When, Why, and How to Forgive

The Modern Survival Guide #101

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. I am an opinionated bastard, no two ways about it. Sometimes I overstate my case in company (shockingly) and I need to ask for someone’s forgiveness after I unintentionally cause offense. Sometimes I am forgiven. Sometimes I shouldn’t be.

Let’s chat about forgiveness, shall we?

Make no mistake, forgiveness is a survival issue. We live in higher population densities than ever before, and the role of forgiveness has not changed. Forgiveness is a tool that we use in order to acknowledge and move past transgressions committed against us, for the purpose of continuing to live and work with other people (and ourselves). It is an extremely important component of maintaining good relationships with the people around us, and as the number of people we interact with rises, so does the importance of forgiveness.

But at the same time forgiveness is, in my humble opinion, one of those concepts that has been fetishized out of its proper proportion by certain elements of our society. There are folks out there who believe that forgiveness is a right, or a duty — who think that they automatically deserve forgiveness or must forgive others for their wrongdoings. Neither viewpoint is correct or a good way to live life.

So let’s look at when to forgive someone and why to forgive someone. Then we’ll talk about how to forgive.

When and Why to Forgive

Let’s go back to the concept of what forgiveness is. If we go with the Wikipedia definition, forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as resentment and vengeance, and gains an increased ability to wish the offender well.

Key takeaway points:

  • Only the victim can forgive.
  • Forgiveness is always a choice.
  • Forgiveness is focused on ending cycles of reprisal, gaining closure, and returning to a state of coexistence.

If we take these as a whole, this tells us when and why to forgive. We forgive someone when they have wronged us to such a degree that we would consider some sort of long-term grudge or reprisal, because we wish to close out the incident and live in peace with or around them.

I think there are four big points to make before we go any further.

The first one is that there is a difference between letting something go and forgiving someone. Letting something go is what you do when you just want to move forward. If you just need to let something go, forgiveness is not required. You just make the choice to not retaliate and try not to let the offense affect your relationship.

A lot of people seem to think that you can forgive someone without involving them in the conversation, and that’s not correct. You can let something go without involving the other person, but you can’t properly forgive them.

There is usually very little need to forgive minor slights, for example, if it’s something you can just let go. If it’s so minor that you could forget it tomorrow and nothing would change, just forget it tomorrow and keep the drama to minimum.

The second point is that forgiveness does not magically make everything OK. The core problems that caused the incident will probably still be there. Forgiveness does not solve these root problems. The emotions you felt before you forgave someone will probably still be there, at least in part. Forgiveness does not turn off emotions. It is a step on the path to healing, not the end of the journey.

The third point is that there is usually very little need to forgive major insults when someone isn’t sorry, and isn’t interested in going back to a positive relationship with you. Forgiveness depends on contrition on the part of the offender. Without contrition, forgiveness just turns into a “kick me” sign.

This quickly limits the range of people we might want to forgive. In practice it usually shrinks to our friends, family, and acquaintances. People outside of that range are probably either unaware that they have wronged us, or did so deliberately and are not interested in forgiveness.

Fourth and finally, whether to forgive or not is always a personal choice. You are under no obligation to forgive someone if you have no wish to maintain any sort of relationship with them. You are under no obligation to forgive someone if you feel that they deserve punishment. And you are under no obligation to forgive someone just because someone else tells you to forgive them. Forgiveness is a tool, not a requirement.

How to Forgive Another Person

OK, so let’s say that you decide to forgive someone — they have transgressed and are contrite, and you value them enough that you wish to let the incident go, accept their contrition, release them from their negative emotions around the incident, and move forward in healing a positive relationship. What’s the best way to go about doing this?

The process of forgiveness can be boiled down to a few steps in sequence:

  • Decide if you want a positive relationship with the other person. If you don’t, there’s no point in forgiving them.
  • Communicate to the other person that you are hurt, and they hurt you, but you want to move forward and maintain a positive relationship.
  • Try to understand their actions and motivations. It’s helpful sometimes to see things from the other person’s point of view; they may not have realized their actions were harmful, for example.
  • See if they apologize. If they don’t, they’re not contrite, and forgiveness is pointless because you’ll just set them up to hurt you again.
  • If they apologize, decide if you want to forgive them. Only forgive if you think you can let go of your feelings of hurt (or at least start to work through them) and move on. False forgiveness is worse than no forgiveness.
  • Speak or write the words “I forgive you.” If you can understand their point of view, if you feel like you can move past the incident, if they have expressed remorse, and if you feel like you can continue in a positive relationship, then tell them you have forgiven them. Silent forgiveness isn’t forgiveness, because you haven’t communicated with the other person and forgiveness is about both of you.
  • Once you have forgiven the other party, try to let go of the emotions involved in the incident. You cannot return to a good relationship if you are in a bad emotional space. You don’t have to turn off the hurt overnight, but you should work to let it go sooner rather than later.

Forgiving someone in this fashion is an act of reaffirming your self-worth, acknowledging the worth of the other person, and regaining a degree of control in a relationship. It is a powerful act of self-affirmation and communication, and can lead to deeper, stronger relationships. When tempered by a good blacksmith, steel gets stronger. So also with relationships and forgiveness.

Now for the flip side — forgiving someone who does not want forgiveness is pointless. It’s worse than an exercise in futility, it is actually handing them even more control and even more power to hurt you in the future. Similarly, if you forgive someone once and they revert to a pattern of abuse, forgiving them again is probably not the best idea. Forgiving someone is a choice, not an obligation, and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes.

So be careful with your forgiveness. It’s a blessing that you extend to others. It is not an obligation, it is not a duty, and it is dangerous to extend forgiveness to the wrong person. With that being said, it’s also one of the best things you can do to maintain good relationships in life. To err is human. People will do things to you that may prompt forgiveness, and you will certainly do things to others for which you may hope for forgiveness. Do unto others and all that.

How to Forgive Yourself

There’s another instance where forgiveness is commonly referenced, and that is on the topic of forgiving yourself. This usually comes up in a situation where you have done something in the past that is causing you grief in the present due to guilt or regret. It’s very common in therapy circles to talk about forgiving yourself to move past these kinds of episodes and get on with life.

Now, personally, I don’t think that there is any such thing as forgiving yourself in any case where you have harmed another person. That’s a case of asking for forgiveness from someone else. It’s up to them to forgive you. If they don’t, tough shit. That means you have the obligation to learn and grow from the event, which may involve a need to change your behavior, but you don’t get to absolve yourself of guilt, grief, sorrow, or regret. That’s yours until the wronged party releases you, and that’s how it should be. As adults it is incumbent upon us to take responsibility for our actions and to understand that there’s no going back from some things.

However, in situations where you have screwed up, and the person harmed was yourself, forgiving yourself can be a good way to move past the incident. We are usually our own worst critics, and being able to move past episodes of self-flagellation is a necessary component of living a good life. Here are some steps to do that:

  • Identify the incident that is causing you distress: Sometimes it can be tough to forgive ourselves because, frankly, we mess up a lot of things and they all run together. Narrow the field down to one particular thing at a time.
  • Admit that you were wrong: Unless you do this, you’ll just circle around rationalizations for the incident. Taking ownership of the incident gives you power over it — it means you can choose to make changes that will prevent similar occurrences in the future. Alternately, if you genuinely feel that you were not at fault, that too is a release.
  • Release negative emotions: Once you have acknowledged the incident, try to identify the negative emotions associated with it and focus on ways to release them. Are you angry with yourself? Are you ashamed? Are you frustrated? Try to remember that everyone screws up, it’s not just you. Then acknowledge the emotion (in words — mental, verbal, or written), acknowledge that it has served its purpose (to prompt a change), and try to let it go.
  • Apply lessons learned: Your brain is a logic engine, and it likes it when you do things for reasons. Take lessons learned from the incident and apply positive changes to your life. You will feel a sense of reward for doing so. This is one of the primary survival strategies of the human species, and we’re programmed to reward ourselves for solving problems. Use that.
  • Let it go: Once you’ve identified the incident, acknowledged your mistake, tried to release your negative emotions and made changes based on lessons learned, it’s time to let go. Again, it may help to make a verbal or physical statement. Letting go doesn’t mean you forget, and it doesn’t mean the incident never happened, it simply means that you are making a choice to no longer beat yourself up over it.
  • If nothing else works, seek help: If you’re trying to forgive yourself but you get stuck, it may be useful to seek professional help. A good therapist is worth their weight in gold, and sometimes it really is helpful to talk about your problems with a neutral party. Saying things out loud has a way of clarifying issues from time to time.

Forgiving yourself will help you immensely in life, if done correctly. But be careful, because it’s very easy to mess up this process by forgiving yourself indiscriminately. As with forgiving others, forgiving yourself is choice, not an obligation. Only you can know which things you have messed up that require you to forgive yourself, and only you can know if forgiveness is appropriate. Sometimes living with guilt, regret, sorrow, etc. is a valid method of fostering self-improvement. Sometimes it’s not. You’re going to need to make that call.

To Forgive is Divine

Forgiveness is important because it offers us release. It allows us to acknowledge and close incidents that have the potential to drain our energy and cause us ongoing pain. And it releases others from guilt and other negative emotions that hold them back as well. To forgive is divine; it is one of the key acts that we can use on a regular basis to make our world a little easier to live in.

But forgiveness cannot be limitless and should not be a panacea. God may forgive all, but here on Earth we have to make choices. Be careful who you forgive. Be careful why you forgive. Be careful when thinking about what forgiveness means. Getting any of these wrong will make your life worse, not better.

But after you’ve been careful, after you’ve given things due consideration, after you have made your choices… I hope you can forgive. At least, I hope you forgive when people are worth it.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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