The holidays are over and so is the marathon time spent with family and loved ones. The holidays reiterate to me the importance of relationships and also highlight how relationships can be so complicated and messy.
As I thought through goals for 2018, one personal goal I have is to take an overdue leap toward forgiveness and healing a relationship in my life.
I am a psychologist. You don’t need to sell me on the benefits of forgiveness. I know forgiveness is associated with increased happiness, lower anxiety, reduced stress, better heart health, increased gratitude, increased ability to be self-compassionate, and many other positive benefits. I also know forgiveness isn’t even necessarily about the other person. It’s about me. I know forgiveness doesn’t have to be an explicit conversation with the person who wronged me, but a personal experience and journey. I know all this…and yet I can hold a grudge with the best of them; a grudge several years festering.
Why have I been so resistant to forgive and move forward? Why have I nurtured and fed my resentment, growing it over the years instead of letting the years cool my ire?
Forgiveness can be hard
To be honest, I don’t completely know. I do know that part of it has been a lack of recognition, let alone apology on the part of the person who hurt me. It’s harder to forgive someone who won’t admit their wrong doing or feel regret or seek reparations. It’s also harder to forgive someone if, as a result of their ignorance, they continue to hurt you.
But I don’t think that explains it all. Maybe there’s a part of me that likes to be angry; to be resentful. There’s a certain energy that comes from anger that at times feels perversely good. Like my hidden barbs can somehow hurt my offender and communicate the pain I can’t find the words to use? But years later it doesn’t feel good anymore. And still, I kept kindling my anger and hurt.
Then I read something this last year that clicked into place a missing link for me. In the book Rising Strong: How the ability to reset transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead, Brene Brown discusses rumbling with forgiveness.
“ ‘In order for forgiveness to happen, something has to die. If you make a choice to forgive, you have to face into the pain. You simply have to hurt.’…Forgiveness is so difficult because it involves death and grief…The death or ending that forgiveness necessitates comes in many shapes and forms. We may need to bury our expectations or dreams. We may need to relinquish the power that comes with ‘being right’ or put to rest the idea that that we can do what’s in our hearts and still retain the support or approval of others.” (p.150, emphasis added).
Wishing to forgive
When I read this, I almost instantly felt a softening…a loosening…the beginning of my wish to forgive.
This struck a deep chord with me. I needed to grieve the relationship that I wished we could have; a relationship in which I felt seen, supported, and understood. I needed to grieve those expectations.
Instead of being angry for what happened and continuing to resent to lack of support, I need to grieve and let go of those wishes in order to create a different relationship. This new relationship will have boundaries, because forgiveness shouldn’t happen without safety. And with those boundaries, I can begin to step into a new way of being with this person. This will include allowing this other person to be fundamentally human and flawed…just like me. I can recognize their limitations but also open myself up to what is possible in the relationship. It may not be what I hope or need, but it can still be good, connective and meaningful.
Forgiveness is a journey
This will be a journey for me. Some people seem to have a superpower to be able to forgive with a snap of fingers. That’s not me. This will take time. Like any process, there will be times I feel more capable and willing to forgive and move forward than others. I know those old feelings of resentment will rear their heads from time to time, but I get a choice about whether to fan the flames or not. I will choose to not.
I will engage in the relationship, for right now, under my own terms and at the pace I need to move forward. I will not set a deadline for myself around forgiveness. Just like one can’t force love, I can’t force this…but I can nurture it. I believe this will be ultimately liberating and bring me much needed peace.
But right now I am starting at the beginning: with a wish, a resolve, and a willingness to face the grief necessary to move forward. As I move forward in this journey, I will write other posts about my insights and growth along the way. I am also eager and willing to learn from other’s experience of forgiveness, so please share! Or perhaps, you are in the same space I am, whether that be a relationship with someone in your life, or even yourself, and we can move through this messy landscape together!