A former client of mine we’ll call Mary was the childhood victim of some of the worst abuse I’ve ever heard of: She was chronically beaten by her alcoholic father—having to be admitted to the hospital several times as a result—molested multiple times by another close family member, and frequently manipulated emotionally by her mother in order to hide her father’s abuse and “keep the family safe.”
As Mary recounted her horrific childhood, I was struck by the obvious fact that she was in her mid-seventies and had been living with this pain for a lifetime. She went on to explain how, as bad as the actual abuse was and all the effects it had on her growing up, it was her inability “to let go” now that bothered her most:
I just can’t seem to let go of this… I’ve been in therapy almost my whole life trying to deal with my trauma and be free of it, but I think about it constantly. Dozens of things remind me of my parents and what they did to me every day, and every time I get upset.
I’m 74 old. More than anything I want to be able to forgive them and move on with what’s left of my life.
Needless to say, I was stunned—both by the tragedy of what I’d just heard but also by the challenge ahead of me professionally. How do I help someone who has every reason in the world to be angry, upset, and resentful, to “let it go,” get on with her life—and even, to forgive?
Mary and I worked together for over a year. In that time we gradually uncovered the obstacles to the forgiveness Mary desperately wanted. In the process, Mary slowly found her way to a kind of forgiveness of her family—and along with it, she discovered a degree of peace in her life she’d never known.
It’s one of the great privileges of my life that I get to work with people like Mary and learn from them every bit as much (if not more) than they learn from me.
What follows are 7 lessons on genuine forgiveness I learned from my work with Mary and other clients like her.
1. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting
Baked into our culture is the notion of “forgive and forget,” the idea that in order to forgive we need to forget the wrongs done to us.
This is nonsense.
Barring some form of serious neurological condition, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever be able to forget a serious wrong committed against you.
But, if your bar for achieving forgiveness is elimination from memory, you’re setting yourself up for chronic frustration and even guilt since it’s simply not biologically or psychologically possible.
While we can’t control what memories stick with us or not, we can control our attention. Specifically, we can exert control over how much we choose to focus on and ruminate about past wrongs committed against us.
Obviously, some amount of reflection and processing of the offense is likely helpful. But it’s a mistake to assume that because your mind is drawn to a specific thought or memory, you should allow your attention to stay there.
If you choose to engage with and elaborate on these spontaneous memories of your offender or the offense, you will make it more likely that similar thoughts and memories arise in the future. On the other hand, if you acknowledge them but then choose to re-focus your attention elsewhere, you will make it less likely that these memories will intrude on you in the future.
Set and enforce healthy mental boundaries. Your mood will thank you for it.
You can’t control your memories, but you can control your attention.
2. Forgiveness and anger don’t mix well
It’s normal to feel anger toward your offender. There are good evolutionary reasons for this related to the maintenance of social order and fairness. Feeling angry also temporarily feels good—it’s an ego boost.
But in the long-run, unchecked anger often leads unhelpful amounts of mental elaboration over the wrongs done to you, which keeps those memories strong and readily accessible in your mind.
The less you mentally elaborate on your anger and what happened to you, the less frequently your mind will remind you of what happened.
When you notice yourself feeling angry, pause briefly and acknowledge the anger, validating that you have every right to feel angry. But then ask yourself: Will continuing to elaborate on what happened and extending my anger do me any good in the long-term?
Just because your anger is justified doesn’t mean it’s helpful. Validate your anger, but don’t feed it.
3. Forgiveness does not mean endorsement
Many people who struggle with forgiveness have been given the advice that they need to “accept” what’s happened and move on. The problem is, terms like “acceptance” are fuzzy and mean different things to different people.
Many people hear the word “accept” and assume that it implies endorsement, that you’re somehow okay with what happened or justifying it.
But acceptance does not mean endorsement or justification. Many people who are victims of an injustice are further victimized by being manipulated into believing that they were somehow at fault for the bad thing that happened to them. That’s not acceptance.
Acceptance means acknowledging that you don’t have power or control over the past.
This is a surprisingly hard thing to do for people who have been abused or otherwise wronged somehow because feeling like the past is controllable makes us feel more powerful.
But ultimately, it’s an illusion. Choosing to let go of the desire to control the past is key to taking control over your future.
You can accept an offense against you without excusing it.
4. Forgiveness does not require reconciliation
Many people who have been wronged assume that they must achieve reconciliation with the person who wronged them.
This is especially common, I’ve found, among people with a strong religious background. While I can’t speak to anyone’s specific religious beliefs, I do know that from a psychological perspective, reconciliation is not required for forgiveness. And in fact, holding out for it can actually be detrimental to achieving genuine forgiveness.
The problem with making forgiveness contingent on reconciliation is that other people aren’t under your control. No matter how much you want the person who’s wronged you to see the error of their ways, offer a heartfelt apology and restitution, and mend the relationship, you can’t control that. And it’s dangerous to spend time and energy trying to control things we don’t ultimately have control over.
Specifically, I’ve seen many people who are so focused—borderline obsessed—with achieving reconciliation with their offender, that they don’t have the mental and emotional energy left over to work on the aspects of forgiveness they do have control over. In other words, there’s tremendous opportunity cost in making forgiveness dependent on reconciliation.
Hope for reconciliation if you wish, but don’t expect it.
5. Forgiveness is not one decision
Forgiveness begins with a single decision but it doesn’t end there.
No matter how many stories you hear about the “moment of forgiveness,” realize that forgiveness is a process, a journey.
A firm decision and commitment to forgive is an important first step, but be realistic about the fact that it is just that—a first step. There will likely be many more steps along the road to forgiveness:
- You will continue to see that relative you had the spat with at future family gatherings.
- Memories of your trauma will pop into mind from time to time.
- Your efforts at reconciliation will not be reciprocated.
One decision to forgive is not enough. Be prepared to continue to forgive, day in and day out. And while it may get easier with time, forgiveness is forever.
Forgiveness is not a decision; it’s an attitude, a habit of mind.
6. Forgiveness is not a feeling
Many people struggle with forgiveness because they confuse the act of forgiveness with their expected emotional outcome. Specifically, most people who are struggling to forgive desperately want to feel better—they want peace of mind, less anger and hate, calm and equanimity, perhaps they even want to feel compassion or love toward their offender or the person responsible for their hurt.
But how we end up feeling is a consequence of forgiveness, not forgiveness itself. What’s more, the feelings that follow (or don’t follow) from forgiveness are not always the same. They vary greatly depending on the specifics of the people and circumstances involved.
There’s no law of the universe that says everyone is guaranteed to feel at peace as a result of forgiveness. In fact, one of the things that makes genuine forgiveness so difficult is coming to terms with the fact that how you feel emotionally about a serious wrong committed against you is not fundamentally under your control.
You can control your actions—how you think and how you behave, including the decision to forgive—but how we feel is not something we have direct control over.
People do tend to feel better as a result of forgiveness, but it’s a mistake to expect a certain set of feelings.
Forgiveness is a commitment, not a feeling.
7. Your road to forgiveness is your own
After being wronged, our emotional landscape gets dominated by one or two loud (and sometimes culturally-engrained) emotions, typically some form of anger. But there are almost always other emotions present and worth considering on the road to forgiveness.
Cultivate the habit of looking beyond and beneath your most obvious emotions and noticing smaller, quieter ones. These are emotions are just as valid as your anger, for example, but they may be more helpful.
If you can allow yourself to feel the sadness, regret, and pity for what happened, for example, you may be able to see your offender and offense in a new light.
In turn, this may help you think about and act differently, perhaps in a way that better aligns with your long-term values and desire to forgive and let go.
Embrace the emotional distinctiveness of your own road to forgiveness.
All you need to know
Too often we think about forgiveness in vague ethical or philosophical terms. But fundamentally, the road to forgiveness is psychological, not moral:
- What are the habits of mind that genuinely set us free from past offenses and wrongdoing?
- What are the decisions we can make and actions we can commit to that will lead to true peace of mind?
- What relationship with the past is most likely to help us move forward?
To find genuine forgiveness and move on with our lives, we must understand the sometimes counterintuitive psychology of forgiveness and commit to our own unique journey toward genuine peace and freedom.
As my client Mary said at the end of our final session together:
I spent my whole life obsessed with what had happened to my past self and how I could fix it. But finally, at 75 years old, I’ve learned to be selfish—to really consider what I want and what I can do to make that happen.