Can You Forgive?
You may imagine that forgiveness is arrived at through a logical, rational sorting-out process. For some forgiveness involves assessing degrees of guilt and innocence, the relative evil of the perpetrator’s intent, and so on as if you were a Supreme Court of One.
Forgiveness is not arrived at or achieved intellectually. Hurt is a subjective, non-rational experience, and it must be solved subjectively. That means it is done by replacing one subjective feeling with another emotion. When you are hurt, you are, in a sense, at war. You can replace these combative feelings in your bloodstream with the feeling that you are at peace. You may find yourself dragged down by anger against those who could have treated you better. This pain about the past can be an obstacle in your enjoyment of the present. You can speed up your healing process by forgiving. Forgiveness is the ability to let go of the past in order to move forward. Letting go of old wounds is the antidote to hurt and can dramatically improve your mood in the present.
When I talk about forgiveness with my clients, they typically say, “That’s exactly what I can never do!” But how are we defining forgiveness? Forgiveness is not “condoning.” It is not “permitting,” “allowing” or anything else. It is not for the other person’s benefit; it is for your own. Forgiveness means a letting go of anger, not for their benefit, but for your own. Forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate choice that you make to stop holding on to your hurt. You can choose whether to hang on to it or to let it go.
The people who have hurt you will never know about it. It’s none of their business who you forgive. It’s for your own benefit. This matter is between you and you. The act of forgiveness gives you options that were never open to you as a child. It allows you to live your life on a much more realistic, mature basis. If you don’t forgive, the hurt will stay down there inside you forever. Is that what you want? I don’t think so.
Some people become confused about forgiveness because it sounds like you’re letting go of all responsibility and allowing others to discard the rules of society. But forgiveness can complement personal responsibility. Forgiveness allows you to let go of the past, while you continue to maintain your best effort and clear thinking about personal responsibility in the present.
You may avoid taking action because you fear failure. If you believe that choices and actions are risky, you’ll naturally prefer that someone else take the action. While you are waiting for others to make the choice, you are doomed to become a victim, feeling that your only option is to blame those people who have not yet acted.
Where is it written that if you don’t forgive, it will make you tough and secure? You cannot prevent hurtful things from happening to you in an imperfect world by refusing to forgive. That is not ‘strength of character’, that’s sulking and pouting. It’s time you replaced that unhappy childish response with adult behavior.
You have the power of choice now. Having choices is liberating in itself. You have the choice to let go of these feelings in order to move forward with your life. You don’t know how many more years you have left. So why ruin them with these feelings from the past. They don’t belong in the present. They never did.
As a worthwhile human being, you can cope with hurtful things in the future as they come, just like anyone else. You already have been coping. You have not turned into a pile of dust and been blown away by the breeze. You have survived. Your judgment is good enough that you have been able to persevere and overcome the negative events in your life. You don’t need to prevent disaster from happening because your judgment is good enough that you have been able to cope with whatever happens as it occurs.
Between these extremes of too little action and too much response, you can choose to intervene effectively. You can choose to say, “I know you want the best for me, and I appreciate it, but I’ll be fine.” This intervention validates the “goodness” of the intention without dwelling on the content, which is irrelevant. You are validating the speaker in spite of their imperfection. When someone hears you talking in this new, more competent, insightful way, their need to overcompensate at your expense goes away.
Aaron Karmin, LCPC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor at Urban Balance, which provides psychotherapy services to individuals, couples and families in the Chicago area. He is a certified clinical hypnotherapist and holds an advanced certification in stress management, which involves teaching techniques to enhance relaxation.