What people get wrong about forgiveness

Trauma and Recovery

You need to forgive. This is what we are told. I need to forgive. This is what we tell ourselves. That a lot of pressure wrapped up in a handful of words. When the feeling or impulse to forgive is not readily available we worry that the anger might be with us forever. And then we read about how we need to forgive and the cycle begins all over again.

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I’m come to think of forgiveness as something that evolves, not something you choose.

Technically, I suppose, you can choose to say, “I forgive” and play catchup later. Catchup in the sense of doing the emotional work necessary to forgive.

That is not the same as feeling an organic “letting go” from within. When this happens, forgiveness happens. And this happens when we gain greater empathy and compassion for ourselves.

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Trauma can affect our ability to see the effects of what the trauma did to us. It’s part of survival.

I’ve heard people say they want to move on from the pain, that they want to forgive but can’t. What they often don’t realize. perhaps as a way to shield themselves from more pain (and this is not at a conscious level) is that the part of them that was wounded that still lives inside their psyche, is not ready. Not so much not ready to move on, but not ready to be forgotten at the expense of forgiving someone else. We hear a lot about empathy when speaking of forgiveness, and how those who have been badly hurt in the past came to a place of forgiveness, in part, through empathy. But it’s only in cultivating empathy for yourself, for that part inside you that aches, that you will move toward outward empathy. And, likely, it will happen without you even realizing it.

You deserve time and space to sort through what happened, to form the words and experience the anger, pain, anxiety, sadness, fear, rage. That is the work that needs to get done.

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There is risk of distraction when the main focus becomes needing to forgive someone else. Energy gets misplaced. Forgiveness can evolve organically when you give yourself the time and space you need for yourself.

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Telling yourself that you have a “choice” as to how you feel (forgiveness involves feelings) you may inadvertently risk shaming yourself for your inability to forgive yet. This happens when we impose this “choice” strategy on something organic like a feeling and sets into motion the opposite force of what the “preferable” choice is (in this case, forgiveness).

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Reserve “choice” when it comes to actions you take—choose to journal or take a walk. Choose to accept that something happened. Choose to spend fifteen minutes talking with someone you trust.

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You might choose to consider what forgiveness would feel like, especially if forgiveness is a concept that has been nagging at you or that you’ve felt guilty about your inability to do it.

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Forgiveness and acceptance evolve. They evolve from processing the pain. From crying, writing, talking, gaining insight, attuning to your feelings, remembering, finding meaning, over and over again.

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Invite the concept of forgiveness to present itself to you. In other words, be conscious of what its voice might say to you and through you. Let it speak into the pages of your journal or through your art. Let it breathe and listen to its words. Talk to it, ask it “why,” and, then, listen. It can help to do this if you are feeling at odds with forgiveness. Getting to know its “deal” can help acquaint you. Acquainting helps you connect. Connecting help you integrate it. Integration brings new life.

Photo by Zorro4

About the author 

Meredith Resnick

A licensed clinical social worker, Meredith is a member of the International Association for Journal Writing, the C.J. Jung Club of Orange County, California, and an associate member of the Trauma Research Foundation. She has a special interest in healing through the expressive arts.

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