I haven’t always been a fan of forgiveness. The mere mention of this word used to grate on my nerves. It felt like such a weak response to being wronged. So, let me get this straight, I’m supposed to give those who hurt me a free pass? That’s never going to happen.
Even worse, was when people would tell me to ‘forgive myself’. WTF. My standard response to anyone suggesting this was for them to go hug a tree and quit bothering me. What I needed was to stop being such a pathetic failure, so self-forgiveness was the last thing I needed – if anything, I had to be tougher on myself to get my loser-ass moving.
It took many years and a great deal of pain before I realized that forgiveness isn’t a sign of weakness. It is instead a gift we can offer to ourselves.
Forgiveness isn’t so much something we do as something we realize. It is the recognition that we suffer unnecessarily when we hold on to grudges and resentments. The person who initially wronged us will usually be completely unaware of the turmoil in our head. We alone suffer when we are unable to let go of resentments, and we do it to ourselves.
The inability to forgive keeps us in a relationship with our abusers. We may not have physically seen these people for years, yet they continue to be there in our thoughts. How is this helpful? Forgiveness is the recognition that we have already devoted too much time these people, and we now need to let them go.
The biggest barrier to forgiving other people is the belief that this is the same as saying that what they did was okay. This is not what is meant by forgiveness. It is merely the insight that we have already suffered enough. We all must face the consequences of our actions, and forgiveness doesn’t change this. It just means we stop adding to that initial harm.
Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean allowing people who have hurt us back into our lives. It’s not about becoming ‘best friends forever’ with our abusers. There are dangerous people out there, and we would be wise to avoid them, but we don’t have to carry the weight of hating them.
There was a disturbing video of a dad terrorizing his 7-year old son that went viral here in Thailand a few years ago. At one point, this grown man had his hands around his son’s neck and lifted him off the ground. It was horrible to watch.
My initial reaction, and it seemed to be the common reaction of most people responding on social media, was one of revulsion and anger. For a minute or two, I would have gladly joined a lynch mob to hunt that pathetic excuse for a human being down and string him up.
But then I remembered something…
When my son first arrived in the world 10 years ago, we didn’t get much sleep. After a few weeks of this, I was walking around like a zombie. Totally exhausted. Then one afternoon, I was alone with my son, and he just wouldn’t stop crying. I felt so helpless, and it was like I was going insane. I adored my son, but for a few seconds, there was an urge to shake him angrily. I didn’t do it, but the urge was there.
This memory helped me realize that happy, well-balanced people don’t go around lifting 7-year old’s up by the neck. This kind of thing happens when our coping strategies are overwhelmed, and we lose the ability to react rationally. Some of us have such poor coping strategies that we are easily overwhelmed, and this means we are more likely to horrible things. This is in no way meant to be an excuse for bad behavior, but this understanding can make it easier to forgive it.
I initially found it much easier to forgive other people that to forgive myself. It didn’t help that guilt about my past behaviour was so much a part of my inner soundtrack that I hardly noticed it anymore. There was also the fear that if I were to forgive myself for past behaviour, it would only encourage me to repeat these mistakes. It turned out it was my misunderstandings about forgiveness that made it seem New-Agey and self-indulgent.
Self-forgiveness is the ability to face the darkness inside of ourselves without using it as an excuse to beat ourselves up. This takes courage. It becomes easier to do when we recognize that none of us is perfect. As humans, we are subject to be powerful inner drives that can cause us to be selfish, abusive, and highly destructive. Mental health means we can better control these harmful impulses, but these impulses are there in all of us.
Our past bad behavior may seem crazy to us now, but we need to remember that who we are now is not who we were back then. We live and learn. Self-forgiveness is the recognition that we have always tried our best – even when this ‘best’ was horrendously bad. It is easy to behave in a saintly-fashion when things are going our way, but when life becomes a struggle, the more destructive impulses can gain the upper-hand unless we have appropriate coping strategies.
It turned out that repeatedly rubbing my own nose in the manure of my past failures wasn’t such a great motivational tool. Who would have thought it? Rather than fueling self-improvement, the crippling guilt would leave me feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. This negative mental state caused further bad behavior which gave me more things to feel guilty about.
We all fall-down in life, but self-forgiveness is where we stand up and brush ourselves off. It is this that allows us to do better in the future. As I say, we learn from our mistakes and move on. This is far more useful than guilt which keeps us stuck in the past.
Self-forgiveness means not only admitting to our own fallibility but also accepting the consequences of our bad behavior. We reap what we sow. If there are negative consequences coming our way, we can leave it to life to sort all that out. We don’t need to feel guilty and beat ourselves up. This helps nobody. Self-forgiveness means we can face these consequences gracefully and focus our attention and repairing any damage.
It is by accepting our own fallible nature that we become able to do the same for other people. We start to see the futility of holding onto resentments, and this makes it easier to let go of them.
One of the practices that people find helpful when learning to forgive is loving-kindness (metta) mediation. This technique helped me let go of a lot of guilt and resentment, so it may be worth giving it a try.
Click on the link to find out more about metta meditation.
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