By Dana Donahue, LCSW
Love and forgiveness is not for the fainthearted.—Meher Baba
What is forgiveness? The formal definition of forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake. We hear this word so often as being the key to living a happy life, but how can we achieve something that we don’t even really understand? There are a lot of misconceptions about what forgiveness really is, so let me first share with you what forgiveness is not.
- Forgiveness is not about condoning or excusing harmful behavior. We can recognize that the person who hurt us is human and made a mistake, yet still believe that the person should have acted differently toward us.
- Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. It is an act of great courage that requires strength and compassion to achieve.
- Forgiveness is not a feeling, but an action.
- Forgiveness is not conditional or focused on changing the other person, their actions, or their behavior.
- Forgiveness does not mean trust. Trust has to be earned, but forgiveness can be freely given.
- Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or pretending it didn’t happen. In fact, we remember as a means of self-protection and ensuring we do not experience the same pain twice.
- Forgiveness does not require actual interaction with the person who hurt you. It is an act that we chose to engage in by ourselves.
Why do certain things appear easier to forgive than others? Is it the size of the hurtful act or the depth of the pain it causes? Is it the type of relationship we have with the other person or the type of day we are having in general? In reality, none of these questions or their answers really matter.
Forgiveness is a challenge and struggle for almost everyone because we feel the need to protect ourselves from the pain that can be caused by others. And yet, forgiveness is truly a gift that we can give ourselves. When we hold onto the hurt, anger, embarrassment and fear, we limit our ability to deeply connect with other people. By freeing ourselves from negative feelings, we make space in our lives for peace and joy with those who truly care about us. Forgiveness not only resolves issues in our past, but it can alleviate our fear of the future. When we hold onto thoughts, memories or traumas, we’re unconsciously attempting to protect ourselves from experiencing that pain again. Forgiveness can empower us to know that we can manage any challenges we might face in the future with strength and grace. And isn’t that what really matters most at the end of the day?
“When you forgive, you in no way change the past–but you sure do change the future.” -Bernard Meltzer