As we navigate the process of forgiveness, it can be important to remember that even painful lessons are often necessary for our continued evolution. Sometimes the most efficient way to learn who we want to become is by experiencing firsthand who we do not want to be.
What better situation to challenge ourselves than to be slighted, hurt or disappointed by a person or situation we wanted to unfold differently? Rather than viewing forgiveness as a necessary evil, we could choose to embrace it as a valuable opportunity for growth.Many would argue “acceptance” is the key not only to freeing ourselves from anger, but it also facilitates forgiveness in the truest sense of the word. As clinicians, we need to remember that true acceptance requires us to let go of our agendas, including eliminating behavior such as avoidance or rage. The saying in AA “our secrets keep us sick” holds true for many individuals, but what if we are not ready to scrape the scab off of our wounds? Healing, just like forgiveness, is a process with miracles throughout the journey, not just upon arrival at the destination.
Rather than profess there is a right or wrong way to heal, here are several factors to consider while navigating your own way towards forgiveness.
- Forgiveness is a Process
Some may argue true forgiveness occurs as a single event, never to be revisited, but in my experience, the process of forgiveness has often ebbed and flowed in numerous directions, taking many unexpected turns. Sometimes old injuries linger longer than we think they “should,” or give the appearance of being healed when in truth the fresh wound is only disguised by a superficial scab. Perhaps our souls know we have more forgiving to do, but our minds are still catching up to that truth, so we tell ourselves the story we want to believe, which is we no longer hurt or hold resentment. In some cases, we may believe we have moved past certain issues, only to have a similar event trigger the original pain like the ache of a phantom limb.
Most often, the therapeutic goal is to move past the hurt and resentment, but what if there are valuable lessons to be learned by holding onto our hurt a little bit longer?
- Forgiveness Does Not Imply the Absence of Wrongdoing
The fact we acknowledge there is something to forgive is proof a transgression occurred, so the question becomes how we choose to handle it. We can take a passive approach and do our best to ignore it, simply hoping it goes away and never happens again, or we can hold onto rage and plot our revenge. We may choose to internally validate our pain and move forward, not outwardly confronting the issue, all the while holding strong to our position that what occurred was hurtful.
There is a major difference between condoning and condemning behavior, so compassionately setting boundaries can be a lovely medium between the two extremes.
- Forgiveness Can Be Excruciatingly Difficult
To forgive without retaliation is to literally defy the Law of Physics and prove not every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is the work of superheroes, so rather than use the old cliché “turn the other the cheek,” what we should be saying is “put on your cape and fly.” Furthermore, to immediately forgive is not the best option for everyone. We need to remember that forgiveness can still occur after major retaliation, but it might require us to ultimately forgive ourselves for the retribution.
Many survivors of horrific abuse have a more challenging time making sense of their rage towards their attacker, than processing the actual attack itself. We are programmed by social media to believe that our hate will make us feel better, only to find ourselves in more pain and isolation, drowning in the same hate we thought would set us free.
That being said, some may believe they need to retaliate physically, mentally, monetarily or legally in order to heal, and what a gift it would be for us to accept their response, even if it is not the way we would handle it.
- Anger Can Be Necessary
Many of us have been taught to release anything that no longer serves us, like a Band-Aid ripped off and subsequently discarded. But what if our wound isn’t fully healed or the Band-Aid serves another purpose? Perhaps its primary function isn’t simply to keep the injury clean, but also to remind us of the wound’s existence and to take extra precaution with the damaged area. Maybe the Band-Aid is covered in Bart Simpson characters (and you really dig the Simpsons) so it makes you smile. Whatever the reason, if the Band-Aid is still a part of your experience, rest assured it is serving a purpose.
- Anger Isn’t Always a Bad Thing
Anger is our metaphorical Band-Aid, as it’s the easiest way to keep our wounds hidden away and protected. When it comes to avoiding the very emotions often necessary in resolving internal or external conflict, getting angry is the easiest way out. When we don’t want to feel anxiety, vulnerability or fear, we can choose to become angry for a variety of reasons, one of which is the fact it trumps all other emotions. We know the more incensed someone becomes during conflict, the more they are relying on rage to protect their hurt, so why don’t we use that knowledge to our advantage and honor a person is doing the best with the tools that they have to keep themselves safe.
If what we resist persists, the more we fight against our rage or inability to forgive, the more of it we are bound to experience. Rather than attempt to “get rid of” or avoid anger, perhaps we could choose to embrace it and learn what purpose it is serving for ourselves or our clients. True freedom is available to all of us willing to release our ego’s need to live in the past and relive old acts of injustice, or ponder future unpleasant occurrences. Freedom is here in the present moment, where we can accept all that is and realize there was never anything to forgive.