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Forgiveness - the reason it's so hard may be different than you think

Updated: Jun 10, 2023


Forgiveness - the reason it's so hard may be different than you think

"Forgiveness is a reflection of loving yourself enough to move on"

- Steve Maraboli

I saw this quote recently and it sparked some real thought about what forgiveness really means, why it can be so hard to do, and how sometimes we can struggle to even talk about it.


Admittedly, this can be a tough subject to broach with many people. Forgiveness can sometimes be a lengthy process of healing and letting go. And some people choose not to. There are many ways to move forward and begin healing from an emotionally painful experience. Forgiveness is only one of them.


But when I was receptive to the idea of forgiveness but didn't know how to do it yet, it helped me in part, to realize that forgiveness isn’t about condoning or endorsing a hurtful behavior. And forgiveness definitely isn’t about forgetting a transgression occurred.


For-give-ness (to give up the desire to punish) is more about LETTING GO of, or releasing, a mental attachment to the ache of a toxic meaning or memory. Said differently, forgiveness is more about freeing myself from the effects of a polarizing, hurtful or offending experience so I can enjoy my own life. So to me, forgiveness in a way, is an act of self-love.


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Anger sometimes gives relief


For me, when I’ve had 'my feelings hurt', experienced an unexpected offense, or found myself dwelling on a 'hurt' from my past, a protective voice in my head would scream, "Idiots! It's his/her problem!" or some other surface-level discharge. But when I was still and courageous enough to look deeper, another 'voice' whispered.. "Maybe it's me, I must not be enough (in some way) ","It's probably my fault", or "I must have done something wrong". These days, I understand that these inner 'voices' were just patterns of thinking created when I was a child. The louder one was my protector, there to lessen the immediate pain. And the whisper reflected unconscious, long-standing self-doubt - also created as a child. And once created and repeated, our brains automate pretty much anything.


When I was in this state, I would react to 'hurt' in ways that would relieve and discharge the uncomfortable adrenaline surge that accompanied those thoughts. And often the ways I discharged it, wasn't helpful. I'd lash out as an (literal) expression of pain and upset. But did that discharge really gain anything other than my own temporary relief? Not really. It sure felt good in the moment. And this verbal 'pushback' kept the person at a safe distance. In other words, it temporarily soothed me and protected me. And I would justify my intense reaction as if the person 'deserved' my wrath. Maybe there were a few times that they did. But more often they didn't. Or at least not for as long as I would hang it over their heads. These people who 'hurt' me sometimes did make a mistake. And my initial upset was many times legit. But the intensity of my response and how long my pain lasted rarely fit the situation. They were simply the unknowing recipient of years of not being able to 'push back', finally coming to the surface but with a different person. Said differently, anyone who hurt me was a dumping grounds for the unresolved pain of my past.


These days, I've learned and now understand, what's happening in my brain and body when 'hurt' occurs. I know that this familiar, yet unhelpful, thought/meaning-emotional response combination is one that was created a long time ago. And I understand that my brain is simply doing what it's used to doing in situations that look similar - calling forth an old familiar meaning/thought and activating a familiar, energy-efficient ( but often disproportionate ) emotional response. So once I understood this and decided to change it, I began allowing these waves of emotional discomfort to run a few ‘laps’ in my system, without discharging it with behavior (lashing out) or prolonging it with negative thought. I would pause, then I would speak. And then what I would say and how I would say it, would be far more appropriate or relevant to level of offense/insult. I'm not saying that's an easy task. It takes practice and was really hard in the beginning.


But I’ve discovered through repeated trial and error, that it’s only from a calmer, more 'centered' emotional state that I’ve been able to effectively relay my pain without further relational damage. And the pain I do experience, processes a lot quicker.

However, depending on the level of relationship and the severity of the offense, residual pain can sometimes resurface or linger. It can last long past the original offense. Even when we are physically safe and there is no immediate threat. And those are the times when forgiving and letting go can be far more difficult. So what do we do in those situations? What if you live with PTSD symptoms after a long exposure to some really damaging and painful shit? Well for me, I had to start healing from other angles. And one of those angles was learning how to be mentally flexible. When I wasn't ready to forgive, or couldn't forgive, practicing mental flexibility - or the consideration and acknowledgment of other possible meanings - is one of the practices that started giving me some much-needed relief. And over time, the practice started to make forgiveness a bit easier to approach .


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Mental flexibility and our bias towards negativity


Our brain has a natural bias towards negativity. So it’s easy for it to list the ways that a hurtful word or deed has negatively impacted our lives. Negative bias is part of our primitive human survival mechanism. But having a bias doesn't mean other possibilities don't exist. What about the other more helpful 'meanings' and outcomes that also came from the painful experience? Granted, coming up with those examples takes a little more intentional effort. And it's far easier from a 'healed' or moderated emotional state. But if I’m to be completely ‘fair’ and comprehensive about my life experience, I have to ask myself, even when something obviously shitty happened, “is there anything I've gained from the experience? Am I stronger now? Do I treat others better because I don't want them to experience what I did? Am I more resilient? More independent? Do I now know more about this person whose behaviors hurt me and can make better choices? Do I now know more about myself? Do I treat others with more sensitivity due to my own experience? Have I done, or am doing something I enjoy now, that I wouldn’t have done if it weren’t for this experience?”.


Now I'm not suggesting to gloss over, bypass or 'reframe' the negative outcomes. For those who have horrific experiential backgrounds and still struggle with PTSD, there may not be many positive answers that come up with this questions. We just can't 'mindset' our way out of some of the crap we've been dealt. Yet, for many of us, there are also positive outcomes and meanings worth considering - not instead of, but right alongside the crappy ones that our brain bias makes obvious. That's the comprehensive reality of being human. Painful experiences have unfortunate outcomes, as well as some beneficial outcomes, even if I can't see it at the time.


Admittedly, it takes time to get to a place of being willing to even work towards forgiveness. As I mentioned, my emotional response sometimes had to run a few ‘laps’ without my usual behavioral discharge before my amygdala eventually learned to quiet down. But by doing this consistently and repeatedly while introducing some new thought patterns, I was able to get to the reliable, more emotionally-centered, whole-brain 'calm' state that I now experience most of the time. And my emotional nervous system is still developing and becoming more refined. But the mental exercise of considering alternative, possible meanings and perspectives, not only helped to calm my over-active emotional response in the moment, but it also helped me works towards ‘letting go' or at least moving through 'hurt' more quickly.


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Why it works


For those of you who like to understand why and how certain practices work, and how they impact the brain....here's a quick summary: When we practice mental flexibility or the consideration of perspective, this engages the left hemisphere's intellectual pathways. And since our emotional response pathways cannot be fully active while these more intellectual pathways are in full use, this practice has two benefits. First, as a short-term, emotional-activation 'interrupter'. In other words, tapping into out intellect-pathways by taking perspective and considering options, temporarily helps our emotional centers quiet down by shifting our energy and focus from one set of pathways, to the other. The second, more long-term benefit that comes with intentional, consistent, and repeated practice is...


....that as we learn to pair, or simultaneously use, our left hemisphere's 'flexible thinking' pathways along with the right hemisphere's 'empathy and awareness' pathways... we end up using our brain more often as a whole, which only enhances the quality of our relationships.

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The power of forgiveness


Frankly speaking from my own experience, hanging onto a past ‘hurt’ is also just a huge 'energy-suck'. I'm sure many of you can attest to how draining it can be to keep reliving the pain of a past hurt both in our thoughts and in our bodies.


What has helped me to let go of emotional pain (or at least loosen my 'grip' on it) , is to think of the emotional pain of 'hurt' like a burning or 'toxic' rope being pulled from each end. I’m on one end and the perpetrator of the painful deed is on the other end. So what happens when I decide to let go of my end of the rope? The tug-of-war ends. Not only am I free of the resistant, toxic pull between us...I’ve also just freed up my own energy. I've freed up the mental-emotional energy that would have otherwise been drained, or wasted, by hanging onto that 'rope' of past pain. And by letting go of it, my energy is now free to use in any direction I choose. In other words, forgiveness gives us our power back. Power to choose where we direct our mental-emotional energy. Power that would have otherwise been directed towards the painful emotional memory.


Yet sometimes we still hang on….why IS that?


So even if that analogy makes some sense, some people still choose not to forgive even though they would gain that mental-emotional freedom and power I just described. Why? Why is it that a painful meaning or memory that we privately want to be free of, can be so difficult to let go of or move past? Well, there are several possibilities which only we, as individuals, can really know. And the first one to consider is that hanging onto a painful memory can unknowingly be meeting a need. Let me explain.


As humans, there's typically something of higher value that we're trying to hang onto when it comes to our thought and behavior patterns. And it often doesn't matter if the thought or behavior is ‘healthy’ for us or not. Even hanging onto ‘hurt’ and an old meaning may be serving a purpose or meeting a need in some way. What is it? If you wonder if this is a possibility, ask yourself the following questions:


• “How could I be gaining from holding onto this memory or meaning?" For example, do I feel a sense of power through emotional punishment? Does hanging on give me a sense of strength through entitlement? Or does it give me a sense of safety because it pushes someone away?". There are no wrong answers. We all are looking to feel 'safe' in our bodies. Yet, we can go about getting this sense of safety in ways that are both high-quality and helpful, as well as low-quality and unhelpful.


• If you answered 'yes' or 'maybe'..."are there healthier or more helpful options to meeting that need? From what other sources could I get that sense of personal power, strength or safety?"


• Or..."am I simply avoiding forgiveness because avoidance is more familiar to me? Am I hanging on to pain out of apathy? or indifference?" Apathy and indifference can become patterns themselves, especially if they were modeled to us when we were young.


• “What do I gain from hanging onto a 'hurt', that I would lose by forgiving?


I've found that my answers often make my healing path more evident.


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Fear, habit and... a reluctance to GRIEVE lost connection.


I understand that there's no one answer when it comes to forgiveness. It's a complex subject. This post is really about sharing my own experience and what I've learned from others so you have some options to consider, if you feel a bit stuck. So bear with me on this next section, because the subject is not something I even thought of until someone else shared their experience with me.


With the uptick in recent learning about how and when habits are formed, many more of us now understand that the role of being the ‘wounded one’ or the ‘victim’ can sometimes be a conditioned, habitual one - a way we respond when in crisis that we learned, or had modeled, earlier in life. And then it became a habit.


But another less obvious barrier to forgiveness is fear - not only fear of the future, but also fear of experiencing the GRIEF that naturally comes with human loss of any kind. Let me explain.


Fear asks,“what will happen or what will I do next if I don’t have this old wound to hang onto? Who AM I, or what will be left of me without this anger or hurt that I've become so used to?” As non-sensical as it may seem at first glance, hanging onto emotional-mental pain can become so consuming, that the pain just becomes part of our identity. Which means the idea of its absence can result in an unfamiliar sensation of emptiness. And this transitionary stage of ‘not knowing’ what the future holds, or what ‘future me’ will look like or act like, can feel quite ‘unsettling’ – a highly uncomfortable, adrenaline-based sensation. For some, sticking to what’s ‘known’ and familiar - even if it’s painful, or unhelpful …can actually feel 'safer' in our bodies, or at least feel less ‘risky’. Trauma can turn our systems sort of upside-down. What’s ‘known’ and familiar, even if it's painful and unhelpful, can become less alarming over time to our 'fight or flight' system. Why is that? Because repeated patterns of any kind are ‘knowns’ to our brain and nervous system. And what's 'known' and familiar is something our brains like.


It may sound counter-intuitive, but even unhelpful emotional patterns, or unhelpful behavior patterns that are hurting our life, relationships or goals..can become energy-efficient and familiar to our brains and bodies.

Sounds crazy, right? I mean, I won't lie. I felt a little pissed off when I first learned of this possibility. I thought it was implying I was intentionally hanging onto my pain! So, let me clarify: No.That is not what I'm trying to relay. What I'm relaying to you is that our brains and bodies operate in large part unconsciously, automatically and without our intentional (conscious) input. It's their design. We can learn to intervene. But first we have to understand that this is how our bodies work, and become aware of it.



And the final possibility I ask you to consider is this: sometimes that painful, mental-emotional ‘burning rope’ ..the one that keeps us tied to a painful memory... is the only remaining thread of connection to someone, or an ideal of someone, that we care deeply about. Ideals and beliefs can give us hope. And for many of us , represent the initial structure of our identity. And letting them go, is a process that can untether some much needed, soul-cleansing grief. A scary proposition if you never learned that it's natural.


The abrupt dissolution of a long-held belief, often comes with hurtful experiences. We deeply believed something or someone was one way. And the hurtful behavior or experience completely blew that. And the abruptness of it can be a serious reality shakedown for anyone. Beliefs shape how we view and interact with the world. Ideals give us hope, direction or something to strive towards. So to forgive and let go of a long-held belief about someone, or to let go of an ideal about how you thought things might turn out, can be a painful and heavy loss. And although grief over any loss is a natural part of our human experience and nothing we need to fear, it's is not something that society encourages us to embrace. So most of us don't have a lot experience with it. But perhaps that needs to change.


Although highly uncomfortable, grief over the loss of anything, is a healthy, cleansing part of being human. It can flush out what's been repressed or what we've been shamed into withholding. And we are quite capable of getting through the discomfort of healthy grief. Grief over a loss in relationship means that we allowed ourselves to love someone deeply. We allowed ourselves to connect to someone emotionally, and we allowed ourselves to live our life fully. The trade-off for those wonderful emotional-relational experiences is that we can also feel pain from their absence. But deep attachment to ideals, beliefs and outcomes is a different story. It's one thing to experience healthy attachment with another live human. We're designed for that. But our attachment to beliefs, ideals and outcomes - that's something we can learn to loosen our grip on to minimize unnecessary grief.


When relational grief is intense, it reflects the depth of how much we cared and how much we lived. Restraining ourselves from experiencing this grief also restrains us from experiencing things like Joy, Love and Connection in our current life. If we can allow ourselves to grieve our losses, what remains is a lightness of spirit that can be very freeing and cathartic. If you are interested in a more in-depth exploration on the subject of grief and the important role it holds in our mental and physical health, this short Francis Weller interview on the Lost Art of Grief sums it up beautifully. And although I have yet to read it, his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, comes highly recommended.


Breaking free.


So if we decide to start breaking free of those old patterns, and create new patterns - the process can activate ‘alarm’ in our 'fight or flight' system simply because it's new and different than what our brain has grown accustomed to. That is, until you 'teach' it otherwise through repetitive emotional moderation and the repetitive introduction of additional meanings and thought patterns. And then over time.... our brains and bodies start to adopt the new stuff as the ‘familiar, known’ state instead. See how that works? Our brains are pretty amazing, huh.


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The Language of Forgiveness


So if we decide that do want to work towards forgiveness, what do we even say? Well, there is no exact recipe. But if you're receptive to some examples from my own experience and what others have taught me, give these a try. You don't have to use these exact words. I actually encourage you to work towards using your own, so the delivery is more authentic. But many times, examples can help get you started:


If you're forgiving someone else


1. Name it - be specific about the offense

2. Describe how you were personally impacted - how you felt during the experience.

3. (higher level, and if appropriate) Acknowledge that the behavior was not typical - If it's factual, I've found that this can help lighten the load of shame that can often interfere with repair.

4. Ask for what you’d like to see/experience/ feel instead.


What it might sound like:When ( offensive thing that was done or said )… I really felt ( ex: disheartened | not considered | like I didn’t matter | ignored, etc..) this doesn't seem like your usual behavior and I want to forgive you in time. But I’d rather see ( ex: us develop more honesty, safety between us to share our struggles, you asking for help, do ___ instead, etc )"


I can't guarantee you'll get what you ask for. But by speaking, clearly, kindly and from a gentler more moderated state... the chance of you expressing your grievance in a way that helps repair the rupture, is far greater.


If you're asking for forgiveness.....


Asking for forgiveness is no time for defense. Humility is your friend. And every human at their core, wants their pain or hurt to be seen, witnessed and acknowledged as what it is – REAL. You don't need to relate to the details why they are hurting. You only need to relate to the fact that they're experiencing pain, period. Please learn from my many mistakes on this !


It doesn’t matter if you would have responded differently given the same situation. By questioning or even implying question of their experience, does not help. It may be helping YOU to mitigate your own uncomfortable body sensations ( shame, guilt, fear of rejection etc ). But if you want to increase your chance at being forgiven and repair the connection between you? Allow the shame/guilt/fear sensation to wash over you, while including these research-supported four parts to an effective apology:


1, Acknowledge the offense - own it responsibly with "I". Be specific. This shows you see the other person's grievance as what it is - legitimate. Because it's theirs.


2. As appropriate, provide an explanation ( skip this for the moment, if you are feeling defensive ). If you don't know at the moment say, "I don't know right now. Lert me give it some thought and I'll get back to you". Then follow through.


3. Express remorse - and mean it. This is not the time to let shame or guilt interfere. In fact, expressing your own disappointment in the behavior and a commitment to improve can help. You can hear true remorse in someone's voice.


4. Make amends - a good apology includes an intentional, observable effort to repair the damage. If you are unclear on how to do this, ask the person what actions they need to see.


What it might sound like: I can see that ( what I’ve done/said ) has really, deeply hurt you. I was.. ( ex: careless / not thinking / irresponsible / not paying attention / distracted, etc ) .. and it's not something I want to happen again. I feel really ( ex: ashamed / embarrassed / pretty awful, etc ) about ( what was done /said ). And I’m so sorry. I plan to ( action you are going to take to make amends ). Or ask, "Is there anything else I can do or say that will help us (you) through this process/ help us repair?"


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Again, there is no guarantee of the response you will get. Forgiveness can take time, depending on the state of each emotional nervous system, the depth of unresolved pain ( some of which is not related to your offense ) and where the person is in their own growth or emotional refinement process. But this doesn’t mean you have to tolerate repeated, poor interaction or 'holding it over your head' for the rest of your life. But initially, you may need to weather some imperfect responses. Hold the space. Compassion and observable demonstration of more unifying behavior works wonders here.


I’m pulling for you.



 

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