The Heart of Forgiveness
“Holding a grudge is like letting someone live rent-free inside your head”.
Who has not heard the words “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? We all know that words hurt just as much as sticks and stones of often much more and for much longer. In fact, words are usually at the forefront of offense and unforgiveness (resentment, grudges, retaliation). It has been said that holding onto unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. The grudge holder is only hurting himself.
We know all of this, don’t we? So why is it so hard for us to forgive and move on? Why do we let what people do to us affect us so much and often to the point that we view them as enemies? We will get to this a little later on. First of all, let’s get a visual of what unforgiveness is and what it can look like. In a talk given by Bill Lewis (not the comedian), a leadership speaker, unforgiveness can be compared to a big burlap bag that we carry over our shoulder. Each offense that we do not let go of (that we don’t forgive) is a rock that we put into the bag. Over the course of time, more and more rocks go into the bag which gets heavier and heavier until it is hard to bear.
Forgiveness is if we continue with the analogy, the act of taking rocks out of our bag to lighten our load. It is the act of canceling any guilt or obligation that someone has towards us and releasing ourselves from carrying the load. Forgiveness is also a singular act. It requires no action on the part of the person being forgiven; it is a choice we make. So why do we have so much trouble forgiving – after all, it looks straightforward. The reason is that we have misconceptions about what forgiveness is.
The greatest authority on forgiveness writes this:
“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you”. Ephesians 4:32
Hindrances to Forgiveness
Forgiveness can often feel like an impossible barrier to get over. It may feel like the other person doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. The offense may have cause s0 much pain that we may not even feel that we have the emotional energy to forgive. There are three main reasons why people resist forgiving someone who has hurt them or taken something from them.
(1) Not ready to Forgive
We may not feel ready to take this step. Perhaps we are still working through and trying to make sense of the pain and hurt feelings we experience. In many cases, the feelings and the hurt may just be too raw.
We may also not wish to forgive because we somehow fear that it will make us vulnerable to more hurt. We might be afraid that we have to protect our broken feelings, our emotional health, and even physical integrity.
(3) Fear of Reactions
Another fear is that of how the other person will respond to us or view us. Perhaps they will see us as weak or a “carpet” they can step on. Maybe we feel that our forgiveness will not change anything in their behavior so it is not worth doing.
These obstacles to forgiving result largely from misconceptions of what forgiveness really means and represents. In our heads, we tend to think we are somehow doing the other person a favor or that we are excusing their behavior toward us. Many often equate forgiveness with reconciliation and expect that it will make the situation all better. Let’s look at what forgiveness is not.
What Forgiveness Is Not
(1) Forgiveness is not natural to us.
(2) Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Forgiveness is a singular act (one person’s choice) and it does not require you to fix the situation. It does not even require you to reconcile with the person.
(3) Forgiveness is not a feeling or even based on feelings. It is simply a choice.
(4) Forgiveness is not about excusing the wrong, being a carpet or letting the person get away with something.
(5) Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.
(6) Forgiveness is not about fair or not fair. In fact, it has nothing to do with fairness.
Unforgiveness does not always look the same from person to person. It can be quite complex and masked under behaviors that are more (or less) socially acceptable in the sense that they have come to be seen as natural and normal and even justifiable.
The 4 R’s (Faces) of Unforgiveness
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and realize the prisoner was you.” Anonymous
There are typically four ways we dig in our heals in response to being somehow wronged in one way or another.
Retaliation is an aggressive way to deal with being wronged. People who chose this path want to get even or show the person who hurt them how it feels. they want to give them a taste of their own medicine, so to speak. “I’m going to show you”, they may say, “Just wait and see”.
The problem with retaliation is that in fact, we are bringing ourselves down to their level of offense, becoming what we said we hate. It is a lose-lose situation. Furthermore, we risk losing credibility and even doing something we may regret later when our emotions have calmed down.
This attitude requires the person to pay back (with interest) for what they have done. For example, they might demand an apology and in extreme cases take the person to court (reality TV is full of these kinds of scenarios).
The problem with this reaction is that, no matter how much the person apologizes or pays up in court, it can never restore a relationship. There are simply not enough apologies that can be made or enough money that can be given that will fix what is broken.
The person who chooses this form of unforgiveness holds onto a grudge, sometimes for years. He or she chooses to harden their heart toward the offender in a twisted notion that they are somehow punishing the offender by holding the grudge as if, somehow justice has been served in this way.
Finally, some people choose to cut people off and out of their lives. They unfriend them on Facebook, they block them on their phone and basically pretend that they don’t exist, that they are no longer on the planet. They no longer have access to us.
This reaction festers inside us, making us bitter. If we allow resentment to linger and grow, it will ignite negative emotions, stress and, of course, lead to illness. In fact, resentment poisons us inside and does nothing to the person who wronged us. The question we need to ask here is not ” Was I wronged”?, but “what am I doing to myself”?
“Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.” Tony Robbins
The Stages of Forgiveness
Yes, there are stages; it is a process. There is a misconception that forgiveness is supposed to be instantaneous and then everyone can sing “sing Kumbaya” together. Not exactly.
(1) Face the Offense
Rather than mentally blocking it out, pushing it under the carpet or denying it (and maybe blaming ourselves), we need to acknowledge that harm was done. We need to take the time we need to think through the offense. This does not mean play it over like a movie in our head and exaggerating the scenes or changing the script. What we should be doing is think through the situation and even try to look at it through the lens of the offending party.
(2) Feel the Offense
Determine exactly what you feel or how you were feeling. Identify the feelings you experienced. Remember that feelings are transitory. Ask if you were actually feeling one way or another or if you felt you had the right to feel that way based on the offense. Separate the feelings from the facts.
(3) Forgive the Offender
It is time to step up to bat and decide to forgive. In doing so, you will take the stress off your shoulders and liberate yourself from negative emotions and stress.
“To err is human, to forgive is divine”.
(4) Further Action
At this point, you can decide if reconciliation and restoration of the relationship are possible or even necessary. Forgiveness frees you of your responsibility, but reconciliation will require both parties to desire to move forward together.
Back To The Burlap Bag
We saw earlier, that holding on to hurts and unforgiveness is like carrying around a burlap bag filled with an accumulation of stones (hurts). Pain and hurt feelings are what keep us from letting go and figuratively taking out the stones from the bag to lighten the load. Our feelings will almost always get us in trouble if we depend on them. They are irrational and never give us a clear, accurate picture – they are just too subjective.
And what do we often do when we have experienced hurt? We rush to one of our good friends or confidant (who is probably carrying his own bag of stones). They listen to us, sympathize with us and puff up our side of the story – “He said what”? “Oh my goodness! That”s terrible”! And soon the rocks in our burlap sack have become boulders and we are no further ahead to resolving the problem. In fact, the problem is probably worse now.
We Need Perspective
We need to talk to a “stone remover” – someone who knows how to help us think clearly through the problem. What we need is strategies and perspectives, not someone who will only parrot our feelings and build them up so that the situation becomes worse than it was before. We need someone to help us deal with the situation and not discredit the person who offended us. Having someone else to help us see the situation from the outside and in a larger scope can be very useful in helping us to see our situation with clarity.
Diana Lynne’s passions are family, travel, self-improvement, pursuing a debt-free/financially free life. She also loves hanging out with family, friends and being with her dog Skye. Diana is a Quebec City girl. who loves living life. You can connect with her through Livingandstuff.ca