The idea of forgiving someone who has hurt/wronged us is an unnatural idea. As human beings, we both crave control in our lives (this makes us feel safe) and we are motivated to avoid pain (this also makes us feel safe). These two basic desires make it very difficult for us to forgive others and to let go of offenses. After all, we want to have some control over preventing bad things from happening to us in the future. Our desire to protect ourselves makes sense, however the way in which we go about it often leads to our continued harm.
Many people are credited with the some version of the following quote: “Unforgiveness is the poison we drink hoping the other person will die.” This is one of my favorite quotes, not just because of the imagery but also for its ability to cut right to the heart of the practical experience of unforgiveness. Basically, unforgiveness hurts you, not the other person. We think holding a grudge will protect us. It doesn’t. The reality is, when we hold onto unforgiveness we often replay the hurtful experience over and over again. In essence, we are afflicting ourselves with the same hurt over and over again. This works to deepen the wound and exponentially increase the impact of the offense. Essentially preventing us from healing from the hurt (because we keep opening the wound repeatedly).
No one consciously decides to cause themselves more harm, so why do we do this? We do this for several reasons: We replay the offense 1) to understand what happened, 2) to identify ways that we can prevent similar events from happening in the future, 3) to justify our anger or judgment of the person who offended us, and 4) to imagine a different outcome/imagine something we could have done to respond differently (“I wish I said/done this”). And while all of those reasons are perfectly logical, the result is contrary to our goal. For this does not prepare us better to handle the uncertain future, it doesn’t change the past, and it prevents us from experiencing a healthy present.
Forgiveness can feel unfair because the person who did the offending is “let off the hook” and that person is not punished or made to change. And in that sense, yes, forgiveness is not fair. However, you benefit from forgiveness much more than the person being forgiven. You are letting go of the weight of the offense, you are letting the wound heal, and you are no longer investing significant time and energy on a person/event that is unpleasant.
Sometimes people say to me, “But I don’t feel ready to forgive that person,” or “I can forgive but I can’t forget.” Both of these statements represent misunderstandings about what forgive is and what it can do for you. First, forgiveness is not a feeling. It is an action. Forgiveness is the recognition that a legitimate offense occurred followed by a decision to “drop the charges,” to stop replaying the event to yourself, to stop bringing up the offense to the other person, and to try your best to have positive or neutral thoughts about the person who offended you. The feelings and the forgetting of the offense occur after you have taken the actions to forgive. Forgetting is a result of forgiving, not the other way around.
Whenever I talk about forgiveness, I find it necessary to emphasize that the process and results of forgiveness will vary based on the situation. Many of the offenses we endure are not life-threatening. However, when the offense is in fact physically harmful or life-threatening (such as in the case of domestic violence), the results of forgiveness will look different. I often use the metaphor of forgiving a kitten versus a tiger. If a kitten scratches you, it hurts but you can forgive the kitten and remain physically close to it because you can handle a scratch in the future (your thoughts and feelings will probably change toward the kitten but your behavior might not). On the other hand, if a tiger scratches you, it hurts and potentially is life-threatening. You can forgive the tiger (stop replaying the scratch, think positively/neutrally about the tiger, wish the tiger well), but your behavior will change toward the tiger. You should either be physically far away from the tiger or there should be bars separating your physical space. So part of the process of forgiveness is identifying whether you are forgiving a kitten or a tiger and planning accordingly.
Shawn Healy, PhD