Forgiveness: What It Is and What It Isn’t

We are often pressured to forgive those who have hurt us whether we are emotionally prepared to or not. We’re told that holding onto anger is more toxic to ourselves than the other person. The general definition of forgiveness is to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake.

But perhaps a better definition is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward someone who has hurt you. In order to truly practice forgiveness, you need to know what forgiveness actually is and what it is purported to be.

1. It is to be understanding.

A crucial aspect of forgiveness is working to understand the character of the person who you feel has hurt you. This doesn’t mean that you are empathizing with the person or validating what they’ve done. Understanding someone means that you can have a clear picture of who they were when they hurt you and who they are.

Consider patterns. Has the person consistently hurt you? Have they failed or outright refused to ask for forgiveness? Forgiveness is not about only one event and it entails making peace with the person’s character as a whole.

If you feel that it would not compromise your mental health and happiness, you could speak with the person you wish to understand. Even if they’re unable to articulate why they’ve done the things they’ve done, a conversation could still be an eye-opening experience for you.

Once you understand someone better, you can then decide how to move forward with the relationship. If the person has repeatedly shown themselves to be a toxic individual, it is perfectly reasonable for you to remove them from your life. A healthy distance can be necessary for your version of forgiveness.

2. It is not absolution.

The belief that forgiving someone means that you approve of their actions is possibly the most prevalent misconception of what forgiveness is.

We’re often told to forgive and forget even though you can truly never forget the hurt that someone caused you. When people ask you to forgive and forget, what they are really saying is they want you to pretend as if certain transgressions were never committed against you.

People are often encouraged to “be the bigger person” as if it makes you “small” to not act according to someone else’s idea of what forgiveness is. This can be detrimental to your mental health because you are being encouraged to put your feelings aside to maintain normalcy. This effectively absolves the person of their perceived transgressions against you.

This can happen among families where one relative has physically or mentally abused another. The wronged person feels pressured to feign forgiveness in order to keep the peace. This is not forgiveness, as it’s founded on lies and niceties rather than truth.

The path to forgiveness is not one without difficult conversations. Confrontation is not inherently bad and as a matter of fact, confrontation can be a vital step in the path to forgiveness.

3. It is an ongoing process.

You might find your feelings of anger and resentment resurfacing well after you thought you had forgiven the person. This is because forgiveness, contrary to popular belief, is not a singular event but an ongoing process.

Just like your emotions are ever-changing, so too is your level of forgiveness towards a person as well as your perspective on past perceived slights against you. Sustained effort towards self-serving forgiveness means talking through your feelings of hurt and resentment, ideally with a therapist.

While holding onto anger can be detrimental to your happiness, letting go of those feelings does not mean that you’re obligated to submit to anyone else’s version of forgiveness. There is no one way to forgive someone, and because forgiveness is about you and not the other person, the way that you forgive that person is for you to decide .

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