When Forgiveness Seems Impossible

WHEN FORGIVENESS SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE

Forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on.

Alice D. Miller

In my last post we explored unforgiveness and the damage it can cause in our lives. But is there ever a time NOT to forgive – or at least to wait? Until recently, I would have said “absolutely not”. Then I read Dr. Susan Forward’s TOXIC PARENTS: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life. She stresses the importance of fully realizing the boundaries that have been crossed and acknowledging the anger and hurt – first, to ourselves, and then to the offender (if possible), and perhaps to a trusted friend or therapist. This is especially true when a parent or other person abuses their power to harm you.

She also draws a clear line between seeking revenge and excusing the offender:

I came to realize that there are two facets to forgiveness: giving up the need for revenge, and absolving the guilty party of responsibility. I didn’t have much trouble accepting the idea that people have to let go of the need to get even. Revenge is a very normal but negative motivation…But..I felt there was something wrong with unquestioningly absolving someone of his rightful responsibility, particularly if he had severely mistreated an innocent child.

…I realized that this absolution was really another form of denial: “If I forgive you, we can pretend that what happened wasn’t so terrible.” [T]his aspect of forgiveness was actually preventing a lot of people from getting on with their lives.

[F]orgiveness can undercut your ability to let go of your pent-up emotions…a rush to forgiveness to avoid the painful work of therapy…a shortcut to feeling better. [You] might have to “unforgive” for a while to get in touch with [your] anger

People can forgive ….but they should do it at the conclusion – not at the beginning – of their emotional housecleaning. People need to get angry about what happened to them. They need to grieve….to stop diminishing or discounting the damage that was done to them.

This is hard work. It takes courage to confront an offender with honesty and clarity. And it takes courage to fully acknowledge to ourselves the depth of the hurt or betrayal, especially when the offender is someone we love or depend on.

A few important caveats:

  • There is a vast difference between an unintentional or careless slight and an abuse of power.

  • Forgiveness, when extended, still holds the offender accountable for their actions.

  • Once you have forgiven, be careful not to revert to the victim role again.

  • Forgiveness is not the same as reconciling. There are cases where the wisest thing is to never be in that person’s presence again.

  • A licensed therapist can prove to be an invaluable asset as you move through this process.

Let me offer an exercise to begin to strengthen your “healthy forgiveness” muscle. Become aware of the small offenses that you experience this week. Rather than just brushing them aside, choose the one that landed that hardest. Sit for a moment and fully acknowledge the hurt – and see if you can identify whether the offense was intended or you simply interpreted it that way. (Many of the things that offend us have nothing to do with the other person. They are a result of our own beliefs or assumptions.)

Next, write a short note to the offender explaining how their action or words affected you. Avoid drama – simply be clear and concise. If appropriate – and you’ll need to be wise about this – approach that person and either tell them what you have written or hand them the note. Don’t expect any particular reaction from them. They may be angry, deny any responsibility, or discount your feelings. Their reaction is not your business. Your business is to be honest with yourself and to begin to stand up for yourself.

People will continue to hurt us throughout our lives – and we will continue to hurt others. It is one of the hardest things about human nature. The freedom that forgiveness brings is a great gift. Forgive one another – but in healthy ways.

My final post on forgiveness will be FORGIVING OURSELVES. I welcome your comments and questions!

Only the brave know how to forgive …A coward never forgave; it is not in his nature.

Laurence Sterne

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