We often hear about the importance of forgiving others – and that’s true. Practicing forgiveness can be beneficial to emotional well-being and even to your physical health. But too often, we have a limited understanding of forgiveness that doesn’t go much beyond feeling better about a person or situation.
Sometimes forgiveness even becomes distorted and unhealthy, making healing even more difficult. It’s important to understand what forgiveness is and what it isn’t so that we can truly recover from life’s painful circumstances and move forward in our relationships.
You Can’t Truly Forgive and Forget
“Forgive and forget” is an old adage that sounds nice on the surface, but can be responsible for an unhealthy, harmful concept of forgiveness. Why? Forgiving others is not about pretending nothing ever happened, or acting like something painful doesn’t bother you.
Forgiveness isn’t an excuse for toxic relationships, or a pass for abusive behavior. It’s okay to remember something that caused you pain and to feel that pain when you’re around the person who wronged you. In fact, it’s natural. Feeling pain doesn’t mean you haven’t forgiven, or that you will be unable to forgive.
What Does It Mean to Forgive?
Forgiveness goes beyond feeling that you have forgiven someone, or feeling like you should be more forgiving. The meaning of the word “forgive” includes the following deeper ideas:
- Letting go of resentment: You don’t have to have warm feelings for someone in order to forgive them, but you should be working toward letting go of resentful or bitter feelings.
- Giving up the need for payback: If you have forgiven someone, they are no longer in your debt. Payback is not necessary. You don’t require that they pay you back for something they owe you. You don’t insist on getting even, or having something harmful happen to them in return.
Healthy Forgiveness is a Process
As with any healing after pain, trauma, or the fracturing of a close relationship, learning to forgive takes time. Even if we acknowledge we forgive someone, the painful feelings we have about what they’ve done won’t immediately subside. In some cases, those feelings will always remain.
There are a few things to remember as you work on forgiving others:
- You’ll have to confront the deeper issue. Particularly if you are working to forgive deep hurts like abuse, abandonment, or betrayal, you will need to work with someone who can help you navigate that pain and help you come up with specific ways you can practice forgiveness while feeling emotionally safe.
- It’s a decision, not a feeling. You can decide to forgive each day, and that decision may come easier some days than others. Give yourself time, space, and kindness as you work to forgive.
- Forgiveness is an act of self-care. Even if you struggle to forgive someone fully, any effort to let go of resentment is going to help you heal and create more space for the healthier relationships in your life.
- Keep the faith. For many of us, forgiveness is a part of our faith tradition. Praying to forgive someone can go a long way toward helping you find peace.
TheHopeLine can help you make a path to forgiveness, even when it feels impossible. Forgiveness looks different for everyone and we all need help to forgive. Email a mentor or live chat with us to discover how you can free yourself from bitterness and practice forgiveness without re-entering a toxic or abusive relationship,