To Forgive or Not to Forgive…
CategoriesFamily / Psychology / Relationships / Self-Improvement / Trauma
Do you need to forgive to heal and move on?
[Included: Free Loving-kindness Guided Meditation]
Short answer. No. It also depends on your relationship with forgiveness. Some people have a great association with it. Others merely relate to forgiveness in terms of societal or religious programming. And then there’s another group of people that have experienced forgiveness as a manipulation or abuse tactic. The latter two groups typically struggle to forgive, and that’s ok.
What is forgiveness, to you?
You may struggle to forgive if you have a negative subconscious association to forgiveness.
We all have learned associations to various words and ideas. My definition of respect will differ from someone in the military trained to respect their commanding officer or someone in a certain rank and uniform.
Or kindness may look like people-pleasing and enabling to one person or simply lending a hand to another. We have a lot of mixed-up associations so first get that straightened out. What is forgiveness to you specifically?
How did you learn about forgiveness when you were a child?
What were some examples of forgiveness in your family of origin?
Who was the first person you had to forgive? How did that go?
If forgiveness was learned through religious or societal context, then you might believe you must forgive in order to be a good and decent person or to be free of the hurt and pain.
Maybe your parents taught you that forgiveness is necessary and good. Or perhaps you read self-help books that prescribed forgiveness for everything! It was the answer to all your problems, except forgiveness can be a problem in itself, like an elusive unicorn.
If you tend to carry a lot of guilt around because you can’t seem to forgive, that’s not your fault, that’s faulty societal, religious, or abusive programming.
Forgiveness and abuse: A negative association to forgiveness
Many people have learned about forgiveness in its most toxic form. They were put in the position of repeatedly forgiving a parent, abuser and/or toxic adult in their childhood. Children always forgive- that’s the beauty and the burden of innocence.
Abusive and toxic people use forgiveness as a way of weaseling back into your good graces. And it can seem like the burden of abuse falls on the shoulders of the victim who now has to grapple with forgiveness.
Forgiveness has been misused as a manipulation tactic in my personal life:
For instance, one person kept insisting on my forgiveness.
I finally asked WHY they wanted my forgiveness (this can be a revealing question).
The person answered, “So things can go back to normal between us.”
Yikes! No thanks! Nobody wants a toxic relationship to go back to normal.
Often an abuser or toxic person wants forgiveness, or to at least know they’ve been forgiven, so they can keep doing what they were doing before. This is not forgiveness. This is a pattern of avoidance and sweeping things under the rug to perpetuate the status quo in a dysfunctional family/relationship.
A friend of mine also shared her story of how forgiveness was used as abuse.
Forgiveness in her marriage (she’s now divorced), typically signaled that the usual manipulation and abuse would commence, in a very familiar cycle. As soon as he knew that she forgave him, the cycle would begin again, like clockwork. And speaking of work, she had to do some personal work around her association to forgiveness.
She described a time when she asked him why he wanted her forgiveness, and he said, ‘so that she wouldn’t keep bringing up things from their past’. He was uncomfortable with her bringing up what he had done to her in the past. Her forgiveness was for his benefit only.
Don’t make forgiveness part of your healing journey if it has been used against you; forgiveness is often the thing we need to heal from! Don’t take poison as an anecdote to poison.
If you had parent(s) that asked for your forgiveness but would continue to break your trust, then you might have an unhealthy association to forgiveness.
Healing your association with forgiveness can be a separate journey, if you choose, but it’s not necessary to move on.
Forgiveness for now…
Another issue with forgiveness is the permanency we assign to it, like once you forgive, that’s it! It’s not supposed to bother us anymore, but that’s simply not the reality.
We are ever-flowing creatures of consciousness with emotions and the ability to revisit past pain spontaneously.
Feelings from the past can arise and catch us by surprise as they instantly transport us back to the moment the betrayal occurred. Pete Walker refers to this as emotional flashbacks in his book, “Complex PTSD“. So, forgiveness isn’t exactly the closure we’re hoping for. It doesn’t shut the door to the past.
If you have to suppress your anger or any other emotions, to forgive, it’s not mentally healthy.
“Forgive, but never forget”, as the saying goes. We don’t forget, and that can make it difficult to reach the fulfillment we desire out of forgiveness.
What about forgiving yourself or forgiveness for you?
If it’s for you then, “make peace with it”. You always have access to peace within you.
Rather than making “forgiveness” your goal, focus on a sense of inner peace. Imagine peace as a sensation. When you’re feeling most at peace, what does that feel like in your body?
Can you titrate between the anger and hurt from the past and sensations of peace? Are there some aspects of past pain that you can find peace with? Forgiveness doesn’t really have to be all or nothing. This pain exists… but so does my peace.
This helps us face the feelings rather than suppress them. I believe people who claim to forgive easily, have just learned to suppress the hurt or avoid it.
Focus on what gives you peace and grow that inner experience so that when the past pain comes up, you have a well of peace to reach into.
Peace can be experienced as a subtle softening around the point of hurt/betrayal/trauma or less charge in the negative emotions. The hurt won’t carry the weight when it comes up.
Peace is what you can do for yourself. And the reality is, feelings, emotions, and sensations are what we’re trying to heal. Get to know peace and what that’s like for you.
The great thing about focusing on your inner peace, and growing that within you, is you begin to feel when someone or something disturbs your peace, and you’ll want nothing to do with it. You also don’t let in the same type of perpetrator, because you now know peace.
Set your intention on peace of mind and the sensations of inner peace, meditate on peace, because peace is the result of healing.
The stuck cycle of forgiveness:
People often believe the only thing standing in their way of personal freedom or happiness, is forgiving someone or something in particular.
People get stuck when they realize it still hurts or they’re still mad. Does that mean I haven’t forgiven?
What I’ve seen all too often is clients who think if only they could forgive then they’d stop thinking about all those bad things, or that person. No, you still have to heal the hurt and grieve what was done to you.
Don’t let forgiveness become an obstacle in your healing journey. Forgiveness can become our own inner enemy when we let our healing depend on it.
The added pressure to forgive makes things worse. It can cause a person to think about the past even more, reliving betrayal hoping to find the secret key that will finally bring the sweet satisfaction of forgiveness, so people toss it around in their mind, overthink on it, until it becomes a stuck pattern, and more resentment and hurt build up. You try to think your way to forgiveness when typically, it’s a spontaneous feeling after some healing has occurred.
Healing after something painful, requires grieving.
-ALTERNATIVES TO FORGIVENESS-
4 alternatives to forgiveness are:
- Loving-Kindness Meditation
- Cord-cutting Meditation
- The grieving process
- Radical acceptance.
First, be clear about your intention. Why do you want to forgive? Typically, people just want to feel better. And what feels better than peace? Or perhaps you have another feeling you want from forgiveness. You don’t have to wait to forgive in order to create these desired feelings within you.
If you want to feel relief, for instance, notice what relief feels like for you then go create more of it in your life. What kind of things feel like relief and notice them more day to day? Meditate on the feeling of relief. Purposefully gravitate to those things that create feelings of relief for you. Notice that sigh of relief. The more relief you experience, the less influence past pain has on you, because you aren’t trying to fight against the past, you’re moving toward the good feelings you want.
If you see your situations that need to be forgiven as situations, then you could overthink them forever- if only it had gone this way instead… why did that person do that to me? What if I did this… or didn’t do that? We don’t really care about those things, we’re just hoping that if we finally “figure things out” that we’ll feel relief, freedom, or peace so don’t wait, create and connect with those feelings now.
The 5 Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance
The most natural process for healing pain and traumas is grief. Before you can even think about forgiving, have you properly grieved it?
Apply the grieving process to whatever you’re trying to heal.
For instance, it’s natural and perfectly understandable to be angry after you’ve been hurt. Anger is part of the 5 Stages of Grief. There’s no shame. You can experience anger and still heal!
If you’re stuck on whether or not you can forgive, don’t be surprised if properly going through the grieving process can spontaneously produce forgiveness.
Grieve what was taken, what you never got, what was done, what happened, and sometimes that process leads to forgiveness (or peace).
What people have done to us, is about them. It’s a reflection of them, and there’s no need to forgive people for being themselves. You wouldn’t tell a dog: I forgive you for being a dog. Acceptance of who they are, is more appropriate. And acceptance is the last stage of grief so give yourself grace when going through all the stages.
We are all human and everything we do is to get through this human experience. Grief is part of our regular experience. Don’t fight it; feel it.
I love this practice! It’s like the backdoor to forgiveness.
Loving-kindness meditation often starts with sending goodwill toward yourself— fill your cup first! When that becomes easier, then you can extend that sentiment to others- people you love, people you barely know, and the world at large. You may even work up to sending goodwill to those who’ve harmed you, but no pressure! Seriously!
[Another meditation practice for getting used to letting go and softening the hurt is “Cord-cutting” meditation].
Loving-Kindness meditation, also referred to as Metta meditation, means cultivating a sense of connection. It doesn’t mean you like somebody or forgive someone, or even approve of them.
Feelings of goodwill are unconditional. It’s not easy to think this way, and the mindset needs to be honed and strengthened through practice—that’s where loving-kindness meditation comes in.
[What is Loving-Kindness Meditation]
Listen to a modified version of Loving-Kindness (Metta) Meditation: You can make this an everyday practice. This Loving-kindness meditation begins with offering yourself love and well wishes, then your inner child, your loved ones, mother earth, and people across the globe. Multiple studies show the numerous benefits of practicing Loving-Kindness.
Healing is a process and a practice. You can apply the Loving-Kindness meditation or a cord-cutting meditation, practice what peace of mind feels like for you, and use the 5 Stages of Grief as a guideline for your journey, rather than wrestling with the idea of forgiveness.
If you’d like support with the grieving process, contact me here.
PEACE AND BE WELL,
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