To forgive (in the most technical sense)
= to let go of holding someone responsible for owing you something from a past transaction, as in “to forgive a debt.”
= to not be mad about or afraid of the past.
There is nothing you need or want from the person/s who wronged you. Think about it: Nothing. What a relief. That is forgiveness. There is nothing they “owe” you because there’s nothing you want from them. [UPDATE: I should say that if there IS restitution you want, ask them for it. Then, whether or not they agree, proceed.]
Forgiveness isn’t: liking them or trusting them or allowing them the same access to you or even wishing them well. It’s not sweet. It’s also not passive-aggressive or fake. It’s matter-of-fact: you are fine and will be fine because you are taking care of yourself.
The whole subject almost vanishes. I say “almost” because of course it informs the way you live your life now and in the future — read the following long version if you want more details. And call me if you have any questions or want to talk it through.
Big love and deep peace and wild creativity,
I’d heard that forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. I’d heard the other party/s don’t even need to apologize for you to forgive. I heard and believed and wanted to experience how forgiveness is more a favor to yourself than to the other/s that need forgiving. But the mechanics of how to forgive still eluded me.
What follows is the exact process I worked through in my notebooks when I was figuring out what forgiveness actually means and how to do it. I suspect some of what I’m about to say will feel wrong and even insulting to you when first considered, or at least it did to me, but please soldier on. I trust and hope it’ll be worth it to you. It has been to me.
It turns out that the operative word here — what both of the above definitions of forgiveness have in common — is “past.” Timing turns out to be everything when it comes to forgiveness and to all emotions involved.*
Let’s look at that second definition of forgiving. It can feel impossible not to be mad about or afraid of the past, but the fact is: we actually CAN’T be — and aren’t — mad about or afraid of the past. It’s impossible because those emotions don’t apply to those time periods.
I don’t mean they “shouldn’t.” I mean they just simply don’t.
Like the color blue doesn’t smell good to you (unless you’re a synysthete). Or like how you can’t physically touch someone if they’re not in the same room you are. These are physical impossibilities.
–>When we incorrectly think we’re mad about or afraid of the past, we put ourselves in a double bind — a push-me/pull-you — and come completely to a standstill. It feels terrible. So that’s huge motivation to get out of it.<–
I will get to the forgiveness part in a second, but first let me quickly review some important past-housekeeping that must be done before we can forgive. Forgiveness (almost always) doesn’t work otherwise. I’m sorry it makes this post so long, but I really don’t want to mislead you away from healing.
What we can and do feel about the past: sorrow
Things change. And we grieve things that are lost. That is natural and healthy.
(We can’t feel sorrow about the present or future because nothing has actually been lost. It’s just not applicable. To see what we feel about those periods of time, read on.)
Maybe you are sad that your relationship with the person you are trying to forgive has changed — or sad you lost some idealism or money or trust or a house or whatever it might be. What you grieve varies, depending on the situation.
Our pure sadness leads us straight into a particular flavor of joy known as gratitude. In our clean grief, we can’t help thinking about what we miss and noticing and appreciating what was important to us about it. We also remember happy memories. Spend plenty of time thinking about what you value from the past — it’s pleasant and, as you’ll see down the page, useful.
Sometimes we can’t grieve in a pure way because it’s complicated grief. This is when we get mixed up and think we are mad about or afraid of the past.
The most common way our grief is complicated: assigning some painful, untrue meaning to what happened.
We may think that what happened permanently ruined us. We might think we can never be happy — or as happy — again. Or that we were complicit in what happened in a way that means our hearts are stained forever. We might think we can’t trust our own judgment. Or anyone or anything. We might think they took the best years of our life, our chance for being a millionaire, our professional or personal reputation, or other intangible value. There are truly infinite painful meanings we can ascribe to the past.
In that case, it’s useful to take a good old-fashioned “look at yourself” (as they used to say on SNL) and question whether or not this painful truth is actually. true. Use this worksheet at Byron Katie’s website if you want a template. (Spoiler: if it makes you feel icky, something about it isn’t true.)
The harder-to-fix way our grief is even more complicated: trauma.
Please don’t dismiss the topic of trauma just because it’s a hot pop-psychology topic right now. It’s so real, and understanding that and dealing with it can be a magic key for unlocking years of stickiness that hasn’t yielded to anything else.
Trauma = you perceive that you’re both in danger AND powerless. That’s a horrible combination.
The brain does weird things to protect us, and we are grateful to it for doing so.But the neuro-chemical after-effects need to be dealt with, and modern life hasn’t done that very well. Happily, there are techniques that work now (like EMDR therapy, which I did right here in Sheridan, Wyoming and am so grateful for, tapping, yoga therapy, drama therapy, hypnosis, running, and more).
If you think you might have had any:
~ adverse childhood experiences (even what we might think of as “small” adversities are truly and deeply trauma for children because they are powerless),
~ adult experiences of the danger-helplessness variety (Car wrecks are the most common cause in America, and the effects are tangible, pervasive, long-lasting… note that trauma isn’t just kicked up by or associated consciously with the same topic that started it. Trauma from car wrecks can stall you when you hit a hard problem at work. You are puzzled as to why you can’t cope and have no idea it’s linked to the wreck.),
~ or entire periods of time in the past about which you remember nothing, then please try different kinds of therapy until you find one that works.
In order to understand forgiveness, we also need to understand what we can and can’t do with respect to the future.
What we can and do feel about the future: fear.
When we look around the world and see it’s vast variety, all these differences between things lead us naturally and healthfully into imagination.We imagine these variables combined in certain ways… some of which could lead to potential dangers or limitations. And we are afraid or maybe just mildly worried about what will happen.
(We can’t be afraid of the past because it already happened. There is no potential anything there. It’s all known. If anything there was going to hurt or limit us, it already did or didn’t.
We also can’t be afraid of the present moment because we are fine. See, your heart is beating and you are breathing. You survived that moment — every moment, no matter what danger you perceived a second ago, no matter what danger you are actually in. Even if you’re being tortured, you are still here and alive. I don’t say this lightly. If you have ever been in real danger, you can verify having had the sensation of being weirdly all right deep in your core in each second even while you were terrified about the upcoming moment. I think this is why near-death experiences make people say they felt and feel so alive. All the way up until you die, you are fine in the moment. All fear is about the future — even if it’s about the next second. This seems like a tiny splitting of hairs, but it’s super important. It builds our confidence. And it makes it clear how we can proceed, as you’ll see below.)
Happily, pure fear leads us straight into another particular flavor of joy called possibility. When confronted with danger or limitations, our beautiful human minds immediately go into even higher gear rearranging all those different variables — mixing and matching ingredients and coming up with all kinds of options. The number of different things that could happen are infinite. We plan and scheme and strategize and it’s heavenly. It’s fun — we are creative beings — and its useful because we do indeed visualize ways to avoid being hurt or curtailed.
If you feel afraid of the person you are trying to forgive OR if you feel afraid of the past — your real issue is with the future. You don’t feel safe. Probably rightly so. Read on.
What we can do about the future: set boundaries.
Boundaries are wildly cool because they are how we combine all the time periods and use the past, now, to influence our future.
This is the thing — the only thing — you need from those past problems you had. You need to set and honor boundaries of your own choosing. And the person/s involved — the one/s you’re trying to forgive — can’t give this to you. Ever. But you can!
Remember, above, when you were thinking about past change and losses? The happy memories and the clean sorrow both led you straight into thinking about what you cherish and what is painful to you. When you do that, you’re identifying what is okay with you and what is not. These are your boundaries. This is what you build your life and future on.
Make lists of what’s ok and not ok for every part of your life: work, living space, friendships, romantic relationships, possessions, time, spirituality, your body. Then honor them and require that others do –all others, not just the one/s who wronged you in the past. Of course that’s confusing until you figure out how and get used to doing it. Get some help from a therapist or coach if you want it to go more quickly, easily, and pleasantly.
I gained much insight and benefit on this topic from (and I really, really recommend) Terri Cole’s online course called Boundary Bootcamp. I have never met her in person, but I’m so impressed with the quality of this class. She manages to create a powerful, professional therapeutic experience from a distance and with a group — it’s an impressive accomplishment. And it really changed me. She does a nice lead-up to the offering itself with a staggering amount of useful free content. Even if you don’t plan to take her course, you’ll find the free work super provocative and enlightening.
This current moment itself has nothing for us to fear (because we are ok) and nothing to grieve (we haven’t lost anything in this moment even if we did in the past or think we are about to). We can use the present to fear the future or grieve the past — that’s natural and useful. But what else does the present moment itself hold? What emotion do we feel about it?
What we can and do feel about the present: anger
Anger is the natural and healthy response to current injustice as well as to the inexplicable in general. There is something we need or desire that we don’t have OR something present that we need or desire to be gone. It leads us to act on behalf of what is right, what we need, what we desire to be different.
I don’t mean we rage nor do I mean we feel or display chronic irritation. Those are anger mis-handled or, more commonly, grief or fear misplaced!
Anger is actually the same as desire — you just desire something to be different.
If you are thirsty, you desire a drink of water. You get it. You never have to “act mad.” Toddlers haven’t figured out the subtle ways of desire yet, so they often “act mad” when they desire something — they stomp their feet and yell “I’m thirsty!” and we are puzzled. “All you had to do was ask for a drink of water,” or “all you have to do is get yourself a drink of water” we say (depending on if they can reach the water!). They just are figuring out how to get what they desire or need. Once they get older and clear on what they want, on the fact that it’s okay for them to have preferences and desires, and on how to get a drink of water, then they can have and fulfill that desire without “acting mad.”
Like the other two “negative” emotions, clean anger leads us straight to a particular flavor of joy: living as our heart’s desire. This is also known as a feeling of contentment or belonging. That’s because when we sort through what we desire, we fall spontaneously into what the Buddhists call “right action.” And that action itself is our participation in the inexplicable. It’s hard to describe — impossible — because the present moment and life can’t be put into words. They are mystery. The ineffable. But when we keep moving in it, it feels free and like home, all at the same time.
–>When you feel mad at the person you’re trying to forgive OR about the past event/s in question, then that emotion is telling you something vital about the PRESENT. Not about what happened before.<–
This is super important. Your anger is saying something is not right. Something is not okay with you NOW. Please don’t ignore it.
It’s probably that the person (or someone else!) is violating your boundaries OR that you yourself are violating your own boundaries OR you’re mad at yourself for not setting those boundaries. That’s okay. I promise. I double and triple promise. This is all so mentionable and manageable, as Mr. Rogers used to say. Enforcing boundaries and setting them is not horrible, hard, bitchy, mean, small-minded, cold, unfeminine, unpleasant, and definitely it’s not unforgiving. It’s the opposite of that. When you get super clear on what’s okay with you and what’s not AND on boundaries’ value to you and everyone else and the whole world, it’s not hard. Setting them is a creative process. And enforcing them is like asking for — and drinking — a glass of water. Crystal clear, refreshing. A calm, assured relief.
*I first understood the mechanics of the three “negative” emotions from Martha Beck‘s book Finding Your Own North Star. The whole book is truly a manual for living a happy life. I’m so grateful for it, and I totally recommend it.