Forgiveness has been recognized as a powerful resource for both physical and emotional healing, but seldom mentioned by helping professionals. While forgiveness is an important concept in religion, there is very little information on forgiveness in professional literature. There is such a huge need for healing in our world, how can we afford to omit forgiveness as a valuable part of everyone’s education. It is not just a religious concept anymore than is love or peace. People do not want to forgive because there is so much misunderstanding about what it is and what it can do for you. If they understood its benefits, they would want to forgive. This article is about the myths and the truth about forgiveness.
Many, if not most, people are afraid to forgive. This may be due in part to myths about forgiveness. Some of these myths are promoted by helping professionals. Survivors of abuse are frequently taught not to forgive or they will be abused again. This perpetuates a myth that maintains holding grievances will keep them safe. It depicts forgiveness as condoning crime and, therefore, a sign of weakness that compromises safety. How little these experts appear to know about the power and process of real forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not something we can do only when we are safe. It is a process we can begin to make us safe. Safety is the demonstration that forgiveness is complete, not what one gives up to be able to forgive.
Waiting to forgive until we feel safe is the same as waiting to heal until we feel healthy. Fear is the sickness that forgiveness heals. Forgiveness begins as an act of courage to face our fears and is completed through perceptual shifts as we experience the strength of a higher power within us. It takes courage to forgive, because we need it to overcome the fear that hides inside of our anger and our pain.
Fear, anger, and resentment distort our perception of others, our situations and ourselves. When we have been hurt, we project the traumatic and painful experiences of our past onto our present environment. We make painful assumptions to anticipate danger in an effort to prevent ourselves from being hurt again. This emotional state becomes a present nightmare that is happening only in our minds. It does not protect us. It blinds us to our present reality; a state of mind that is dangerous to our health and our relationships.
Forgiveness begins with the willingness to find a way to see our situation, in which we can be at peace. It is a way to make peace with our past so that we can live in peace and safety in the present. The emotional pain of judgment and fear can become so intolerable that we are driven to the point of forgiveness as our only way out. However, there is another way. We can choose to forgive as a way of life that doesn’t allow grievances to grow.
No matter how small our willingness is, the forgiveness process has begun once we have opened our minds to new possibilities. We begin to seek solutions instead of justifying defenses. A series of perceptual shifts follows as our willingness to find peace grows. Willingness is the stuff miracles are made of. Miracles begin to happen as attitudes change and safety is created out of the new strength we find emerging inside of us.
Forgiveness is a process that begins as an act of courage when we are afraid. It may take a very long time or it can be completed in an instant. It requires great courage, strength, understanding and self-respect, qualities that those who have been abused need to find within themselves. These are qualities we all need to find within ourselves if we are to ever feel real freedom.
The act of forgiveness cannot be done just for the sake of the people who hurt us. Forgiveness helps those who were wounded find the inner strength to live without fear. We must learn to forgive for our own sake, so that we are free to be ourselves and free to love with open hearts.
The Goal: A Healed Relationship
How do we know when forgiveness is complete? Here are some of the signs of a healed relationship.
1. Safety. You see the other people as harmless. Either they begin to treat you well or you know how to deal with them so they cannot hurt you anymore.
2. You see other people as they are now, instead of how they were in the past. Expanding your awareness may give you new and valuable information. When you do see them as they really are, you may or may not prefer being with them, and you will be free to choose to leave or stay.
3. You can experience other people without feeling uncomfortable. Thoughts of them no longer bring you pain.
4. You no longer need payment for being with a person, and your presence is not required to receive benefits from them. If you want to be with them, it will be for enjoyment, not to get something from them.
5. Healing has the potential to create agreements that are acceptable to everyone involved, so that defenses are no longer needed.
6. You no longer behave in reaction to the way the others act. You are proactive and choose how you want to behave. You are free to be yourself and love, regardless of other peoples’ actions.
Fears and Myths of Healing
Forgiveness is scary because it is part of a healing process that can bring people closer together. The prospect of coming close to someone who has hurt you can be terrifying, bringing up defenses against the healing process itself.
We hang onto resentments and grievances to justify defensive actions we think we need to protect ourselves from being harmed. So, the closer people come to healing, the more defensive they can become, preventing themselves from healing the source of their pain. This is a vicious cycle that can keep people trapped in unhealthy relationships.
Listed below are some of the fears that may stop you or someone you know from forgiving. Check the ones that apply to you and see if they are true or false. The main fears are written in italics, and the myths or assumptions that support those fears are underlined. (Change the pronouns to feminine or plural where applicable for you.)
Remember, these are fears, not facts. While fears are real feelings, the beliefs they are based on are not real. They are myths; false assumptions you have accepted as true. People use these assumptions to justify hanging onto the past, grievances, negative thoughts, resentments, defenses and fears.
Comments on the validity of each assumption are written inside the parenthesis. Since accepting these beliefs brings pain, wouldn’t it be wonderful to find out they aren’t true?
1. “If I forgive, I will have to give up my defenses, and I’ll get hurt again.” Defenses keep people safe. (False. Living defensively is dangerous to your health, and may antagonize others, becoming part of the problem. Defensive people are attacked more frequently than friendly people. There has to be a better way to live. Forgiveness can result in real safety.)
2. “If I forgive, I’ll be giving into him.” Forgiveness makes people weak. (False. Forgiveness comes from strength. It is a powerful stance that demonstrates you are no longer controlled by your anger and emotional pain over his actions. It demonstrates invulnerability not weakness.)
3. “If I forgive, he’ll think it was all right to do that.” Forgiveness condones the action. (False. Forgiveness does not condone the other person’s actions. It frees you from painful emotional reactions, like the anger, that distort communications. Openly stating your needs and setting boundaries will prevent it from happening again, because he will know it is not all right to do that. Forgiveness helps to clarify understanding of the situation.)
4. “If I forgive, he’ll take advantage of me. I need my anger to keep me safe.” Anger make people strong and protects them. (False. Anger is toxic to relationships, weakens the immune system and interferes with clear perception, making people more vulnerable to disease and attack. Forgiveness improves the clarity of your thinking, and expanded awareness makes you less likely to be used.)
5. “If I forgive, I’ll have to stay with him, and I want to leave. I don’t want to give up my justification for leaving.” Relationships can’t be terminated without sufficient grievances, because good people don’t leave good people. (False. It happens all the time. Good people are not always compatible, and when they aren’t, they both may be better off by separating. When there are grievances, you don’t have clarity on your relationship and don’t really know what the problem is unless you heal the relationship first. Then, if you aren’t compatible, it would be possible to separate by mutual agreement and still remain friends. This is useful, especially if children are involved.)
6. “If I forgive, he’ll do it again.” People will repeat their mistakes unless they are punished for them. (False. Punishment is not rehabilitating. People repeat mistakes until they know a more effective way to get what they want. The open communication and mutual understanding that can come from forgiveness can be far more effective change agents.)
7. “If I forgive, he won’t have to pay for his actions.” Forgiveness takes away all consequences. (False. There are always natural consequences for everything we do. We all pay for our actions, one way or another. Your forgiveness won’t change that, but it will prevent you from having to pay for his actions with your emotional pain.)
8. “If I forgive, he won’t suffer for what he did to me, and I’ll never get over the damage he caused.” People who hurt me must suffer for me to feel better. (False. You are not dependent on your attacker for your healing. He does not have this power over you. You are always free to heal. Suffering does not heal anyone. While his apology would be helpful and may occur as part of a mutual healing process, it is not necessary for you to feel better.)
9. “If I forgive, he won’t owe me anything anymore, and then he might leave me. He stays to make up for what he did to me or for what I have done for him.” People don’t leave anyone to whom they owe a debt. (False. People frequently leave to escape the emotional pain of feeling indebted. They are more likely to stay where they feel understood.)
10. “If I forgive, he won’t be nice to me anymore. When he feels guilty, he is nicer to me.” Guilt stops people from misbehaving and makes them better people. (False. Guilt does not heal or strengthen. Guilt promotes avoidance and low self-esteem, a poor substitute for a caring relationship. Forgiveness opens the door to a more loving relationship.
11. “If I forgive, he won’t appreciate the suffering I’ve been through for him. Unless he remembers how much I’ve suffered for him, he won’t value me.” People appreciate those who suffer for them. (False. No one can feel appreciation and guilt at the same time. People feel guilty for causing others pain, resenting those who make them feel guilty and valuing those who help them feel innocent; those who help them like themselves, just the way they are.)
12. “If I forgive, I’ll give up my bargaining power, and he won’t give me anything for what he’s done to me.” Guilt makes people give more. (False. Forgiving relieves you of the burden of carrying around a heavy bag of grievances and negative emotions. It does not mean he does not have to be accountable for the consequences of his actions that are still present. If he owes you something, your peace and mental clarity will make it easier to make a settlement.)
13. “If I forgive, I’ll lose control and have to do what he wants. When he feels guilty, I get what I want.” People can get what they want by making others feel guilty. (False. While you may appear to be in control, people resent those who make them feel guilty or controlled, and so passively sabotage their happiness. Even if you get what you want through guilt, you are not safe, because you can lose control when you become guilty with one mistake of your own. We all live in glass houses. It’s safer to forgive and rely on genuine caring about each other to get what you both want.)
Remember forgiveness is not for wimps. It takes great courage to forgive, but the rewards are worth a lifetime of health, happiness and quality relationships.