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Why is it sometimes so difficult to forgive?
Many New Age and self-help books say that, to achieve inner peace, we have to forgive people who hurt us. A common message about how to actually do it is something like: just decide to forgive! Or they might instruct you to repeat affirmations about forgiveness. But is it really so simple? Many people tell me it isn’t, and that trying to make themselves forgive often results in suppression, and perhaps self-criticism or even guilt if they are not able to really feel forgiveness.
Some days back, I was working with a man (I’ll call him Christian) who had a narcissistic mother who abused him viciously; physically, emotionally and sexually. He said his mother asked him for forgiveness on her deathbed. He told her, “No.”
Many well-meaning people would try to convince him that he “should” forgive, otherwise he just keeps carrying his pain around. But, think for a moment, what is the function of anger? Primarily to give us motivation and strength to protect ourselves or somebody or something valuable to us. We can easily presume that, as a child, Christian kept forgiving his mother over and over again, hoping she’d finally see his point of view and give him the love and support he needed. He kept forgiving because it’s difficult for a child to remain emotionally closed and distanced from his mother. Every time he forgave, it meant opening himself emotionally and starting to hope again. Every time his hope was brutally crushed. He tried to survive by connecting with mother; finally he learned to survive by closing her off.
Forgiveness often presumes opening ourselves again emotionally and trusting someone again. If somebody learned since the earliest age that this means suffering and violence, how to expect them to “just decide”? You could just as well “just decide” not to be sick.
So what is forgiveness really?
In Christian’s case, since his mother is now dead, forgiveness primarily means learning how to feel emotionally and physically safe. I’m not referring to realistic external circumstances, which are much safer for an adult man than a little boy, but to changing his subconscious perspective, the part of himself which still expects people to treat him the way mother treated him as a child.
Christian needs to learn to trust his instinct in assessing other people; with whom does he feel safe, and who might be better avoided. (The problem might be that his instincts might be “skewed” by childhood impressions of what was “normal” in his family home.) He needs to learn to connect with his feelings – after spending his most vulnerable years feeling betrayed by his instincts and emotions. He also needs to recognize that, against his childhood experience, now it’s ok to say “No” and set boundaries to other people. He knows this logically, but doesn’t feel it in his body. Once he starts setting boundaries, he needs to continue doing it long enough to develop self-trust and through it the feeling of safety.
The second important aspect of forgiveness is changing one’s own self-image. Besides serving to protect us from outside threats, anger also (tries to) protect us from painful emotions, primarily humiliation, shame, guilt, fear and sense of inadequacy.
A small child has an instinctive need to trust their parents, to feel connected to them, and to justify their behavior. From a child’s perspective, the most obvious explanation for parental hostility is, “something’s wrong with me”. Even adult people, to find some sort of explanation and meaning, often (partially) blame themselves for injustice they experience. For a child, the self-blame can be overwhelming, and anger spontaneously follows to protect the child from breaking down. To let go of anger, we first need to resolve the painful feelings the anger was hiding; this is a process which takes time and requires work, rather than instant solutions.
How to earn forgiveness?
What if Christian’s mother was still alive? If she asked for forgiveness, it would probably mean expecting renewed emotional connection and more open communication from Christian. Does she have the right to demand it, without doing anything to build trust again?
Rebuilding trust, once it was destroyed or severely damaged, requires the following:
- acknowledging one’s mistake (taking responsibility for it)
- repairing the damage (restitution, or re-creating balance), and
- permanent change in behavior.
The first and the third step are fairly understandable. What about the second step? It’s easy to repair a tangible damage; what if the damage cannot be measured in objective terms? If you have abused someone emotionally or sexually, how to achieve balance? Acknowledging your mistake is already a step in the right direction; it helps the hurt person rebuild their faith in themselves and stop blaming themselves, which is important in recovering self-esteem. But it might not be enough. There is no easy and generic answer for all cases, but think about what type of hurt did you cause and how can it be diminished. Then take steps in that direction.
Most people who hurt others avoid making these steps, especially if a lot of time has passed and they don’t want to open old wounds. The real problem is trying to avoid discomfort and shame in case we are met with criticism and rejection. If you are in such a situation, perhaps you could benefit from working on your self-esteem, so that you can accept yourself as an imperfect human being, who was still able to learn something from their mistakes, and can change. Then consider what would you prefer: intense discomfort that lasts a few minutes, but is followed by long term relief – or milder, but lasting guilt?
I think that humans (and other social animals, too) have an instinct for keeping balance in relationships. Thus a disturbance in such balance can bother both sides for a long time. What if the other person refuses your attempt to rebuild balance, or is unavailable, or is dead? In that case, you can find your freedom from guilt in, perhaps, helping someone else, or doing something to help other people not to make the same mistakes. You might want to volunteer for a while, or talk about your mistakes and what you’ve learned from them in public (like this guy), or donate to organizations which focus on repairing such kind of damage. Something can always be done.
Christian’s mother might have indirectly acknowledged her mistakes, but didn’t have the courage and integrity to do the other two steps while she still could; instead she chose to wait until it was no longer possible and only then asked for forgiveness. Consciously, unconsciously or semi-consciously, doesn’t matter; the result was only more pressure on Christian and denying his needs and boundaries. Can forgiveness be given fully and honestly if the relationship is not healed through genuine, determined effort? What about the victim’s self-trust? Not only it was damaged through original abuse, but it can be additionally hurt through manipulative “extortion” of forgiveness without restoring balance.
There are many people besides Christian whose parents asked them for forgiveness shortly before death. Perhaps those parents found it easier to suffer guilt through most of their lives, rather than risking honesty and recognizing the need to change. A deathbed is a nice dramatic moment to ask for forgiveness; it’s traditional to expect the past strives to be forgotten in such a time, so many people are then less afraid of rejection or the conversation that might follow. But the survivor is left with an extra burden and the damage is not repaired.
Anger also serves to warn us against another, more subtle aspect of abusive behavior: the value system of the abuser. It’s important to recognize that the key of violent or irresponsible behavior is not in troubled childhood, intense emotions, loss of control, or even possible provocation by another person (although these factors might certainly help), but primarily in basic life values which allow ruthless and violent behavior toward someone else (or certain groups of people). More on this in this article.
Almost everybody carries around some childhood trauma; practically everybody experiences age regression, intense emotional states and feeling provoked – but if a person has high quality life values, including empathy, they simply won’t allow themselves to dehumanize other people around them, no matter how strong the emotional urge. To make the decision to humiliate, manipulate or be violent to another person, one has to have a value system that justifies and allows for such behavior.
Our subconscious minds often recognize this, even if we are not necessarily able to put it into words; our anger warns us that words and isolated acts are not enough, that something essential has to change within a person who abused us if we are to trust them again.
Our key values only change when we fully, honestly understand, not only on logical, but emotional level, why values such as responsibility, compassion and integrity are important not only for the society, but for ourselves, too. As long as someone feels they benefit more from being violent and controlling than from cooperating with others, they will create justifications for trying to exert power and dominance – even when the perceived benefits are weak and temporary, while long-term consequences are bad. So, don’t just focus on analyzing words and behaviors; assess the value system of the person you are dealing with.
How to repair damage done to ourselves?
All in all, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or opening up again to the person who hurt you. It primarily means being able to feel good about yourself again. It means the injustice you experienced doesn’t weigh on your mind anymore, that you are not particularly frustrated in the (likely) case that the other person will never do anything to repair the damage and recover the balance. It means, more than anything else, that your self-esteem is solid.
If the other person won’t cooperate, it doesn’t mean you have to feel bonded to them by anger and lack of balance. Building a healthy relationship with yourself helps you to leave your past behind and trust in future – or, more accurately, to have trust in your own ability to protect and support yourself in future. Thus the past loses the influence it would otherwise have through fear, shame and lack of trust in yourself.
What about re-creating balance? If the person who hurt you won’t make the effort, consider what could you do for yourself to repair the damage. Maybe you can put extra effort in being lastingly kind and compassionate with yourself. Maybe you can treat yourself to something you really enjoy. Perhaps helping other people would make you feel better. Do whatever nourishes your spirit.