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We are told that forgiving is good. But what is good about it? What the real forgiveness is and what it is not. And how do we really forgive? This blog post explores all of these forgiveness related questions and more.
Forgiveness is a powerful internal act of self-care which allows us to gain peace with the past and the present in a way that brings us relief and helps us to move on from the pain and resentment. We call this act “forgiveness” when it happens in a relationship and “letting go” when it is this act directed towards the reality. 

Forgiveness has a healing and freeing power which happens within ourselves – we may, but we do not always have to share it with the one we are forgiving. Acceptance of the reality is an essential part of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness implies that there was an act which caused negative consequences,  which somebody has to be forgiven for. Lets call this act a ‘negative act’. The extent of the consequences caused by a negative act determines the amount of pain to be forgiven.

Only after we face the reality we can consolidate our feelings and judgment together in the way that will make it possible for the real forgiveness to occur

The reality is – it is impossible to truly forgive unless you know what it is that we are forgiving for, and you are willing to face pain and discomfort in order to save the connection. We can only know what it is that we are forgiving for, when we do not avoid honestly facing the hurt and damage the ‘negative act’ caused to us,  experience our honest emotional reactions to that hurt and damage, and then objectively evaluate the act.

So, as we experience our feeling and they start to gradually subside, we need to consider what happened with honesty and fairness: Did the person mean it hurting us? How did they reacted and behaved after? Did they stop? Do we hold them truly accountable for their actions? Do we put any of our own issues on them? Because if we decide to hold on to the pain caused by someone’s act – the hurt we cause ourselves is no longer responsibility of the person who caused us pain in the first instance.

It is important to remember, that if the pain caused by the act is great, even when person wants to wholeheartedly forgive another for causing that pain – processing of pain and anger has to take place before the full forgiveness can take place. The wound has to heal first.

Only after these steps take place we can consolidate our feeling and judgment together in the way that will make it possible for the real forgiveness to occur. And even if, for whatever reason, it is too much to forgive in one go – whatever part of the pain we have processed and freed ourselves from – it is still worth the effort.

Forgiveness does not imply full recovery of  trust

Even though forgiveness operates in relationships it does not imply full recovery of the relationship in which ‘negative act’ occurred. Sometimes forgiveness takes place, but the relationship is over. Forgiveness also does not imply the repair of the damage, it only implies that you have dealt with negative consequences and you can now move on in your life feeling slightly better about yourself.

The trick is that many people try “to forgive” as a way to avoid their pain and anger that the ‘negative act’ caused, thus denying the reality. This kind of “trying to forgive” not fully knowing what it is they are forgiving for (as they have not faced the actual hurt and damage caused to them) simply does not work, as it is closer to denial than forgiveness.

In our work we usually see the following three main internal reasons why people have difficulty achieving honest forgiveness, when they consciously want to: they avoid their pain; they scared that their feeling anger can negatively impact their relationship; and they are avoiding guilt – if this act reminded them of something that they feel guilty about doing in the past.

You cannot really forgive the person who hurts you on purpose and refuses to take responsibility for their actions.

The obvious external reason that makes it hard if not impossible for anyone to forgive is that person who caused the damage – knows it, but does not take responsibility for their act.  In the same way it is impossible to fully forgive someone who continues to act in a hurtful for you way. And it is impossible to forgive, when the ‘negative act’ has not yet finished. (Unless the person is significantly cognitively and developmentally handicapped.)

Then what you may need more than forgiveness is  to accept the reality of how things are, and to take care of yourself and your feelings of pain and anger within the relationship that neglects your feelings. This will most likely imply keeping physical or emotional distance from that person.

Forgiveness sometimes misperceived as a permission to another person to do the same negative act again, but that is not what forgiveness is. Being forced to enable something that hurts you or what you disagree with is an act of abuse, something opposite of forgiveness, which is an act of freeing yourself from internal emotional burden resulting from other person’s actions.

As always, send us your questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them.

Valeria Zoteyeva, Health Psychologist,
This post is an intellectual property of the Melbourne Health Psychology Centre (c) 2020

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