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Episode 7: Normalizing the Decision to Forgive...or Not.

Updated: Feb 8

This is an edited version of a podcast episode. If you prefer to listen, click  Make Me Whole Podcast or click Podcast in the menu above to find this and all my other episodes.

This post contains brief strong language.

A soft pink lotus flower and green leaf against a sage green background. Reconciliation is not always the goal of forgiveness.

Hello there! Today we’re going to talk about forgiveness. I’ve had a bit of a hard time putting this episode together only because I’ve been really exploring the nuances of the concept. I have my own way of understanding the word forgiveness, and I don’t know that it necessarily is in line with how others might conceive of it. 

My upbringing was in the Catholic Church, and one of the traditions that we kept was engaging in the sacrament of Reconciliation, otherwise known as Confession. Every couple of weeks, we would go to the priest and confess our sins, recognizing out loud that we had made mistakes that we regretted. Once we did this, we’d experience God’s healing through his forgiveness. It also gave you the opportunity to reconcile with the Church because the Church as a whole was wounded by the things that you did. You’d think that growing up in that environment, I'd know a lot about forgiveness, right? Because if I received a regular clean slate and God could forgive me for being a smartass and misbehaving, I should have realized I should do the same thing with others. Forgive them as I was forgiven. The challenges came when I became an adult and I found myself unconvinced that I needed to forgive as easily as the God I believed in did. 

Well, let’s take a moment to clarify what forgiveness is. We have probably heard it defined as the process of someone who has been wronged choosing to be compassionate and letting go of their resentment. But what happens when offering forgiveness is the last thing on your mind? Does forgiving someone mean you have to forget or accept the behavior? Does it mean you have to have a relationship with the person who wronged you? I don’t think so. I believe you can forgive a person while in no way believing that what they did was acceptable and it’s still considered an act of forgiveness. See, forgiveness is more of an emotional change that occurs within us, not just choosing to sweep the problem under the rug. It’s the decision to overcome the pain that was inflicted upon us and release our anger and resentment. We’re allowing ourselves to let go of the desire to seek revenge. 

There’s this researcher named Robert Enright, Ph. D., and he broke forgiveness down into 4 different phases. It’s interesting to step back and really analyze the process objectively because we go through a lot between experiencing the pain and deciding whether or not we want to forgive someone. The 4 stages that Dr. Enright introduces are the Uncovering, Decision, Work, and Deepening Phases. 

The Uncovering Phase is when we’re first hit with the knowledge of the action against us. It’s that time when we sit there and say to ourselves, “What the hell just happened?” We focus on how that person’s behavior affected our lives and what we lost as a result of their choices. Sometimes we don’t take enough time in this phase because we don’t realize how complexly this injustice impacts us. We think about what we could have done to make the situation better or how we’re going to fix this, even though we’re the ones who have been wronged. It can be tempting to rush into absolving the person who harmed us, but you can’t begin to forgive someone unless you understand how and why their choices triggered your pain. The more that you investigate and allow yourself to experience your negative feelings, the deeper healing can go.

In the Decision Phase, you get closer to the heart of the process . Here's where you make the choice to implement or reject forgiveness (both are valid options!). You actually might decide that you don’t want to. Maybe it’s too soon. Maybe you are not ready to let go of that anger, and I don’t think we’re told enough that it’s ok to be in that place. You can always come back and go through the process again if you need to. The other issue that we address here is whether or not we’re forgiving someone because we want to or because we’re being pressured into it. Friends or family may come to you and say, “Well it’s your only sibling,” or “It’s your only parent, you have to let it go.” True forgiveness, however, must be freely chosen. Keep in mind though, that if you do choose to hold on to these emotions, you might actually be causing unnecessary suffering (including to yourself).

Now, during the Work Phase, you start to understand the offender in a whole new way. It might actually allow for more compassion or empathy towards that person. So what you’re doing is getting a broader idea about the reasons or motives behind their behavior, including the way they were raised, their family situation, or whatever other circumstances that might have influenced them. According to Dr. Enwright, you really need to take the time to stand in the pain. It’s almost as if you’re measuring how heavy the burden is and acknowledging that the pain exists, that it’s there. The longer you face it and don’t run away from it, you’ll find that the heaviness and intensity of the feelings start to wane. You’re able to look back and see how you’ve been able to make changes and move through your feelings. Once you’re dealing with less stress, you’re able to start rebuilding self-esteem with the knowledge of what you're capable of. 

During the last phase, the Deepening Phase, you continue to decrease those negative feelings. You’ll find more meaning in what you’ve experienced, recognizing how you’ve grown as a result. This is where you have the opportunity to reach out and associate with people who have gone through similar situations. You might even inspire someone who is currently going through an earlier phase and help them imagine an end to their pain. You have to keep in mind, though, that these phases, the process of forgiveness, isn’t an exact science that affects everyone the same way. Some people go through some phases, but not through others. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the details are, as long as you experience forward movement on your own path. 

So what do you think is the hardest thing to forgive? How about forgiving someone who isn’t sorry? There are people who will never admit that they did something wrong. And yet, it is still possible for you to keep moving forward, despite their attitude. I want to make sure to say that it’s reasonable for you to expect an apology when you’ve been hurt. However, even if you were 100% in the right, it doesn't mean that the other person is ready to admit to any wrongdoing. Sometimes those who have offended us the worst are the hardest people to get apologies from because of their deep-rooted denial. They truly believe that they didn’t do anything wrong, so they don’t see why they should have to fix the problem. Sometimes they aren’t even aware that you have been suffering. That puts us in a tough place because how do you forgive someone who isn't sorry or open to communication? Are we supposed to pretend like the wounds don’t exist? Do we forgive and forget? Do we even have to speak to that person again? 

When you forgive someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to have an ongoing relationship with them. What happens is that we experience our own internal shift, allowing us to not carry the pain the same way we did on Day 1. In doing that, we’re able to minimize feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression as well as increase our self-esteem and hopefulness. You can have forgiveness whenever you want once you remove reconciliation as the goal and are willing to let go of the hurt. Sometimes you feel like your pain is the only thing you have and it serves as proof that something really bad happened to you. Forgiving someone can feel like you’re agreeing with what they did, even when you know in your heart that their actions are unacceptable. 

I encourage you to take some and think about how hanging on to the anger is serving you. Yes, in the moment it’s totally empowering you, and you might be justified in feeling that way. After time, though, it’s going to bring you down. It’s going to make you tired, pessimistic, and distrusting of those around you.  However, being ready to forgive someone who hurt you takes time, and it will happen on your schedule, not anyone else's. It's impossible for you to know when (or if) you’ll ever be ready. So if now doesn’t seem like the time, that's ok. Friends and family may try to pressure or judge your decision to forgive or not, but only you can determine the right timeline.

I think forgiveness can only come after a long process of healing. I’ve been faced with the need to pardon for the sake of my own mental health. I’ve experienced hurt in ways that made me say out loud, “I will never forgive them for what happened to me.” When I was at the peak of my anger, honestly I felt completely out of control, as if I was watching a show that was happening to someone else. My anger brought me to this dark place where I felt I needed to isolate, and I closed myself off from the entire world. It disrupted my life. It made me feel like there was no one who I could really turn to in order to climb out of the hole of suffering that was created for me. I used up a lot of time and energy in that dark place. It wasn’t the healthiest way to process, but I needed space to grieve and work through what had been taken away from me, how I had been treated, and what I wanted going forward. I had to take a step back and make myself the priority, appreciate the support of others, process my pain, and accept that things would just never be the same. 

I endured the losses and focused on what I could eventually gain. And while this is really too hard to explain, I now know that there’s a part of me that can forgive. It’s not a forgiveness based on wanting to fix things and it’s not a forgiveness based on allowing those who have hurt me back in my life. It’s more me saying, “You hurt me and tried to get power over me. I’m no longer allowing you to have that power, especially over my emotions. I take back my anger, my heartbreak, my pain. I no longer want you in my life, but I also don’t want anything bad to happen to you. That won’t fix anything. I’m moving on without you. And honestly, that’s going to work for the both of us. Because I can no longer do the dance or sacrifice my peace to make you feel good.” And the best thing about this? Now I can shift my energy back to those things I put on the backburner in order to deal with all that nonsense, and I’m happy to have that space. It’s made all the difference in the world and allowed me to be exactly who I want to be without having to apologize for it. 

You can learn more about Robert Enright, Ph. D. and his work at the International Forgiveness Institute's website.


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