What is Forgiveness…Real Forgiveness?
As a therapist who treats trauma and helps people at the darkest times of their lives, I experience the evils of the world through its victims. I see children raw and broken at the hands of selfish, greedy men and feel the anguish of a college student as she picks up the pieces of a shattered innocence and future lost. Helping the wounded find healing and renewed strength means I too walk through the darkness and experience the consequences of those who prey upon and hurt others.
I have to be honest. Forgiveness has been a concept that I have personally struggled with over the years. Why should he forgive? It was devastating and wrong and no one would judge him... that person doesn’t even deserve his forgiveness.
Then I took training from Janis Abrahms, Ph.D. She organized levels of forgiveness that I have adopted and further adapted to help my clients understand and realize just what type of forgiveness they are seeking. THIS I can do and this I feel comfortable sharing with my clients, because forgiveness is for the one who is hurting. Below is my interpretation and adaptation of her work and ideas.
Forgiveness as a Model With Layers
We all have choices. Each of us can choose to be the absolute best version of ourselves and can constantly strive to improve and heal or we can give up and let life occurrences choose for us. We can allow bad things and stressful events to define who we are and help us become a sponge for negativity or we can take the dark, hurtful stimuli and use it as fertilizer to help us become a better stronger version of ourselves.
Notice the choices we have in each of the forgiveness layers presented. Allow this organization of ideas to help you make mindful decisions the next time you experience pain and discomfort.
Forgiveness Layer Number 1: Let it Roll
Sometimes things happen to us that really aren’t that big of a deal. Someone cuts us off in traffic, takes our place in line, or grabs the last gallon of milk. Instances like these are irritants; annoying situations that if we let them, can help shape our reactions and make us grumpier or negatively focused.
With practice, we can learn to become reactive to these events and can allow anger and edginess to settle deep inside of our bodies OR with practice, we can do the opposite. We can let it roll. Like water on a duck’s back, we can let it roll away…far away from us. Imagine yourself taking a deep breath and exhaling the energy of that person or event far far away from you. Let it all roll off of you and watch it roll completely out of sight. This is layer number 1: Letting it roll.
Forgiveness Layer Number 2: Faux Forgiveness
Abrahms refers to this as cheap forgiveness, faux forgiveness is when an instance is larger than the ones listed above, but we treat them as though they are insignificant. We try to let it roll, but it really is too big and too painful to roll away on it’s own, so instead of looking at it, understanding and working through it, we use all of our might to push and shove it away.
Faux forgiveness is forgiving too quickly…before we really have the opportunity to heal our relationship or ourselves. Explaining what faux forgiveness is so much easier if we talk about true real forgiveness.
Forgiveness Layer Number 3: True Forgiveness
True real forgiveness is when we experience a hurt and we use it to help us grow stronger. We take that hurt to the one who hurt us and we carefully talk about it in a way that organizes and makes sense of the hurt, and then consequently soothes it.
True Forgiveness: The Role of the One Who is Hurting
“I felt really alone when you did “x” (I statement). I’m scared of losing you (getting to the deeper emotion). I know it comes out sideways…I know I just get angry (taking responsibility) but I need for you to understand what my true feelings are – to really understand where I am coming from (here is the wish…giving the offender a path)”
In true forgiveness, the hurt party has a responsibility to communicate the hurt in a way that can be heard; delivery here is important. If the receiver becomes defensive or really doesn’t understand, it becomes challenging to journey to a place of forgiveness. Thinking; how does my partner or friend need me to say this so s/he can stay engaged? Can I practice my I statements beforehand so that s/he doesn’t feel blamed?
True Forgiveness: The Role of the One Who Offended
In true forgiveness, the offender has responsibility as well. The offender’s job is to become curious about the other’s emotional experience and to strive to really understand the pain that was caused.
“I had no idea that you were feeling so lonely. I’m so sorry. I hate that you were feeling all of that and I was too busy to notice (accepting influence and taking responsibility). You mean so much to me and I want us to be ok…”
The Back and Forth of True Forgiveness
Now what if the offender really has reasons for the hurt? What if the relationship has flaws and the dynamic isn’t all that healthy? What if the offender needs forgiveness too?
In true forgiveness, the energy of forgiveness and communication flows both directions. Becoming defensive and self-righteous is NOT the same thing as seeking forgiveness in the other party and explaining how both parties arrived at pain and distance. Again, delivery and knowing why an issue is getting flushed is important. True forgiveness gets to the root or roots of an issue and can happen in one sitting or over a course of time.
Faux vs. True Forgiveness
You can see how it was easier to describe what faux forgiveness is by explaining true forgiveness. When we forgive too quickly “No worries, it wasn’t that big of a deal” when it really was, we rob the relationship of a deeper healing; a connection within pain. When we can re-wire a relationship to be able to tolerate pain and discord and to then have it experience connection within the conflict, the darkness then and only then can be used as fertilizer for new beautiful growth.
Forgiveness Layer Number 4: Acceptance
What if the offender cannot walk through the stages of forgiveness and is unable to do the back and forth of true forgiveness? What then? Is the one left behind optioned with faux forgiveness only?
Acceptance is the realization that significant hurt has been experienced and that forgiveness is well deserved, but not possible. Maybe the offender is dead, a substance abuser with no desire to change, or maybe s/he is a relative or significant other who lacks the ability to be safe. What then?
Acceptance looks at the pain openly and honestly. It forces the one who is hurt to be honest about how deep the wounds go and how the scars have been shaping their emotions, way of thinking and consequential behavior. Taking an honest look means now the hurt party has choice. Heal or stew? Become stronger or paralyzed? Grow into a strong tall tree or wither into a bitter, infected dying plant?
True acceptance means the one who is hurt does the work to heal, make sense and organize the pain. Like true forgiveness, acceptance usually takes a long time and often requires professional help. Those who experience this layer of acceptance must walk through the pain without the offender’s help, committing all the way to not let it create bitterness or resentment.
To Not Forgive is to Give the Offender What They Do NOT Deserve & Robs You of Peace
Why talk about the layers of forgiveness? Because with forgiveness and acceptance comes peace and healing. When we honestly look inward and are constantly improving ourselves, we can allow painful experiences to improve us. Without this focus, hurtful occurrences will begin to harden our hearts and will strive to dissolve the goodness inside. No experience or human deserves to rob us of our joy and life fulfillment.
Life is hard. Bad things happen. It is our job and our responsibility to decide if these occurrences are an opportunity to heal and become stronger or are an excuse to wither away and become a bitter, run down version of ourselves.
Who is the Author?
Gabrielle Anderson, lmft is the owner of the Family Therapy Center in Ashburn as well as a Marriage and Family therapist. She is a married mother of 2 and lives in Loudoun county. Contact Gabrielle here if you would like to schedule an appointment for couples counseling or individual therapy to help get you or your relationship back on the path to wellness.
Read an interesting blog by Gabrielle about forgiveness and the negative cycle in a relationship.
Read an interesting blog by Gabrielle about the balancing energy flow of relationships
To read more about the path of forgiveness from the original source, Dr. Abrahms, click here.
These blog entries are written by our very own clinicians. When inspiration hits, another entry will be logged.
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