“I’ll never forgive him for what he did to me,” a woman declares about the person who abused her. “Sometimes I wish I could forget it, but it hurts too much.” “I can’t forgive her for cheating on me,” says a young man, “She broke my heart.” ‘“He kept begging me to forgive him and then he would do it again. I’m not going to fall for that again.”
For many people, the concept of forgiveness conjures up thoughts and feelings related to guilt and justice undone.
For some, feeling pressured to ‘forgive’ has resulted in them having to relive the same pain all over again, when the behaviour didn’t change.
Sometimes forgiveness is not the right thing to do. Sometimes you need to push for a specific outcome, behaviour, or change. This post is not intended to presume that you need to forgive, in your situation. It is only meant to provide some thoughts about when forgiveness might be helpful to you.
Recently, I heard an interview with Wilma Derksen, a woman whose pre-teen daughter was murdered 30 years ago, and whose case remains unsolved. In the interview, she spoke about her journey with forgiveness, and differentiated between religious forgiveness, relational forgiveness, and lifestyle forgiveness.
‘Religious forgiveness’ has to do with sin and divine atonement. These ideas vary greatly across religions, and within religions. I won’t venture to attempt a detailed description, but if you are, or have been religious, you will likely have your own understanding of what this means.
‘Relational forgiveness’ is something that I believe has been most misused. The examples given at the beginning of this post are situations of relational forgiveness. From a mental health perspective, holding a grudge or being bitter, are aspects of unforgiveness which are most detrimental to mental (and sometimes physical) health.
My own definition of relational forgiveness, involves letting go of the need for another person to fix or apologize for what they’ve done. I feel that this type of forgiveness is helpful when the other person cannot undo the wrong (because it is something that cannot be fixed) or, they absolutely will not, for whatever reason. If this is the case, their decision not to fix things or apologize, is completely outside of your control, and the mental and emotional energy spent ruminating on this can become detrimental to your health if you cannot let it go.
Forgiveness is not about excusing a behaviour, ignoring the impact of someones words or actions, or about pretending that everything is fine.
Forgiveness does not means that you would never confront someone who’s wronged you about what they’ve done.
Forgiveness does not mean trusting, nor is it a guarantee that the relationship will return to the same place it was before the wrong was done.
Forgiveness does not ‘fix’ the wrong.
Forgiveness does not mean forgetting.
It simply means that, for that particular event or action, you might choose to let go of the need to have the person who wronged you, do anything about it. They may choose to apologize or to try and fix their mistake, but you will not be held hostage to their decision. You are free to continue on with your life, in whatever way you wish. This includes making decisions about how the relationship will proceed.
Forgiveness means letting go.
Decisions to set boundaries with someone, does not need to be about punishment. (See Too Many Carrots and Sticks) It is simply about taking into account what can reasonably be expected of the person who did the wrong, in future situations, based on their previous actions.
There may be times when action is needed to prevent that person from harming others, for example, in the case of abusive behaviours. Reporting abuse, assault or a crime, is very appropriate, in these cases.
You may choose to forgive because this is the one and only time this person has ever harmed you, or maybe because the event is completely out of character for the individual, or it may have happened under exceptional circumstances. In these cases, no new boundaries may be needed.
If you are in a relationship with someone who’s wronged you and want to let them know that they’ve wronged you, you might consider checking out “How to Start a Good Fight”
NOTE: If you are the one who has wronged someone, you can ask for forgiveness, but being forgiven is not a right. If you are able to make things right, do it. If apology is necessary, do it. Here’s a guide to a good apology, “8 Steps to a Good Apology.”
Wilma Derksen spoke about lifestyle forgiveness and about letting go of the need for specific outcomes or actions by others, including specific systems or the universe in general. She spoke about letting go of anger towards the police around mistakes in their investigation of her daughter’s murder. She spoke about letting go of the outcome of trials. Check out the interview with Wilma here.
You can also check out Wilma’s beautiful journal/blog called “Letting Go”, which she kept during this last trial.
Check out When Boundaries Aren’t Respected