“How am I supposed to forgive this person if I’m never going to see them again?” I hear this question a lot from friends and clients who had a difficult relationship with someone they are no longer able to contact. In a lot of these situations, the person does not even want the option to see the person again. However, he or she still feels guilty because they want to be able to forgive the person and find peace within themselves. The problem in these situations is that the person involved believes that true forgiveness does not happen until the two people have been reconciled and returned to their previous relationship.
The truth is that these two actions are separate and often must remain separate. As Henry Cloud says in Boundaries, “forgiveness has to do with the past. Reconciliation and boundaries have to do with the future.” We have to separate the two if we want to be able to find peace in our lives. Forgiveness requires a recognition of wrongs done in the past, but it is not necessary to reconcile with someone to forgive. In many situations, including abuse, it is not wise to seek reconciliation because the other party has not shown remorse or a change in behavior that would re-establish safety for both individuals.
So what does it mean to forgive? Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, not the other person. It does not mean that you deny that a wrong was ever done. The phrase, “forgive and forget,” implies that we have to forget the wrong done, but this often means bottling up our feelings and trying to pretend like nothing is wrong. This practice can be detrimental to your mental health. Instead, you must name the wrong that is done against you. You have to focus on the way you have wronged yourself by allowing the lack of forgiveness to make you feel angry and bitter. You also admit that you are the only one who can change. Over time, you begin to deal with the feelings of shame and guilt that you carry because the event happened to you. You also learn to process the memories in such a way that you no longer ruminate on them. Eventually, you come to a place where you feel at peace and can acknowledge that the pain has turned into a scar instead of an open wound.
There are times when forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, but both parties have to demonstrate that reconciliation is a safe journey to navigate. This means that the person who has wronged you needs to be able to own their mistakes and want to do better in the future. They show this by making changes to their behavior that you can see. It also means that they are willing to allow this process to take time and allow you the space to rebuild your trust in that person.
In order to reach reconciliation with someone, you must also be a person who can be reconciled with. This means that you must also be able to own your mistakes and show a change in your behavior. For many people, this starts with developing good boundaries for themselves and others.
Developing Good Boundaries
Learning how to set good boundaries for ourselves starts by resolving the guilt we feel by setting boundaries. We have to understand that boundaries allow us to love people better than if we never say, “no,” and always feel taken advantage of. Once we resolve this guilt, we have to learn to say no in a way that feels kind and loving to both ourselves and others. This is easier when we are able to trust ourselves to know what we want and need. When we have identified what we need and believe that it is good for us to need those things, it is easier to ask for them from others. For example, if you need more sleep each night be able to perform well at work, you have to trust yourself enough to calmly ask your partner or roommates to respect your need for sleep.
If you struggle with knowing how to forgive others, set boundaries, or know how to trust yourself, a therapist can help you discover these things for yourself. Call today to set up an appointment with a therapist that can help you with this process.