How to Forgive and Why It Matters
Growing up, our parents taught us a lot of things. How to be a nice human, how to change a flat tire, maybe even how to navigate the stress of adulthood. But what often is overlooked is how to forgive. Children are taught to say "I'm sorry" whenever they accidentally make someone cry. But as adults, this gets lost in translation. We still apologize, but the reception has changed. No longer is it easy to accept an apology since we aren't talking bruised elbows, we're talking bruised hearts. Forgiveness as an adult is harder because the feelings are no longer new.
Children are so innocent and naive. Every injury, internal or external, heals fairly easily. Kids want to forgive and move on. It's like they don't have time to focus on being mad. They are too excited about life. It's only over time that this shiny outlook tends to dim. Especially when the hurts are many and the repairs few. Adults who experience an inordinate amount of painful betrayal as children easily lose their forgiving nature and turn mistrustful and scared. That fear often keeps them at a distance from anyone who could ever hurt them again. And when they finally do let someone in, if their trust is broken it brings up all those harmful old emotions, as if it were only yesterday that their father forgot to pick them up (again).
It's simply harder for adults to forgive, especially when they come from an abusive or neglectful upbringing. But it's not impossible. It just takes learning how, when, and why to forgive. First off, ask if you want a relationship with the person who hurt you. If you do, forgiveness is crucial. If not, it's still important but may take time and be one-sided since the relationship could suffer as a result. Next, you cannot force being ready to forgive someone. What I have noticed as a therapist is that the common thread of being able to forgive is when the person who has been hurt feels like they have been truly heard and understood. If their offender truly gets how it felt and how much they were hurt, then it's a lot easier to forgive them. When that person does not 'get it,' it's more difficult to let that anger and sadness go, but doing so is still important for one's self. This is the why of forgiveness.
We forgive not because we have to, but because we need to. Carrying around anger, resentment and toxic hate will only make you feel all those things. Maybe not every day, but each time you're triggered by a memory, the same pain will resurface. Forgiveness is not about letting someone off the hook for what they've done. But it is about realizing that you don't forgive to heal them, you forgive to heal you. Forgiveness allows you to move forward with your own life. It takes away the power of what they did to you. It makes you feel empowered and in control because you choose how to feel. Now of course this is easier for hurts like breakups and betrayals. It's almost unimaginable for deeper pain like losses and death. Those are much harder to swallow and that is why time to grieve first is essential. No one can tell you how to feel or when you will be ready to let go. Maybe today, maybe in a year, maybe never. But the greatest gift you can give yourself is to forgive someone who may not even deserve it. It does not say you are 'okay' with their behavior. It says you realize that you no longer want to cause someone else's mistakes to ruin your future.
Forgiveness also can be incredibly restorative to a relationship marred by bad decisions. It's scary to trust someone who's hurt you. However, if you can learn to trust them again (after they have shown you they have changed), you are rewarded with the gift of appreciation and grace. The future can be even better than the past because you both realize that you've seen the worst in each other, confronted the unacceptable, and learned you can get through the inevitable lows. As long as you are not constantly forgiving someone who does not show real remorse and behavior change, forgiveness will only enhance both your relationship and your life. Letting go of all the old pain also helps you to no longer be encumbered by ghosts of the past. We cannot change what we've done. We can only learn to accept that it happened and try to not make the same mistakes. No one is without fault in life. Forgive those who've wronged you and you forgive yourself in the process.