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 means, why it’s so hard to do, and how sometimes we humans can struggle even to 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.
It’s helped me to realize that forgiveness isn’t about condoning a behavior. And forgiveness isn’t about forgetting that something occurred.
For-give-ness (to give up the desire to punish) is about LETTING GO of, or releasing my mental attachment to, the ache of a toxic meaning - a polarizing interpretation of an offending experience that doesn't contribute to my life in helpful or life-enhancing ways. And that is an act of self-love.
For me, when I’ve had 'my feelings hurt', experienced an unexpected offense, or find myself dwelling on a 'hurt' from my past, initially my mind goes to one familiar interpretation of what it meant: "I'm not enough", "It's my fault", or "I must have done something wrong". And in the past, while in this state, I would react in unhelpful ways to relieve and offload the uncomfortable adrenaline surge that comes with anything unexpected. And believe me, I definitely have an ability to express pain and upset. But did it really gain anything other than my own temporary relief? Not really.
These days, I understand what's happening in my brain and body. I know that this familiar thought-meaning pathway is most likely 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 and activating a familiar, energy-efficient ( but often disproportionate ) emotional response. So because I now understand this, I allow these waves of discomfort to run a few ‘laps’ in my system, without reacting in behavior or prolonged negative thought. I'm not saying this is an easy task. But I’ve discovered through repeated trial and error, that it’s only from a calmer, more moderate emotional state that I’ve been able to effectively relay my pain, without further relational damage. However, despite this practice, and depending on the level of relationship and the severity of the offense, residual pain can sometimes linger.... long past the original offense. And those are the times when forgiving and letting go can be far more difficult. This is when mental flexibility - or the consideration and acknowledgment of other possible meanings - can make forgiveness a bit easier to approach .
Thanks to our brain’s natural bias towards negativity, it’s easy to list the ways that a hurtful word or deed has impacted our lives. Negative bias part of our survival mechanism. But what about the other more helpful meanings and outcomes that also came from the experience? Granted, this takes a little more intentional effort, and is far easier from a moderated emotional state. But if I’m to be completely ‘fair’ and comprehensive about my life experiences, I now have to ask myself, “is there anything I learned about myself from the experience? Have I gained anything from it? Am I stronger? More resilient? More independent? Do I now know more about this person? 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 now enjoy, that I wouldn’t have done if it weren’t for this experience?” Those are ALSO outcomes and meanings worth acknowledging. It takes some time to get to this place. Like I said, my emotional response sometimes has to run a few ‘laps’ before my amygdala quiets down and I get to that place of more centered, whole-brain calm. My own emotional nervous system is still retraining. But the mental exercise of considering alternative, possible meanings and perspectives, not only helps to calm my emotional response, it also helps me works towards ‘letting go' of the hurt more quickly, while still remembering that I experienced it.
What's happening in the brain
When we practice mental flexibility or the consideration of perspective, this engages the left hemisphere's intellectual pathways. And since our emotional response cannot be fully active while these pathways are in use, this practice can have two benefits. First as a short-term, emotional activation 'interrupter', perspective-taking and option-consideration helps our emotional centers quiet down. And long-term, when coupled with the right hemisphere's empathy and awareness pathways, flexible thinking can be a powerful contributor to whole-brain use.
When it comes to forgiving, 'letting go', or consciously choosing to not focus our attention on a painful memory, we're putting the 'filter' of our brain's reticular activating system to good use. In addition, as we've learned in the Whole-Brain Relationships course, that any brain pathway that isn't used weakens, shrinks and ‘prunes back' over time. While in the meantime, what you're directing your energy towards and focusing on, creates new pathways or strengthens the pathways that’s already there.
THE POWER of FORGIVENESS
Frankly speaking, hanging onto a past ‘hurt’ is also just a huge 'energy-suck'.
I like to think of a past, hurtful event like a burning rope being pulled from two ends. I’m on one end and the perpetrator of the painful deed is on the other. What happens when I let go of my end of the rope? Not only have I stopped the resistant, toxic pull between us...I’ve also just freed up my own energy - mental-emotional energy that would have otherwise been wasted by hanging onto something from the past. And by letting go, that energy is now free to use in any direction I choose. In other words, forgiveness gives us power back. Power to choose where we direct our mental-emotional energy. Power that would have otherwise been directed towards the painful meaning and memory.
Yet SOMETIMES, WE STILL HANG ON….why IS that?
So why would anyone choose not to be forgive and gain that freedom and power I just described? What makes a painful meaning-memory that we want to be free of, so difficult to let go of? Well, there are several possibilities, which only we, as individuals, can really know. And the first one to consider is that it may be unknowingly meeting a need.
As humans, there's typically something of higher value that we're trying to hang onto with our thought and behavior patterns, regardless if they are ‘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 struggle with this concept, ask yourself the following questions:
• “What could I be gaining from holding onto this? a sense of power through emotional punishment? a sense of strength through entitlement? a sense of safety because it pushes someone away?"
• "Are there healthier options? From what other sources could I get that sense of personal power, strength or safety?"
• "Or am I simply avoiding forgiveness because that's more familiar to me? Am I hanging on to pain out of apathy? laziness? indifference?"
• “What do I GAIN from hanging onto a 'hurt', that I would no longer have by forgiving?
I've found that my answers often make my healing path more evident.
HABIT, FEAR and a reluctance to GRIEVE LOST CONNECTION
Sometimes, the position of being the ‘wounded one’ or the ‘victim’ can be a conditioned, habitual one - a response that we learned, or had modeled, earlier in life.
But another less obvious barrier is fear - both of the future, and of experiencing the GRIEF that comes with loss of any kind.
Fear asks,“what will I do now that I don’t have this old wound to hang onto? Who AM I, or what’s left of me without this anger or hurt?” Hanging onto pain can become so consuming, that it becomes part of our identity – the absence of which can result in an unfamiliar sensation of emptiness. And ‘not knowing’ what the future holds, or what ‘future me’ will look like, can be quite ‘unsettling’ – a highly uncomfortable, adrenaline-based sensation. For some, sticking to what’s ‘known’ - even if it’s painful, or unhelpful …can feel safer, or at least less ‘risky’. What’s ‘known’ and familiar, even if it's painful, is less alarming to our 'fight or flight' system. Why? Because patterns of any kind - because of their repetitive nature - are ‘known’ to our brain and nervous system. Even unhelpful patterns, or patterns that are not serving our life, relationships or goals. So breaking free of them, and creating new patterns - can feel ‘alarming’ to our 'fight or flight' system simply because it's new. That is, until you 'teach' it otherwise through repetitive regulation. And then our brains and bodies adopt that as the ‘familiar’ state instead.
And finally, sometimes that painful ‘burning rope’, is the only remaining thread of connection to someone you care deeply about.. or to the ideal that they represented – an ideal or belief that we aren't ready to modify, or let go of - a process that can sometimes untether some much needed, soul-cleansing grief. The abrupt dissolution of a long-held belief can be a reality shakedown for anyone. Beliefs shape how we view and interact with the world. So to forgive and let go of a long-held belief can be a painful type of loss as well. And although grief over any loss is legitimate and not an experience that any of us need to fear, it's is not one that society encourages us to embrace. But perhaps that needs to change.
Although highly uncomfortable, grief over the loss of anything, is a healthy, cleansing part of being human. And we are quite capable of getting through it. When we do, 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 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.
The Language of Forgiveness
If you are the one forgiving, try this
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 as appropriate) Acknowledge that the behavior was not typical - I've found that this can help lighten the load of shame that can often interfere with reconciliation.
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
( disheartened | not considered | like I didn’t matter | ignored, etc..) this doesn't seem like your usual behavior and I can forgive you in time. But I’d rather see ( 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 softer, more moderated state... the chance of you expressing your grievance in a way that helps repair the rupture, is far greater.
If you are asking to be forgiven, try this
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.
Please learn from my many mistakes! 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 optimize 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:
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.
2. As appropriate, provide an explanation ( skip this if you are feeling defensive )
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 effort to repair the damage. If you are unclear on how to do this, ask.
What it might sound like: “I can see that ( what I’ve done/said ) has really, deeply hurt you.
I was.. ( careless / not thinking / irresponsible / not paying attention / distracted, etc ) .. and it's not something I want to happen again. I feel really ( ashamed / embarrassed / pretty awful, etc ) about ( what I did /said ). And I’m so sorry. I plan to ( action you are going to take to make amends ) or Is there anything else I can do or say that will help us (you) through this process?"
Again, there is no guarantee of the response you will get. Forgiveness can take time, depending on the state of their 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 regulation process. This doesn’t mean you have to tolerate repeated, poor interaction for the rest of your life. But initially, you may need to weather some imperfect responses. Hold the space. Compassion works wonders here.
I’m pulling for you.
If you'd like to learn how to regulate your emotional response so you can start improving your relationships, start by learning how your brain and body work in the simplified, practical and highly affordable course - Whole-Brain Relationships - what you need to know to feel more calm, confident and connected at work AND in love.
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