One of the most misunderstood and misapplied concepts is that of forgiveness.
The practice of forgiveness is an internal emotional and psychological journey that is fundamental to any sort of healing (whether spiritual or secular). It is something that you do for yourself, within yourself. In your own heart, so to speak. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person, and it does not mean reconciling, or “getting back together,” or having any sort of relationship with the other person.
People often hold on to their anger and pain saying “no, I will never forgive this. What he did is unforgiveable.” This mindset, although very common, is both faulty thinking and it stands in the way of the victim’s own peace and inner tranquility. In reality, the painful thing has already happened; it’s done and gone. But by holding on to the anger and the pain in this way, we re-hurt and re-traumatize ourselves every time we remember it.
This becomes somewhat self-harmful and self-abusive. The anger and pain eat at us from within, each time we think of that person or the experience. And we use that pain and anger to punish the other person in our minds and sometimes in reality. (There is a vague sort of feeling of “I need this anger to keep me safe, otherwise he will hurt me again;” which is a false belief masking fear and a lack of assertiveness). This is why the practice of forgiveness is so important. It untangles all of these false beliefs and fear-based mechanisms that keep us from love, compassion, empathy, and healthy relationships.
I’ve also often heard forgiveness being conflated with weakness; which is also inaccurate. Forgiveness doesn’t mean becoming a doormat or condoning any sort of hurtful behavior. Actually going through the process gives you incredible inner strength and courage to confront injustice in the right way, and hold people accountable.
Forgiveness also doesn’t mean just turning the other cheek or just ignoring our feelings. Forgiveness means I love myself too much to continue carrying this awful painful burden. I will do the inner work to release myself, to release them, and I make a decision that is going to create more peace and less emotional pain in my life.
The process of forgiveness is about sorting out our own truth from the painful interpretations we make by default in our minds. It is an undoing of the self-judgments that lie at the root of most emotional pain. It is an investigation into the self-blame that the experience generated, and a transformation of that pain with love and compassion. It is then a turning to look at the other with the eyes of truth and compassion. Listening completely to our own anger and then transforming that anger with wisdom and understanding. It means making inquiries into the false motivations we have automatically assigned to them. And creating space for new loving interpretations.
By working on forgiveness we are releasing ourselves from the pain and suffering in our own mind, and coming to internal peace, as it relates to that person or experience. Also, in my view, learning how to forgive properly is the only way to build healthy relationships. Without a solid framework for forgiveness within, there can be no real repair after a conflict, and the relationship becomes a minefield of resentment.
There is an ocean of difference however between forgiving someone (inside our hearts), and allowing that person to remain a part of our lives. The former is healing and necessary, the latter is not.
Whether we allow someone to remain in our lives and hearts after a hurt has occurred, is a delicate consideration. It often will depend on the subjective magnitude of the pain we experienced and whether trust has been broken. Probably the most important factor is whether the other person has the capacity to genuinely apologize in a heartfelt way, giving some assurance that the hurt will not happen again. But this decision, whether to continue a relationship or not, has nothing to do with forgiveness. This is a question of boundary setting and self-respect.
The internal process of forgiveness comes first, and is independent of this second aspect.
Boundaries are incredibly important; and setting them is an area people struggle with a lot. Sometimes boundaries are simple “this hurt me. please don’t do this again.” And other times much more complex: “Out of self-love and self-respect, I cannot allow you to continue this sort of behavior as it relates to me. You are free to do what you please, but I don’t wish to continue interacting with you.” It takes an incredible amount of inter-personal courage and self-love to carry these out properly. It sounds really obvious and simple, and yet I have met very very few people who really possess these skills.
We all have different levels of tolerance for pain and different capacities for forgiveness. I’ve seen lots of situations where people (me included) continuously ignore hurtful words and actions of others, under the guise of forgiveness. The deeper truth is that they (we) are really just too afraid to stand up for ourselves. (It has taken me a lot of work and courage to really begin standing up for my vulnerable feelings… It gets easier with practice.)
But forgiveness cannot be used to justify silence in the face of a transgression. If the hurts continue to be inflicted, at some point forgiveness no longer works. One cannot withstand constant hurtful words or actions, without the dynamic becoming self-abusive. Forgiveness cannot be used (or misused rather) as an avoidance technique when confrontation is too scary.
Setting boundaries, standing up for yourself, and voicing hurt feelings honestly are all required acts of self-love. The complicated part is that they are to be done without anger or resentment. (If they are being done with anger, from a negative emotional state, it’s not boundary setting but rather a form of punishment. The distinction is very important).
We must first do the work to reach a state of peace (internally) and compassion for the other person, and then we set the boundary peacefully and with kindness. (This doesn’t apply of course in emergency situations when harm is imminent. I feel this is so obvious that I don’t need to say it, but I suppose I do).
Setting boundaries also has nothing to do with the other person. You cannot change who they are, or what they do. But we must find the courage to see them with honest eyes. We must be willing to acknowledge how they make us feel, really and deeply. And if we don’t want to be treated a certain way, we are in control of your own lives, actions, and behavior. There is nothing wrong with removing ourselves from dynamics (whether temporarily or permanently) that we find hurtful.
Putting our own vulnerable feelings first is not selfishness; it is the ultimate self-love.