The Truth About Forgiveness

We’ve all heard it countless times. Forgive and forget. Simple enough words. Should be simple enough to do. So why is it that sometimes we have such trouble with one or the other – or both?

Well, before going any further, let’s clear up a few misconceptions about various parts of this old adage.

The first stumbling block that many people encounter is in the meaning of forgiveness. We think that if we forgive, we’re saying, “What you did to me is okay.” You may, in fact, decide that it really was okay, but that is not what forgiveness is. That is about a change in your perspective or understanding of the incident.

To forgive means that you’re no longer willing to carry the pain of the incident that was so hurtful to you. It means you understand that as long as you hold onto that grief, that anger, that indignation, that betrayal, that breach of trust, you are hurting yourself – and in many cases, the other person isn’t even bothered, isn’t aware, isn’t hurting right along with you just because you’re holding a grudge. He or she may have been out of the picture for years, moved on a long time ago, not giving it another thought, and there you are, chewing on it still.

The very notion of letting go of that pain can have you feeling like you’re betraying yourself, like you’re saying, “It was okay that this person did this terrible thing to me.” But really, all you’re doing is holding yourself hostage and perpetuating the pain, every single unpleasant thought and memory about the incident being another log thrown on the fire that destroys your peace, your happiness, and your life as it burns its way through your soul.

As long as you hold onto that pain, every time the memory comes up you’re immersing yourself in negative feelings. This will only cause further suffering, as you are willingly bringing that negativity into your life and your energy. No good can ever come from such a choice.

Another misconception that people sometimes have about forgiveness is that it can’t be done without an apology for the offending incident. It’s true that you might feel better after people say they’re sorry. You might feel as though their apologies validate your pain. But the truth is, to validate your feelings does not require the involvement of anyone else. Your feelings are valid because they exist. They’re already real because you’ve experienced them.

Or you might think an apology will give you hope that the same types of incidents won’t happen again if those people understand how hurt you felt. But really, that’s quite a reach. I mean it would be great if it always worked that way. But it doesn’t. Whatever caused those people’s offending behaviours in the first place may well be tied to their emotional wounds, which will not go away just because you happened to be on the receiving end of the fallout.

On top of that, even if people say they’re sorry, you might still feel hurt. You can still go and lick your wounds, no matter how much remorse or regret other people say they feel about their actions. It’s still entirely up to you whether or not you choose to let go of that pain.

And then, of course, there’s another scenario. They can say they’re sorry, but what if they don’t really mean it? What if the words come out of their mouths, and you think they mean it but they really don’t? You’ve heard the words, you think they’re sincere, and you’re now ready to let go of the pain and it feels so good. But unbeknownst to you, those people aren’t really sorry. So in reality, the remorse of other people has nothing to do with your ability to forgive. Once again, I will tell you that it’s entirely your choice to let go of that pain – or not. You can decide – at any point you choose – to let go of the incident and put it in the past.

Now – what about forgetting? What does this part of “forgive and forget” really mean? Do you actually have to forget that the incident ever happened? Of course you don’t. Although sometimes it happens naturally, there are bound to be incidents that are just too huge to escape the memory completely, especially when they’ve resulted in life-altering consequences.

When we say, “forgive and forget”, usually the “forget” part is just a byproduct of forgiving. It’s what happens to the incident that you’ve forgiven; it gets left behind in the past. Whether it’s literally disappeared from your consciousness, or you’ve released yourself from the prison of its pain, you’re prepared to move on and leave it where it belongs.

There is another aspect of this old adage that needs to be addressed. We’ve established that forgiveness is wonderful. It comes from our compassion for ourselves, and others, and is very healing, powerful – and empowering. And we’ve established that forgetting about an incident once you’ve resolved it in your heart and mind is also wonderful. So to “forgive and forget” is a great plan. Don’t carry the pain any more; let it go and move on.

But there is a catch. A little trap that can keep us stuck in the past, even though we think we’ve moved forward by forgiving and forgetting. It is in thinking that forgetting means “going back for more.” If you keep forgiving and forgetting the same incidents, the same behaviours, the same words over and over again from the same person or people, then you keep yourself imprisoned and stuck, unable to make any progress in your life. When you’ve learned all you can from your interactions with someone else and there is clearly no further forward movement, it is time to stop going back for more. Otherwise, you’re simply standing in your own way.

Forgive and forget as long as you’re able to continue in your own progress, your own development in your spiritual journey. But when doing so becomes a roadblock on that path and you are unable to move forward, remember that there is such a thing as “forgive, forget, and don’t go back for more.” Only you can decide when you’ve reached that point.

(Photo by Dwight Tracy from Freerange Stock)

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