Who among you have either had these words spoken to you or have spoken them to others? “You just need to forgive, forget, and move on.” These words are death words to many abuse survivors. I am going to ask you to never speak these words again to anyone. Now with that being said, with love I will say that in order to obtain true freedom and happiness, we must forgive. However, this is a process. How long of a process depends on the person and the amount of harm done to a person and pain that person is carrying. However, we will never forget.
For years, I wrongly thought that forgiveness is about the other person— that, somehow, if I forgave another individual, I was doing something nice for the person who hurt me. I thought it meant what they had done to me was okay. But that didn’t sound like a good deal at all, especially when it came to my stepfather and mother.
To me, forgiving meant condoning the abuse, or letting them off the hook. I knew that my hatred and rage were poisoning me—while, ironically, having no effect whatsoever on my mother or stepfather. But I was terrified to let those feelings go, for they had come to define me. Without them I didn’t know who I would be.
The fact is, forgiveness is not about approving what others have done to us or trying to make them feel better about themselves. In fact, forgiveness doesn’t have much to do with the other person at all. The reality is that forgiveness freed “ME” from the emotional prison I had been trapped in for thirty-eight plus years. Often times the people we are holding resentments against have no idea we are doing so. The reality is that many of them have no idea that they have even hurt us.
My mentors believed and suggested that I never ask for forgiveness. I was advised not to go to someone and tell them I forgive them for a wrong they have done to me. First off, in recovery we make amends and then take action. The action is sitting down with people we have harmed, rather they think so or not, and apologize for the wrong we have done to them. Then we take the necessary action steps to not hurt that person again, never asking for forgiveness. Why you ask? Asking the other person to forgive us is requiring action on their part. Remember, we are the ones required to take action, not them.
Often times people have heard the words “I am sorry” come out of our mouth’s countless times. Thus, when we sit down to make our amends with them and they hear the words I am sorry, it is just more empty words with another false promise attached to it. They want to see a change in our behavior, not just empty words. Therefore, asking the other person for forgiveness is asking them to take action they likely are not ready or just flat unwilling to do. Their rejection of our request could send us spiraling right back down the rabbit hole of shame.
On the other hand, walking up to our perpetrator or someone that has done us harm and saying “I forgive you for___________” could send a victim of abuse spiraling back into a world of doubt and unbearable shame. Often times these kinds of encounters are met with words and statements such as; What are you talking about? I never did that to you. Remember this, forgiveness is for you and not the perpetrator. It is between you and God.
Now there is a caveat to this. If a person that has caused you harmed or abused you is to come to you and ask for forgiveness, then it is your responsibility to forgive that person. Intellectually we can forgive fairly quickly. However, the true forgiveness of the heart takes time. Remember it only took one day to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but forty-years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. Never forget that forgiveness is a process.
So, what does forgiveness mean?
Þ Forgiveness means that we accept our pain. – Acceptance does not mean approval.
Þ Forgiveness means that we accept responsibility for how our pain has impacted others.
- Forgiveness means letting go of our “right” to punish another person.
- Forgiveness means that we can no longer justify our bad behavior based on other people’s bad behavior.
- Forgiveness means we wipe the slate clean.
What was more important to me was to know what forgiveness did not mean. Below is a list of what forgiveness is not.
1. Forgiveness is not approving or diminishing the abuse or sin. (The sinfulness of the abuse never changes.)
2. Forgiveness is not enabling the abuse or the sin. (Forgiveness actually defuses the power of the sin.)
3. Forgiveness is not denying a wrongdoing. (It can never be denied that you were abused and hurt.)
4. Forgiveness is not waiting for an apology. (You forgive the abuser, whether or not he or she ever apologizes.)
5. Forgiveness is not forgetting. (You will never forget.)
6. Forgiveness is not ceasing to feel the pain. (It’s okay for it to hurt, but you just don’t stay stuck in the pain.)
7. Forgiveness is not a onetime event. (Sometimes you need to forgive on a regular basis.)
8. Forgiveness is not neglecting justice. (You can forgive and still pursue justice.)
9. Forgiveness is not trusting. (You need to be exceedingly careful about whom you trust.)
10. Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation. (You are not required to allow your abuser back in your life to have a relationship with him or her.)
True forgiveness requires self-examination and the willingness to be wrong. You don’t want to mistake sanctimonious false forgiveness for the real thing. Sanctimonious forgiveness appears when you seem to be forgiving another person but are only actually establishing your superiority. That is a common misunderstanding of the expression Be the bigger person. It only hurts you in the long run to pump up your ego by “forgiving” others because you are “bigger” than them. Don’t do that to yourself.
Being the bigger person requires you to have the strength to look inside yourself and find ways that you have wronged others. Being the bigger person means realizing that everyone makes mistakes, and your behavior is not the same as who you are. You can love a person and hate his behavior. True forgiveness requires you not to confuse the two issues. It means looking at another person and understanding that everyone does the best they can, but sometimes life gets the better of them. It means extending the same compassion to others that you give yourself. That can be exceedingly difficult if you haven’t learned how to first forgive yourself.
Okay, how do I start this forgiveness process? Start by first forgiving yourself. This is probably the hardest thing to do, however it is difficult, if not impossible, to forgive others before you forgive yourself. Cultivate feelings of love and appreciation for people whose behavior you don’t like. Without condoning their behavior, see if you can find empathy for the pain that hurt them so much that they feel they have to hurt others in order to feel better. Focus on the present and make space for peace to enter your life. Release the pain of the past, and let peace enter your life. Cultivate compassion. See if you can go beyond empathy and actually wish for happiness for the people who have hurt you. Again, you are not doing this for them. They won’t feel it; you will. As you allow love to grow in your heart, overtaking anger and hatred, you will find greater happiness and peace.
Whether you are a Christian, Buddhist, Native American, hold any other faith, or none at all, your path to an abundantly free and happy life is to forgive those who have harmed you, no matter what their offense was. Until you forgive, you are still hostage to your abusers. When you do forgive, you set yourself free. So, forgive, really? Yes.
To read more on Forgiveness purchase Randy’s book – Healing The Wounded Child Within – Randy has dedicated a whole chapter to the subject of Forgiveness.