trusted; probably someone close to you. And now you feel wounded, damaged, and vulnerable. On top of that, people are telling you that you need to forgive. Seriously, you got hurt and now you are supposed to be the “bigger” one and forgive? That’s your responsibility? Seriously? It can seem unfair, illogical, and sometimes impossible.
Why? Why should you forgive? What if they don’t deserve to be forgiven? What if you don’t know how to forgive such a big hurt?
Imagine with me, if you would, that the person who hurt you walked into your home carrying a trash can and left it in the middle of the room. It is full. Maybe they carry it in full or maybe they bring it in with some garbage and periodically, over time, add to the contents until it is full to overflowing. Now, this is nasty garbage, leaky poop-filled diapers, rotten decaying fruit, spoiled rancid meat, moldy bread and cheese. The longer the trash sits, the more foul the smell. It is gross beyond gross.
I don’t know, maybe this person apologized as they brought in the trash, but did it anyway, or maybe they were totally unapologetic. Either way, the result is the same. Everything in the can is waste. Flies and tiny bugs swarm and hover. It is bad. It’s as bad as it gets. That is a picture of the hurt that you have experienced at the hand of another; that is what someone you may even have loved (maybe still do) left in the middle of your life.
For a while, you think you can handle it. You can deal with it. Once you accept that the garbage is there you devise a plan to live with it. You try to shove it in a corner, or a closet, where no one else will know it’s there. Maybe you try to seal it up in a heavy duty odor resistant trash bag or shove it in a trash compactor so it takes up less space. Every strategy to manage it, you try. It might help some, for a little while, but the longer it sits, the worse it gets. The odor is repulsive and permeates the whole room. Rodents come to rummage. In addition to the unbelievably nasty trash, which is not even yours by the way, you have to deal with the bugs and rats as well. Now the garbage is not only taking up space in your room, it’s taking up your time; so much time. It is so unfair. The atmosphere of your space is spoiled. Other people find it hard to share the space with you, it feels unhealthy and unclean to them, and so they keep a safe distance. You are doing everything you can think of to handle this garbage; everything that is, but take it out.
Forgiveness is like taking the trash out. It clears our hearts and our minds of the toxic destructive power of the hurt. Refusing to forgive is like leaving the garbage to sit and rot further. Unforgiveness is basically hoarding the hurts, refusing to remove them. Forgiveness isn’t saying it was okay that the person brought that gross stuff into your life. It isn’t permission to keep bringing in trash; it is taking out the trash that has already been left there. We forgive because we don’t want to live with the rot and the smell and all of the other impacts of the hurt; we don’t want to let it stay, settle in, and spoil our lives.
All the damage from the hurt does not magically go away when we forgive. It doesn’t instantly remove the pain. But it does keep that pain and hurt from rotting and getting worse in our hearts and minds.
Forgiveness is one of the hardest and most empowering things we can do. Forgiveness is releasing our rights to restitution and retribution. It means we are no longer demanding (or even expecting) repayment by those who owe us, or revenge on those who have harmed us.
Forgiveness is not easy. It is not an emotion. It is a decision. We choose to release our rights, of our own free will. We do not, we cannot forgive because it is forced upon us. We must do it willingly.
When we forgive, there is an emotional component. We choose to release the rage, the bitterness, and anger over what we have experienced. This can take time, and it requires an intentional decision not to hold on to these negative emotions, which generally harm ourselves more than the other person. This can often require practicing emotional management strategies as we can make the choice to forgive even before we address our feelings.
There is a great deal of confusion that surrounds forgiveness. Forgiving someone does not mean that we forget in the sense that we erase our memories and can no longer recall that something happened. It does not mean that we pretend it never happened in the first place, or go into denial. Forgiveness does not require we repress our memories.
It is easier to forgive when someone has apologized. This is especially true if they show remorse. But forgiveness does not depend upon the repentance of the offender. Our forgiveness does not require their apology. We can still forgive, knowing that they are unrepentant or unremorseful. We can still release our right to restitution and retribution and move forward without that burden.
Forgiveness is not equal to restoration. It is generally required for relationship restoration, but it does not necessarily lead to or require, that the relationship is restored. In fact, when someone does not show remorse when they do not apologize, the relationship is unlikely to be restored. Our forgiveness frees us from the burden. Freedom for the other person will require their repentance, something outside of our control.
Unforgiveness binds us to the person who has wronged us, and to the harm that was done against us. It keeps us from moving forward and traps us both. Forgiveness releases us from those bonds.
Forgiveness does not mean that we rescue someone from the natural (or legal) consequences of their behavior. It means that although someone may still have to pay a price for their words or actions, we are not requiring that payment to be made to us. If the other person chooses to make efforts to repair and make right what they have done, we can gladly accept the offered restitution, even when we have forgiven, because it is not a condition of forgiveness but a move towards relationship repair.
Forgiveness must be voluntary. It must be our choice; even when it is difficult. By forgiving we are not offering permission to be abused. We are dealing with what has already happened to us, not agreeing to let it continue.
Some people will demand forgiveness. They wrongly interpret forgiveness for past harm as an open door to continue to hurt. They are not looking to be forgiven to restore a relationship, and they don’t want forgiveness to release the person from the hurt, they want it to absolve them all responsibilities and consequences. They label any boundaries set on their future behavior as a sign of un-forgiveness for their past behavior. Whether they intend to do harm, or do it carelessly, they expect to be forgiven and want to define what that means, usually including permission to repeat the behavior. This is manipulation, and it is wrong. The fact that they misinterpret forgiveness does not mean that we have to accept their definition. We can forgive for past hurts, and still set boundaries on the hurtful behavior in the future. Essentially, we can take the old garbage out without willingly open the door to the same person bringing in a new trash can.
So the question, the big important question, to forgive or not to forgive is still yours. Do you want to live with the nastiness rotting away and getting worse, or release it, remove it completely, and reclaim the space in your heart and mind by forgiving?
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Esther DeWitt, M.S., CAMS, is a contributing member of the Life’s Tough team. She is an organizational psychology practitioner specializing in leadership, emotional management and conflict management issues.