“The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”
- Albert Einstein
Forgiveness is a dirty word for some of us. It brings up a lot of messy, conflicting feelings. Yet forgiveness is essential to mental health—and to access our Authentic self. Without forgiveness we can live almost entirely in what is commonly called the Victim or Shadow self. How to get to forgiveness consistently is a personal journey some people never fully take.
When we are traumatized, abused, abandoned, betrayed, or otherwise hurt, forgiveness is a hard thing to stomach. Right off the bat most of us are probably not ready to forgive. That’s honest; we don’t want to push the river here. We are not trying to “throw pink paint” on our harm and pretty it up, fake it, or pretend it wasn’t that bad. We probably need to talk about our hurt, pain, and sadness to someone who can validate us by saying, “That was terrible. I can understand why you would feel hurt, angry, sad, etc. Tell me more.” We may need to cry, beat the ground, and scream before we are ready for the “F” word.
The main reason to forgive is to help yourself. We forgive because we want to unhook ourselves from the past, to let go of pain, and to approach the present with an open heart. Without forgiveness we can live in eternal resentment, bitterness, and defensiveness. In fact, we can live our entire lives in a kind of haze of resentment, seeing everything and everyone through the distorted lens of past betrayals.
For instance, one relationship many people have a hard time forgiving is with their parents. Parents are usually ill equipped to raise kids. There is no manual, few if any classes, and it’s about the hardest thing anyone can do. Parents are gonna make mistakes—usually some big ones. In Creating Love, author John Bradshaw says, “All families are dysfunctional.” We aren’t supposed to come from perfect parents or perfect families because they don’t exist. Psychology professionals long ago agreed that parents need to be “good enough” to succeed as parents, not flawless. They need to provide a consistent level of safety, security, and love. They need to give proper nutrition, shelter, and medical attention. Still, they are gonna make mistakes.
Bradshaw also says that until we deal with the pain of the mistakes our parents made, we will approach each relationship “carrying them on our backs.” He says others are not only going to have a relationship with us, but with the mother and father we are still carrying around due to our unresolved resentments. That is, you will see another person as your mother, or as your father. Until you have forgiven your parents you won’t see anyone completely clearly.
Forgiving parents can take time. We need our painful stories to be heard and validated. We need to feel understood and empathized with. We then need to remember that our parents had childhoods too. This can be particularly hard to recognize in that we only experience them as adults. We may want to find out about our parent’s childhood, understand what they are still carrying, and develop compassion for their suffering. In this way forgiveness can begin to open up, help us release the past, see our parents as human, and see the person in front of us without the fog of our past hurts.
I was once walking down the street with a friend in his seventies. He had many repeated relationship problems and had been in therapy most of his adult life. Out of the blue he said, “You know, my therapist and I dug into another thing my mother did that messed me up. Isn’t it amazing how deep this stuff is?” A little stunned I said, “Don’t you think its time to forgive her? You’re not gonna live forever you know.” He didn’t like my answer.
Author Caroline Myss goes a step further. Myss says that with every negative situation that we carry unresolved anger or resentment about, we send a “unit of energy” to that situation and “keep it alive.” Myss says it is like a strand of energy extending from your current energy system back into past disturbances. By the time we reach forty we can have a huge investment of our life “energy strands” feeding our unresolved traumas from the past. We experience this as: bitterness, resentment, trust issues, depression, irrational fear, free-floating anxiety, hopelessness, etc. Myss believes that the stress of keeping past issues alive can become so depleting we can even get sick from it. She advocates that forgiveness is the main recipe for releasing these “strands of energy” locked in the past.
Its important to note that forgiveness doesn't lower our IQ. It doesn't mean we invite a perpetrator back into our life. We don't give more money to the guy who stole from us. We have forgiveness with boundaries. Marianne Williamson, author of A Return To Love, tells about how her agent stole all the royalties to the bestselling book. She says her attitude was, "I forgive you. I'll see you in court."
So what is it about forgiveness that is so unappealing? Usually it is about the way our internal Victim defines forgiveness. Remember the Victim sub personality is invested in keeping us Victims. It feeds on stories of victimization. The Victim is like a dog with a story bone, continually gnawing at it, trying to get more juice. “You don’t understand, my dad was never there for me.” “You would know why I’m so angry if you had my mother.” “You don’t know how hard my childhood was.” “I come from a lot of trauma.”
Forgiveness is very threatening to this Victim sub personality. It spells death to the Victim. The Victim will tell us things like, “They don’t deserve forgiveness.” “You are letting them off the hook!” “You are condoning bad behavior.” “You’re being a doormat if you forgive them, inviting them to abuse you again.” “You need to keep hating them to stay safe.”
This Victim mentality we keep feeding with resentments is hyper-vigilant. It over personalizes small conflicts. It convinces us to be excessively reactive, judges others harshly, and stays walled off. It is paranoid. Forgiveness unravels the inner Victim, releases the past, and allows us to live in the fully empowered present.
We can't forgive others from a place of superiority. This might be thought of as "forgiveness to destroy" or demean another. "You're so creepy. I'm so much more advanced than you. I forgive you for being so messed up." This will only backfire as an inability to experience the true gifts of forgiveness and stay locked in the Victim. We need to forgive from a place of equanimity and compassion--recognizing the other's humanity and struggles as similar to our own. A fellow traveler making mistakes on a difficult path.
The one we usually have the hardest time forgiving is ourselves. When we make mistakes this Victim sub personality can be ruthless—condemning our cowardice, irresponsibility, or lack of effort. In this way, it is feeding on our mistakes to keep itself alive. It will tell us if we live in enough guilt and fear we will not make the same mistakes. Actually, the opposite is true. This guilt can get so blinding that it creates confusion that leads to more mistakes. The Victim does not let us see the irrational thinking behind this self-sabotaging cycle. It is actually getting what it wants, more Victim food. It will continually condemn us as a way of strengthening itself.
Forgiving ourselves needs to be intentional. For some it can be done with inner child work (See the You Have a Child post) or Self Compassion (See the Have Compassion for Yourself post). Forgiveness is a daily activity, not a one and done. You may have situations, people, or mistakes to forgive most days. The Victim can also double back and try and convince us to pick up old resentments long forgiven. For some people forgiveness is also a spiritual practice— asking their higher power to help them forgive something they find unforgivable.
Big players in our lives are obviously needing forgiveness (parents, lovers, close friends, ourselves) but we often need to be careful about building up small resentments: traffic incidents, political figures, neighbors, etc. We are always leaning toward forgiveness or resentment when conflict occurs. The more we lean into resentment the more we lean into bitterness, angst, and isolation. The more we lean into forgiveness the more we experience peace, understanding, and love.
Remember, we have two aspects to our thinking vying for food, the Victim and the Authentic self. Which do you really want to feed? Do you want to live in a friendly or hostile universe?
Enjoy the video below on The Gift of Forgiveness: