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All of us have been hurt in one way or another by someone else. While it is easy to forgive a friend for the slight distress we feel over a phone call that was not returned, it is not so easy to forgive those who have harmed us in a major way. The greatest hurt seems to come from those who play the most significant roles in our lives.
The enormity of the hurt may lead us to conclude that we can never forgive the other person. To forgive or not to forgive is one of our life choices. It is important for our own emotional well-being to understand that it is a choice and a choice with consequences.
Consider this question. If the harm we have experienced leads us to a life dominated by unresolved anger, a negative image of ourselves and an inability to trust, are we not allowing the perpetrator to continue to have power over us?
When we have sleepless nights cycling and recycling thoughts about old hurts, when we seethe with anger, when we ask questions repetitively that seem to have no answers, we continue to suffer the consequences of being hurt. Perhaps our goal should be to find a way to free ourselves from the damage and to reclaim our lives for ourselves.
There are many ways of being hurt. Some are minor and some are more severe. In some cases we are the unwitting victim of those who hurt us. At other times we collude in allowing ourselves to suffer by building expectations that make us vulnerable or placing our trust in the wrong places.
Whatever the nature of the damage done to us, it is a potential source of learning. We can allow the hurt to keep us down as we continue to play the role of the victim, or alternatively, we can learn to overcome it, adapt to it, try to make sure that it never happens again and if it does occur again, learn to deal with it effectively.
Forgiving the one who caused us harm may seem like the last thing we would want to do. After all, by not forgiving, we can hold onto the belief that we have some power over the perpetrator and that we can therefore prevent the harm from ever happening to us again. Or we may be so invested in playing the role of victim that to forgive would mean giving up a large part of how we define ourselves.
An important point to keep in mind is that when we forgive, we are doing it for ourselves, not for the other person. Forgiving is one way of letting go of old baggage so that we can move on with our lives. Forgiveness does not change that past but it does change what we can have in the future.
There are no deadlines for choosing the option of forgiveness.
Forgiving is a highly personal act and it will not happen until we are ready to let go of the old hurt and move on in our lives with a sense of personal empowerment. Premature forgiveness is not really forgiveness at all. We must prepare for it and this requires a deep look into our lives. After all, it is a choice and some people may choose not to forgive at all. This is a perfectly valid personal decision in certain situations.
Forgiveness is not a way of forgetting the past.
Indeed, if we have been harmed, we should not forget it. We can learn from the past about how to avoid being harmed in the future. Nor is forgiveness a way of exonerating the perpetrator. We recognize that the harm did happen, that the other person is responsible for it and must come to terms with their own guilt.
We are not trying to minimize the harm or claim that the behavior was acceptable. When we forgive, we are not sacrificing anything or giving up our sense of self-worth. Indeed, we are doing the opposite by taking a stand that says we are strong and finally free of playing the role of victim.
Forgiveness is a way of declaring our integrity.
Forgiveness is a way of saying, “It is time for healing. The pain of the past should now be put behind me.”
Thus, forgiving is a way to express self assertion and positive self-esteem. To forgive is to declare that our identity is centered around far more than the intense feelings that come from the past. It means that we have better things to do in life than continuing to live under the influence of the one who has caused the pain.
Forgiveness implies that we no longer need to hold grudges. We no longer need self-pity or hatred and we declare ourselves free from victimhood.
Forgiveness signifies breaking the cycle of pain and abuse, giving up the belief that the other person should hurt as much as we do. It means abandoning the myth that if we hurt the other person, it will make us feel better. To forgive implies giving up the unrealistic hope that an apology will have the same meaning to the perpetrator as it has for us. It tells us that we are moving our energy from negative to positive.
J.M. Evosevich, Ph.D., LMFT, CADC (MFC33118) is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Palm Springs. He works with individuals and couples to assist them in dealing with the stress that life brings to have happier, healthier relationships. If you have a question you would like to see answered in this column, call 760.778.4929 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org