Now that we’ve dipped our toes into the idea of forgiveness – anyone, even people who have been deeply angry and/or deeply hurt by others can forgive, and that the first step is to decide with every fiber of your being that you want to forgive, and the second step is a moment of spontaneous forgiveness of something reasonably large – let’s discuss what forgiveness isn’t.
We’ll get deeper into the theory later on (it can be strange and unweildy, and this series is about the practical aspects of forgiveness, not the theory), but there are a bunch of things forgiveness isn’t:
- Forgiveness isn’t being a doormat to people who have hurt you, setting yourself up for more pain and anguish by allowing yourself to remain a victim and allowing people who hurt you to continue to do so.
- Forgiveness isn’t about changing other people’s thoughts, words, or deeds.
- Forgiveness isn’t about making your pain so iron-clad it becomes the banner behind which you mount an entire parade of your deep woundedness, and only after it passes to then have a small child whisper into the wind ‘I forgive you’ – this is another way of saying forgiveness doesn’t actually involve us making our pain and anguish our identity and then trying to forgive it.
So let’s go deeper with those.
Forgiveness Is Not An Excuse
When I talk about not being a doormat, what I’m really talking about is this: if I tell someone I forgive them for hurting me, and I’m really working to do that and I think I’ve done it, but then they hurt me again… And again. And again. And they do it in exactly the same way as before, to the same intensity or greater, and nothing has changed, but I’m still forgiving them. And perhaps we talk about it – and however much remorse that other person expresses I don’t actually see them trying to change their behavior, I can still forgive them. Yes, absolutely. But I don’t have to stay in that relationship. Forgiving them doesn’t mean I’m meant to stay, or I’m obliged to stay, or I ought to stay.
I do not have to forgive my abuser and go back for more abuse.
Forgiving my abuser is a beautiful thing if I can manage it, but I should really manage it from a distance, and without allowing them another opportunity to hurt me.
Now, every situation is unique, and all of your situations are unique to you. So I’m not telling you to stay, or to go. But I am advising you to start noticing:
- Am I being as clear, honest, and direct as I can in stating my own needs in this relationship… or am I obscuring them?
- Have I clearly, honestly, and directly stated that something they’re doing is clashing against a need I have to be safe, loved, and supported… or have I not actually mentioned anything exactly like that?
- If they’ve expressed remorse, has that remorse mobilized them to work on their own issues? Movement on this might include more clear, honest, and direct communication on their part, or trying different methods of interaction (even if they don’t work out, the attempt counts!), increasing the amount of self-care/self-awareness activities they engage in, or seeking outside help from friends or counselors.
These three things are important to notice and the first two are the most important to notice – don’t imagine that the other person in the difficult relationship can read your mind! If you haven’t mastered clear, honest, and direct communication, or are maybe just a tiny bit fuzzy on it, go check out the article on that here. If that’s a change you need to make, know that it’s a big one and that alone will take all your extra resources for a while. That’s okay – it’s worth it!
And it’s worth saying this too: if you have a gut feeling that it’s really not safe to tell someone how you really feel, what you really need, honor that feeling! Go with it! But the other side of that coin is this: If you don’t feel safe enough to tell someone how you really feel and what you really need, then that person isn’t a good candidate for any kind of intimate relationship. And as inconvenient as it can be to start suddenly noticing these things, your gut is rarely wrong.
And if you find yourself saying, But Sare! I don’t feel safe telling anyone I know what I really need and what I really feel! I get it. I really do. And that realization is a sign that you need to find a counselor you can really click with so you can work on healing all the things underneath that feeling. Because that small, uncomfortable realization is like the too-hot lid on a very large pot on the stove filled with boiling stuff that’s just barely not boiling over. And now that you notice the too-hot lid, that means you’re ready to deal with the four gallons of boiling yuck underneath it.
But don’t worry. :) That Boiling Pot Of Yuck was actually there yesterday, last year, and probably decades ago, and you just hadn’t noticed. Now that you’re noticing, you’ve got the resources you need to be able to deal with it and pour it out safely, ladle by ladle, and this is great news!
Forgiveness Is Not About Changing Others
The Stoics were the first in the recorded history of the world to really buckle down on this idea: the only thing you can change is yourself. And really specifically, the only thing in this wide world you can change are your thoughts. And the stoics didn’t even count that first knee-jerk reaction that might be unthinkingly cruel, or unspeakably fearful, or overwhelmingly rageful. Nope, that, they reckoned, was totally beyond human control. But every other thought, including all the ones that might cascade off that first knee-jerk thought was absolutely under the control of the individual and no one else.
And nothing else in the world is under your control.
Yes, we can influence people. We can influence the world around us. We might be people with an incredible amount of physical power or emotional power or charismatic power, we might be someone with great political power, or someone with great economic power. And yet… we can only ever be influenced by such people. Let me give some examples.
Physical Power: a bully or a personal trainer might have a great amount of physical power, and they might use them for their own personal gain at the expense of others, or they might use their power for the good of others, but either way, if I am bullied by them, or if I am being trained by them, they can only influence me. The trainer can inspire me, but I’m still the one who has to decide to do the work. The bully can frighten me, but I’m still the one who has to decide to go with the fear or to marshal my courage to the fore. Now, a bully, and a personal trainer, can feel as if they’re making a big difference in their world, changing lives around them, but that is only true so far as the people being influenced by them accept that influence.
Emotional Power: our parents have emotional power over us. Whether they’re alive or dead, close or estranged, whether we consider them having done well in parenting us or done poorly, if we had them at all they have emotional power, and it can be some of the most difficult power to buck. It can be the work of a lifetime to come to a place where the emotional power of one or both of our parents is only a suggestion on our behavior and not a requirement, but when we do come to that place we can see that even our parents can only influence us, and that we have a choice here, too.
Charismatic Power: you can think of this as peer pressure, or the crowd mentality, but it can also come up with just a single person, like a pastor you respect, or a celebrity you admire.
Political Power: here we have politicians and world leaders, yes, but also more local people who have the power to influence the creation and execution of the fundamental rules of our society. So a police officer might not have much political power, but a county sheriff who can direct their staff how to enforce the law does. But even those world leaders who are currently engaging in human rights violations in their own countries, or waging wars against their neighbors, even they cannot police the minds of the people. They can influence, certainly, but the final arbiter of what happens in people’s minds is their own.
Economic Power: hello, wealthy people. This includes minor amounts of wealth that allow for any discretionary income at all after all the necessities of life are paid for, all the way up to people rich enough to own their own rocket ships and single-handedly purchase large social media companies. They have an influence on the world, and on their own neighborhoods, certainly, but they also, just like everyone else on this list, cannot reach into your head and tell you what to think – though they might try.
Which leads us to an incredibly important and difficult point: Your mind is your responsibility.
With our world as it stands, this is a counter-cultural thought.
We are taught that we can change everything but our minds, that we have control over everything but our thoughts. We’re taught that with enough self-control we can change our bodies. We’re taught that with enough assertiveness we can change our finances. We’re taught that with enough determination we can change our social position and gain power over others, and power over our own situation.
But true power is power over ourselves, and I’m not talking about bodies here, I’m talking about our minds. True power is accepting responsibility for maintaining and changing the only thing we have absolute control over, even if we were raised to think that it was the one thing we absolutely did not have control over: our thoughts.
Any method of meditation and self-awareness will give you the tools you need but in the end it’s about what you decide is important to you, and that ties back around to forgiveness because forgiveness in the end is about you, not the other person. Forgiveness is about changing you, not the other person.
Because the only one you can change is you.
Forgiveness frees a little section of your mind from the toxicity it was marniating in and drains the toxicity away so you can reclaim that part of your thoughts for your own use.
Identifying With Pain First, Then Forgiving
If you’re reading this now and you haven’t had that first moment of spontaneous forgiveness and release yet, it’s totally natural that your pain and suffering has a four-block-long parade to its name, complete with floats enshrining various incidents and high school marching bands playing the songs of how you’ve been wronged.
I say again, this is normal. I had one of these parades, too.
And that’s a hard thing to break through, hence step one: declaring our intentions to the universe and step two: waiting for the universe to jump start the process with a little bit of spontaneous forgiveness.
And when you’ve passed step two and you’ve had that breath-taking moment of spontaneous forgiveness…
Then it’s time to slowly and gently give up the identity of victim. Slowly and gently, mind – no one is asking you to go any faster than you’re comfortable going. But there will come a time when it just won’t be useful to identify with all the pains and hurts anymore – it will be more useful to forgive them the moment they arise to your conscious perception. And similarly, there will come a time when you can actually preemptively forgive without even knowing how you might have been hurt. When you can read the signs of your life clearly enough to see that something is bubbling underneath the surface and you won’t even need to identify, ‘okay, who hurt me this time, and how long have I been carrying this pain?’ Morbid fascination aside, you won’t need to know, to bring it up, to make it painfully real before you attempt to forgive. That information will become less important to you, and it will be more important to just release it, and at that point you’ll also be able to do so.
So that’s what forgiveness isn’t. It isn’t an excuse to continue being victimized. It isn’t about trying to change anyone else. And it isn’t about carefully enumerating the ways you’ve been hurt and only then attempt to get over it.
Next week, we’ll talk about the nuts and bolts of how to do it, once you’ve had that moment of spontaneous forgiveness.