Forgiveness is a word that gets tossed around a lot, but rarely with much explanation. Most of us learn as kids that we should forgive. In some ways, it’s become the expectation. If someone says they’re sorry, we are supposed to forgive them seemingly as if we owe it to them. I think this line of thinking is faulty, warping the nature of forgiveness, and taking away much of its power.
Where it Starts
Forgiveness starts with being wronged. Someone mistreats you in some way, and you are left feeling hurt and likely angry. If you have truly been mistreated or hurt, those angry or sad or hurt reactions are absolutely appropriate. Those feelings let us know that something is wrong and that we did not deserve that kind of treatment.
The tendency after being wronged is to rush past the anger, sadness, or hurt and immediately forgive. Socially from the time we were children we hear that we aren’t “supposed” to be mad or hurt and we are supposed to forgive. If we aren’t ready, if we can’t let go of the anger quickly, then the pressure of reconciling is now shifted onto the one who was wronged instead of the one who wronged. Remembering that can help process what happened in your own time, and it’s okay to ask for space to do so.
A Pardon, Even Though There Are Consequences
In reality, at the core of forgiveness we see it is something that is NOT deserved. To forgive is to acknowledge that someone messed up, they did wrong, and even so, you are going to pardon them. In court, pardoning is defined as “a remission of the legal consequences of an offense”. Likewise, forgiveness is like a remission of the emotional or relational consequences of an offense. “Consequences” is an important word to notice here; it implies some deserving. If someone kicks you, the consequences of their actions include that you are going to be hurt, sad, or angry. That is the appropriate reaction to their behavior. To forgive would be to acknowledge that they kicked you and that it was wrong, that it was hurtful, that you are angry and deserve to be angry, but that you are choosing to pardon them anyway, putting away the anger and the grudge that is likely to build up over time.
Forgiveness is a choice. It is something you get to choose to do, not something you owe to the wrongdoer; not something they deserve; but a grace you are extending to them. When we recognize this, it gives us back a sense of agency in the process, allowing for more authentic forgiveness (if we do decide to forgive).
Forgiveness is tricky, and shouldn’t be rushed. It is a process, and we would love to explore it with you! Give us a call if you are interested in better understand or working through forgiveness.
Written by therapist Clair Miller
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