Last year at this time, I wrote a piece about forgiveness, which deals with an everyday human experience that can improve your life.
The possibility and difficulty of forgiving others, yourself, your parents or even your God, are not to be minimized. Yet, forgiveness is an awesome human power and it’s worth understanding. With the new season in mind, I thought I’d offer a reflection that can lead each of us to a new start.
Why Forgive? Religious teachings and psychological insight are practically one and the same when it comes to forgiveness. When we hold on to our pain or resentment, we are burdened by them. We forgive because we need to lighten our load, and not carry pain forward relentlessly. Whether it’s the Yom Kippur service in Judaism, the redemptive message of Easter or a recovering alcoholic’s commitment to a fearless moral inventory, forgiving and asking for forgiveness is a human blessing.
Anyone reading this has been hurt or has hurt someone. We are all in need of forgiveness. Perhaps you let your anger hurt others; or someone just scammed you, or you were abused as a child. The need for forgiveness is everywhere. In my expertise, divorce, hurt and blame abound. Even in good marriages, places of pain persist. Where there are relationships, there will be a need for forgiveness.
Forgive Does Not Mean Forget: We are told over and over again, that we should forgive and forget. In my opinion, forgiving is sufficient, forgetting may be asking too much, or simply be stupid. After all, if someone hurt you, it’s a good idea to be aware that it could happen again. And if you learned something wise from forgiving someone, it is a good thing to remember how you came to learn the lesson that has proved so valuable.
While forgiveness is essential for overcoming a divorce, it has a place of everyone, regardless of age, or level of hurt. It should be differentiated from its close cousin acceptance, which while important, is essentially passive. Everyone has something that they can be forgiven for and that they must forgive.
Ten Sides to Forgiveness:
- We are all wounded. We have all been hurt in some way, and often from our family of origin. Consider that you are a man who has a brilliant older brother, who was doted on by a vain mother. His confidence kills you. Or maybe you have a younger sister who was an amazing athlete and your parents lost sight of you. Her sin was that she was talented. Or, your parents were depressed, or preoccupied by a sick sibling or a bad divorce. You had to step up and be a good son, while some of your real needs were never met. The result: You carry these wounds into your adult life, often feeling second best or ignored. What to do: A major job of adulthood is to see our parents as they really were and forgive. You were second best. Own it — really own it — and you can be free.
- True forgiveness is a process, more than a destination. Even if you were hurt terribly, like with a rape or a financial scandal, there may be a place for forgiveness, if not to the one who hurt you, then to a God that may have watched while it happened, or to a situation in which there was nobody there to protect you. You can acknowledge that terrible things happen in this world, but commit yourself to making a difference. This can be a form of forgiveness (without forgetting); a distancing from victimhood and an embrace of life’s vitality.
- Forgiving is a lot like grieving. In fact, when you grieve you are actively forgiving the deceased and yourself. No relationship is perfect and when someone passes there are often unfinished hurts and disappointments. When we attempt to forgive ourselves or someone else it is not a magical moment of grace. It’s two steps forward and one back. Think about the burden of holding a stupid grudge. It may take months if not years to forgive and let go; but what a blessing when you do!
- There is an art to making amends. In America today, you hear of so many people doing bad things and then apologizing. Usually, it stops right there. If you really want to be forgiven by the person that you hurt, just saying that you’re sorry is not enough. Try to right the wrong if you can. This is not a perfect science, but a little effort can go a long way.
- Note that past hurts continue to injure. Relationships are by nature filled with moments of hurt and disappointment. Resentment, in my mind, is the poison pill of love. Who wants to be touched or make love when you feel hurt or dismissed? Who wants to come home on time when you feel judged and scolded, time and again? Successful couples will hurt each other now and then. They acknowledge, forgive and let go. Their love is a living field of trust that can deal with disappointment or hurt, like our immune systems can handle minor illnesses.
- Forgiving is important even if you break up. When you break up there is still a need for forgiveness. He may not ask for it or she may be blaming you for everything that went wrong. Remember, that forgiving benefits you.There are important lessons to learn (and not forget) in every failed relationship. Life is a course in life. We are taught by our experiences and no textbook can really do it for us. Forgiveness is part and parcel of the emotional work of learning these lessons well. You don’t want to take your hurt and pain into the next relationship. That is asking for trouble.
- Will you forgive yourself? You may be a reactive person and push people away. Perhaps you are narcissistic and criticize too much? Or, you may be overly needy only to be rejected again and again. Perhaps, you’re easily triggered and attack, even when he hasn’t done anything so terrible. Most people defend themselves and blame. But, look inside. You may find that your injured inner life has been causing pain to people around you. Get some therapy and forgive yourself. It’s the beginning of a more honest relationship with your partner, friend or child. Acknowledge your hurtfulness to others. Acknowledge that it has its source in your biology or your history (or both). Forgive yourself and set forth to something bette
- Can you be forgiven? Some people believe in God and some don’t. But there’s no denying that faith has played an central role in human affairs since the dawn of time. Many of us have a tendency to feel guilty or unworthy; and appealing to one’s Maker can be healing. On the other hand, if you’re emotionally damaged, or have a psychiatric disorder like OCD, there may be no comfort in your God. This is probably more of a psychological problem than a religious one. Most religious traditions hold that an earnest request for forgiveness and a commitment to bettering oneself, is the path to healing. When religion works it sends the message that we are inherently loved by God. You count, you deserve to be here – and you can be a better person everyday. A religion that makes people feel continually undeserving is a negative force, and is not in line with what most traditions are all about. (For more, see Fromm’s Psychoanalysis and Religion.) Even if you lack a God relationship and have a more spiritual inclination, there is value in looking at the universe and assessing your place in it. We are not the center of the world, even if our narcissistic selves tend to think so. There is value in asking for forgiveness and sensing your place in the majesty of creation. Finally, asking for forgiveness from God or the universe is a private conversation about secrets that only you know. This accounting can be a healing as well.
- Trauma and forgiveness. There are many different kinds of trauma from the battlefield to your family of origin. Some traumas are the result of an overwhelming event that changed your neurological state. With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder your brain acts in high alert when triggered. Survival may not really be at stake, but it sure feels like it. You had been raped or witnessed your buddy’s head being blown off in Afghanistan, and your brain is easily triggered into a high output of catecholamines, ACTH and the like. It is a tough way to live, with flashbacks and hyper-alertness that can drain the strongest person. Then there’s a kind of low grade trauma; like being stuck in an abusive relationship with a violent alcoholic father. This also trains the brain to switch into a fight – flight mode on a dime. Treatment requires two pieces; first, you must work to change your neurobiological response with medicine, or other therapies like Prolonged Exposure Treatment, Somatic Experiencing, EMDR or DBT. Yet, treatment for trauma is not complete without addressing the possibility of forgiveness. Often, trauma patients need to forgive themselves, despite that fact that the trauma was done to them. Indeed, many bullies and perpetrators had been victims themselves. One can consider the work of forgiving while fully understanding that a legal consequence for heinous behavior is a necessary part of keeping public order. You can forgive (not easy at all) and he or she can still be punished.
- Can you forgive the unforgiveable? Terrible things are part of this world. Some people are raped. Others experience the murder of a loved one. Holocausts, both personal and national do happen. You don’t have to forgive everything or everybody – it is not appropriate. But you don’t want to be stuck in that wound forever. Identifying yourself as a victim and not as a person who was victimized, is letting the perpetrator win. Change your passive position to an active position by experiencing yourself as a full human being (who is much bigger than your victimhood) and consider working to protect future people from experiencing your fate.
Will You Forgive? Some people never forgive and never forget. It’s just asking too much. The trauma was too great, the wound too deep, the injustice too profound. But there may be a price. The cost of never consider the possibility of forgiving is that you risk remaining a victim forever – and if you’re not careful, you can assume a victim persona that can impact future relationships and even your children.
Try forgiving yourself first. Do a fearless moral inventory. You may discover that you’re holding onto many hurts. You may also discover that there are people you love who suffer as a consequence of your anger, judgment or your tendency to withdraw. The fact that you’re just trying to protect yourself doesn’t mean that you don’t hurt others. Do the good therapy required, forgive yourself, love yourself — and work on improving. That’s a healing for the world.
Have you been traumatized? If so, it will require a specialized treatment, but it’s worth it. Trauma can affect your most dear relationships and mess up those going forward. There’s good help out there; take advantage of it.
Finally, address the ways that you’re victimized in current relationships; forgive what can be forgiven, but keep realistic. You don’t have to forget. It will actually make you stronger. If you see that he won’t change, you can get up and leave. A victim often feels like a child. A realistic person, who has been hurt, is still an adult and can take steps if required. On the other hand, if he has some health, he may let go of his own hurt with you and fight for the relationship. I have seen relationships reignite when both sides own the truth. It can be a great entry way to couple counseling.
Conclusion: The ability to truly forgive is a gift. It is not as simple as wanting to forgive or saying that you’re sorry to someone you’ve hurt. We all wish life was that simple.
If you do the work of forgiveness, you actually mature. Bad things happen to good people all the time. Life is not fair. You can be traumatized, you can be bitter, you can be angry – but you’re better off being realistic and dealing with those you love from a place of emotional clarity.
The past does not have to dictate your future. But, the choice, when possible, is yours. There is a power to being human. And, forgiveness may be one of our greatest strengths.
You can hear Dr. Banschick on The Intelligent Divorce radio show as well.