A Lesson in Forgiveness

Recently I was given the advice that I should forgive someone who hurt me and people I care about for the sake of my own well being. I was told that all of the anger and resentment wasn’t going to help, and that forgiving this person would actually benefit me.

I’ve never been one to hold a grudge, but I felt as though this person didn’t deserve my forgiveness. Why should I forgive them? The problem with this way of thinking is that I thought forgiveness was about relieving guilt from the person who hurt me. Come to find out, it’s the exact opposite. Despite its many challenges, forgiveness is a skill we need to learn in order to truly rid ourselves of the emotional baggage we’re left with when people break our trust.

The definition of forgiveness may seem obvious, but I think one of the reasons I, and so many other people, have a hard time with forgiving someone is because we think forgiveness is something it’s not. Forgiveness is about relieving yourself of the negative emotions that someone has caused you to feel, and not about making them feel better when they’ve made a mistake. Oftentimes when someone apologizes to us, we respond with, “it’s okay,” regardless of the sincerity of our response. This is what causes the confusion when it comes to forgiveness. Instead of responding with “it’s okay,” reply with, “I accept your apology.” When you forgive someone by saying, “I accept your apology,” you’re not telling them that what they did was okay or that you are fine with what happened.

According to the article “Why Should We Forgive?” by Psychology Today, “Learning to forgive helps us to control our story and our feelings to avoid unnecessary pain.” The article discusses the findings of Dr. Frederic Luskin, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good, who discovered that the benefits of forgiveness include reducing anger, hurt, depression and stress, increasing feelings of optimism, hope, compassion, physical vitality, self–efficacy, conflict resolution skills, and confidence. 

“Ultimately, forgiveness is more for yourself, and it’s not for the other person,” said ORHS Counselor Kim Cassamas. “I think a common misconception around forgiveness, and I think this is probably what holds a lot of people back from going through the motions of forgiving someone, is that it’s not a reconciliation. Forgiveness does not mean you’re going to go back to the way things were before. Forgiveness is more for you to let go of the resentment and anger of whatever transpired but it does not mean that you’re going to head back and have the same relationship.”

Having the same relationship is something I worry about. I don’t want my forgiveness to be seen as an open invitation to come back into my life. However I don’t want to close the door on this relationship. After her parents divorced, ORHS English teacher Shauna Horsley’s path to forgiveness meant figuring out what was most important to her. “Moving on and having a relationship was really important to me in this situation,” said Horsley. “There are certain people in your life where you still want them there and you have to be able to make that decision- is my ability to move past this going to provide us an opportunity to continue to have a relationship that will be fulfilling for me? You have to be able to make that decision and I think that’s really hard to navigate.”

Horsley’s parents divorced when she was nineteen which created a rift in her relationship with her father. “I took it personally. I think a lot of kids and young adults do when their parents are going through stuff like this. They may not articulate it directly or even make sense of it in their minds but they feel like part of why this is happening has to do with that person not caring about you. They’re making a decision that harms you because they don’t care about how their actions affect you. As an adult looking back on that mindset, I realize now that people make poor decisions without intent of hurting other people.”

That is what I needed to hear. “People make poor decisions without intent of hurting other people.” While I realize that this is not true for every situation, the majority of times it is when we deal with forgiving someone. Going through being hurt by someone you care about teaches you so much about yourself and about how harmful negative emotions can be on everyday life. Having experienced this herself, Horsley recognized the consequences of avoiding forgiveness.

“The first thing I learned about myself is that when I hold on to stuff like this, it creates a huge amount of stress and anxiety for me that isn’t necessary,” said Horsley. “It’s almost like I’m punishing myself for something that I had no control over which does not solve a problem and it only makes my life harder.”

Part of reaching forgiveness, that I never thought about before talking with Cassamas, is self-awareness. I view forgiveness as a skill, one which we must all learn in order to properly recover from traumatic experiences. Cassamas explained how this skill is developed. “Part of it is self worth,” said Cassamas. “I think confidence plays a big role in one’s ability to forgive. That skill comes from knowing yourself and knowing how to process through whatever life is throwing your way,” said Cassamas. “Yes there’s skill in it but there’s more of that self exploration.”

During my time of self exploration, I’ve realized that before I can forgive someone, I need to be able to process the situation. I need to understand how I feel, how the situation has impacted me, and what I want my relationship with the person to look like. Processing the emotional harm that someone has caused you is not easy. It looks different depending on the individual who was wronged, the people involved, and the action itself. Each situation requires a different amount of time and attention to process before one can reach forgiveness. Cassamas brought up an example of how to deal with a situation that may take longer to process.

“With forgiveness, sometimes you have to process a loss if you’re not going to have that reconciliation. It’s not always easy to not move forward with someone who is important in your life and you have to process and figure out what life is like without that person,” said Cassamas. “You can provide forgiveness and not dwell on the situation anymore and let it impact you moving forward, but there’s still a loss and work that needs to be done to move forward.”

Moving forward is the goal of forgiveness. I don’t want to be stuck in this cycle of negative emotions. I want to move on without emotional baggage or guilt. In addition to the emotional benefits of forgiveness, an article titled “The healing power of forgiveness” published in IDEA Fitness Journal showed study results indicating that “people who are forgiving tend to have not only less stress but also better relationships, fewer general health problems and lower incidences of the most serious illnesses–including depression, heart disease, stroke and cancer.” 

Horsley talked about the importance of forgiveness, speaking from her personal experience. “I definitely think it’s important to forgive people because I think it makes your life better ultimately,” said Horsley. “I try to look at it as me not cutting them slack as much as giving myself permission to move on with my life and be happy.”  

When asked what forgiveness meant for her, Horsely responded, “for me it meant that I had a relationship with my dad. He got to meet his grandkids and I got to spend time with him. I have a lot of great memories from those opportunities. Had I not forgiven, that wouldn’t have happened.” 

I know it hurts. And I know that sometimes people do things that you think you can never forgive. But please try to open yourself up to forgiveness because by doing so, you are opening yourself up to a happier and healthier version of yourself.