“Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got.” -R. Brault
Forgiveness is difficult, even when the offending person has apologized. When we are deeply hurt by someone we care about, it leaves emotional scars that can last for a very long time. And then there are the offenses that go unacknowledged. Those are the worst. Particularly if it’s clear that there is no remorse. Forgiving people who aren’t sorry can be a long, challenging process.
When we think about forgiveness, we often consider it an act of kindness toward the offender. It is tempting to hold onto a grudge when we think about forgiveness as “letting someone off the hook.” After all, when we hurt, it’s only fair that the other person should hurt too, right? And to forgive someone who isn’t even sorry? Wow. That must require some sort of sainthood.
The reality is, forgiveness is more about self-preservation and wellness than anything else.
The toxicity of anger over a long period of time can have a variety of effects on physical and emotional health. Higher blood pressure, decreased immunity and general emotional distress are only a few of the reasons to let go of the anger. One of the most difficult parts of forgiveness is related to ego.
Not the “I’m so much better than everyone else” type of ego (as in egotistical), but the normal, developmentally healthy ego that each of us has within. Our ego is often harmed when someone does something that is hurtful. Our sense of safety, acknowledgement and validation as a person is called into question.
This type of violation of our right to feel respected and safe is at the crux of most types of anger. It’s very difficult to navigate our emotions around a breach of trust. Anger is a natural response to this type of violation. It makes sense that forgiving someone is such a difficult task. Remorse at least cushions the process a bit.
When the offending person isn’t sorry, it is even more deeply offensive because there is a lack of acknowledgement of this violation.
It’s as if the other person doesn’t see anything wrong with the behavior. This suggests that they don’t carry the same internal behavioral norms that we do. Perhaps they hold themselves to a different standard than they do everyone else. It is tempting to analyze the motives of others and try to make sense of these things. We can analyze and speculate, but it doesn’t really matter why a person doesn’t feel badly about an offense, or even whether they recognize it as being a bad behavior. What matters is our own responses to those experiences, because in the end, we live with our own mind and conscience, not theirs.
How to forgive:
It all sounds good, but how to put it into practice? Forgiveness is a very personal journey, so there isn’t a precise path.One of the first steps in forgiveness is taking a self-inventory of feelings. There are several ways to do this:
Write a no-send letter to the offending person.
In the letter, list what the offending person did and the feelings it brought up for you. Try to go deeper into your feelings than just “angry” “hurt” or “sad.” Do you feel resentful? Embarrassed? Betrayed? If you’re struggling with identifying the exact feelings, consider looking through a list of emotions to find the ones that resonate in your situation.
Record your thoughts and feelings.
While this may feel awkward at first, sometimes talking aloud helps us elicit deeper thoughts and feelings that aren’t on the surface. Perhaps it would feel more natural to imagine you are talking to a friend, or maybe you’d prefer a more stream-of-conscious type of style. The format doesn’t matter as much as the method.
When you listen to the recording, pay attention to the feelings-words. Write those words down and rate the depth of each feeling, one being the lowest amount of impact on your wellbeing and ten being the most significant.
Express yourself. Pent up anger and frustration doesn’t help anyone. Try a few of these forms of self-expression to channel your feelings into something constructive:
Musical expression can be a great way to expel some of the toxins that build up when a grudge has been brewing for a long time.
Create some music (karaoke, anyone?)! Get out there and sing your heart out, direct the energy and emotions you’ve been carrying into a song that expresses how you feel. Play a musical instrument? Even better. Whether you’re in the privacy of your own home or playing on the stage at an open-mike night, let your music communicate how you feel and you are bound to feel lighter when you’re done.
Do you have a close friend or counselor whom you trust deeply? Try a role-play activity in which the other person plays the role of the offender. Tell him or her how you feel. Plan in advance whether the person in the offender role will respond or will keep quiet and let you vent about your feelings.
Art it out.
Create a visual representation of your feelings. Whether you use paint, collage, sculpture or use another expressive medium, hone in on your feelings and let that be the inspiration.
In the initial stages of anger, sadness and betrayal, it is difficult to think about the big picture. When working on forgiveness, the creation of meaning out of pain is an important step. Try some of these ideas to work on incorporating it into your life story.
What have you learned?
Try to focus on the take-away from this situation. While it may be tempting to adopt the mindset “trust no one,” that is probably not the most useful mantra for your healing process. What does this situation tell you about yourself and your values? What do you need to protect yourself in the future?
Move toward empathy.
As crazy as it sounds, exploring empathy for the person who offended you is one of the best ways to forgive. Once again, remember that the process of forgiveness is for your own sake more than anyone else’s. Empathizing with your offender doesn’t mean they “had a right” to do what they did, it just means that you are expanding your capacity for understanding human nature.
Maybe the person is emotionally clueless and operates out of a place of self-preservation. Explore the idea that the offense is actually a statement about them rather than you. This enables you to distance yourself and view the behavior as being a result of their own fallibility. When you’re not taking their bad behavior personally, it helps remind you that this is about them.
Ultimately, we forgive others because it takes the burden off us to carry that heavy anger around. These techniques are also useful in the effort of self-forgiveness.