Once you understand the power of forgiveness, you would think the act of forgiving would be fairly easy. After all, it’s good for us to forgive others, and it’s good for our relationships when we do. So, why is it so difficult to let go of the things which hurt us?
The key here lies in the hurt itself. To forgive someone else, you first need something to forgive. This means you've been betrayed, let down, treated badly, or hurt by those around you or even by yourself. Let's take a moment to examine how we interact with this pain and how it keeps us from moving forward.
Hurt leads to a lot of emotions, most of them negative. As you're going to see as we work through this list, it's these emotions that become the fuel for our actions.
When we're mad at how someone treats us, our first instinct is to hurt them back. This is a fairly primitive emotion that makes sense on an evolutionary level but doesn't necessarily serve the same purpose today. This kind of reciprocity might be great at warding off enemies back in caveman days but really does more harm than good now. Generally, we see this response take form very gently, with an 'eye for an eye mentality that keeps us from toppling over into revenge. It can happen, though, especially if we've been wronged by the same person more than once or have other strong emotions tied up in the betrayal. Either way, it's easy to see why getting back at the other person can feel very satisfying on a visceral level, even when we know better.
Like worrying at a scab, we'll continue to pick at what hurts us, going back over in our minds the events which led up to the incident which hurt us. We'll rehearse different responses and wonder if we could have done things differently. We'll analyze every moment of the encounter. We'll go back to overreactions, emotions, and the fallout until it feels like the whole thing just happened a few moments ago. Unfortunately, when the pain is fresh (or is made fresh), it's very hard to feel like forgiving anyone. Worse, if you do it often enough, the action becomes habitual, and you never reach a place of forgiveness at all.
Generally, we feel very small and weak when we've been betrayed. We're turned into victims, powerless against an onslaught of emotions that includes everything from anger to fear and shame. This is why anger is so alluring. When we become furious, we feel larger than life and back in control. In our minds, no one can stand up against our fury. We have our power back. Or so we think. In truth, anger is an illusion of power. It's really just a very noisy cover-up for fear.
To many, the idea of forgiveness is equated with being a doormat. You’re simply rolling over and allowing the person who hurt you to come at you a second time. Or third. The thing is, once trust is betrayed, it can feel difficult to open up with anyone else again, even people who weren't involved in this particular altercation. We start isolating, using anger and fear as shields to keep us safe from harm.
To some, the one who forgives feels like the loser in the argument. It is as though you are backing down and having to give up what you believe in. This would lead to bitterness and resentment, especially if the argument left you feeling like you hadn't been heard or your opinions didn't matter.
Too often, you'll hear the phrase "Forgive and forget." In truth, there's nothing more wrong. The problem? This misguided quotation will force people to hold back from forgiveness where it might benefit them. This is frequently the case in victims of abuse. In their minds (and rightly so), forgetting what their abuser did to them could prove to be dangerous, placing trust back into the hands of someone who isn't worthy of it. The drawback of this kind of caution is that it stands in the way of healing and won't allow you to move on.
Sure, it’s nice when the other person recognizes they did something wrong and asks for forgiveness, but this isn’t always going to be the case. Some people will never realize just what they did to you. Others might not have the opportunity to make amends (for example, they might be deceased).
Our friends mean well, but it really shouldn’t be up to them who we decide to forgive. It’s especially easy to fall under this trap when you respect the opinion of those around you. The problem here is they might not understand all the facts of the situation or could have a bias, making them give you poor advice. Finally, they aren't the ones having to live with this decision. You are. It's easy to tell others what to do when the outcome doesn't affect you.
Remember how you felt like a victim when things when wrong and the other person hurt you? Now imagine them asking for forgiveness and you not giving it to them. Let's face it, it can feel good to make the other person squirm a little. They deserve it, right? This isn't payback. This is righteousness, which is somewhat different.
What's forgiveness anyway? Sometimes it's easier to tough out the pain and feel like you have things under control. This is a prideful response that can really get in the way of the healing work of forgiveness. Using this response also indicates not being in touch with your emotions very well. Or perhaps you are denying the things you do happen to be feeling because it doesn't seem like you're strong or capable when other people can hurt you.
What’s the point of forgiving someone when you know people are just going to take your kindness as an excuse to go out and do exactly the same thing over and over again? Forgiveness can feel pretty pointless if this is your thinking.
When the pain is fresh, it’s impossible to feel like you can forgive regardless of how many times you’re told you ‘should,' as though waiting will somehow make your forgiveness less real. The question is, what is the difference between still having emotions to work through or stalling because you understand these emotions and you're comfortable with them (even if in a somewhat uncomfortable way).
Interested in more? Watch Why We Struggle to Forgive.
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Hi, my name is Melissa Ebken, and I'm so glad you found your way here.
I am at home in the difficult spaces of peoples’ lives, willing to listen and to support those who work to grow themselves. I am a trained coach and have consulted with churches in conflict. Not your stereotypical minister, I embrace the Gospel with joy and laughter as I seek to help those around me grow in faith and understanding, always striving to leave people better than they came. An agent of wholeness, I create a safe space for people, especially those who have been marginalized, where they can understand how ridiculously loved and valued they are by God/Higher Power/Spirit, and to experience the difference that makes in life.
I started the Pursuing Uncomfortable Podcast to share the stories of people who have faced life's most difficult challenges, to inspire you to lean into and overcome your own. It's helpful to know that you're not alone in your struggles and to see how others have navigated similar circumstances. You can listen to it here.
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