Updated: Oct 4, 2019
During a discussion with my colleagues the other day, the questions, ‘What is forgiveness and why must we forgive?’ were posed. I glibly responded, ‘Well, it depends on who you ask.’ And it really does.
Forgiveness and the reasons why we forgive others are endless and often quite personal. Some of us are motivated by our respective religious beliefs and doctrines whereas others by their upbringing or societal norms.
Regardless of the reasons why we forgive others, it is important to acknowledge that the act of forgiveness can be self-serving (in a good way).
This may be an uncomfortable notion for those of us who see the act of forgiveness as a sort of pious, self-sacrificing ‘gift’ to the one being forgiven. But the truth is forgiveness is really good for the forgiver too– I know, I’ve been one.
I’ll give you an example. I’ve never been one to hang onto past conflicts and grievances with people (I’ve often joked that I simply don’t have the memory for it). But I recently found myself unable to forgive a colleague following a particularly serious incident at work. At first, I put my inability to forgive her down to the fact that she was completely unapologetic for the harm she had caused me to suffer. But I’ve worked around this problem before, and I know in my heart of hearts that it is not necessary for a person to be sorry to forgive them.
After some reflection, I realised that what was really upsetting me - a person I no longer liked or respected still appeared to have considerable power over my feelings and general emotional well-being.
My inability to forgive her and to move on from the conflict was really just upsetting me, and not her. It was also making my workplace an unpleasant place for me to be.
It was at that moment that I set out to forgive her – for my own sake.
First, forgive yourself
The first step to reaching an authentic state of forgiveness is to forgive yourself. Now, don’t get your hackles up – I know you thought this article was about forgiving your perceived wrongdoer. It is, but only in part.
Self-awareness here is key. Ask yourself the uncomfortable questions such as, ‘What has been my contribution to the breakdown of the relationship?’ ‘How am I at all responsible for this conflict?’
In my dispute with my colleague, I realised I should have stood up for myself sooner. I should not have allowed her to treat me as she did for as long as she did. I should have set clear boundaries with her from the beginning in order avoid the conflict from occurring. I should have recognised that my colleague and I did not have the same communication style and that my message to her was being missed. I needed to forgive myself for not doing the above.
Acknowledge your role in the harm or suffering caused. Admit to yourself the part you have played (if any) in contributing to the cause of the harm or conflict so that you can reach that truly authentic space in your heart where you can forgive yourself.
This step can be a very difficult one for some – possibly harder than forgiving your perceived wrongdoer.
The traditionalist in you may tell you that forgiveness is for wrongdoer and not for the wronged. This is not the case. Forgiveness is for all parties involved in the strife, wrongdoer and wronged alike.
Next, forgive your perceived wrongdoer
Believe it or not, your wrongdoer does not have to be sorry in order for you to forgive him or her.
Remember, your reasons for embarking on this journey of forgiveness are not altogether pious and self-sacrificing. Ultimately, you are on this journey to reclaim your personal power and control over how your wrongdoer makes you think, feel and behave – not to seek their contrition or to teach them right from wrong.
My colleague felt nothing for the harm she had caused me and my career. She was badly unapologetic and this remains to be the case to this day.
In order to forgive her in these circumstances, I had to practice empathy, as do you.
Ask yourself, at the time your wrongdoer caused you harm, did they have the ability to behave differently? Then ask yourself, at the time that they caused you harm, did they have the capacity to behave differently?
‘Ability’ and ‘capacity’ are two different concepts.
On the one hand, a person’s ability to behave differently can be affected by limiting beliefs such as their deep fear of failure, their deep-set fear of inadequacy (as was the case with my colleague) and so forth. Your wrongdoer may know they should behave differently, but simply does not have the ability to do so.
On the other hand, a person’s capacity to behave differently can be affected by extraneous factors - such as what they are going through at the time of the conflict extraneous to their conflict with you. For example, your wrongdoer may be having troubles in their marriage, having financial issues, or receiving heat from their boss which may cause them to react in a certain way to you. These factors have nothing to do with you, but everything to do with how your wrongdoer behaves towards you and ultimately makes you feel.
Practicing empathy is a conscious exercise in both patience and understanding. It requires you to actively try to understand your wrongdoer’s inability to behave differently, as well as the extraneous factors that may have caused them to behave as they did towards you.
Now take note: being empathetic does not mean you have to agree with, like or condone your wrongdoer’s behaviour.
Your being empathetic is a conscious decision you have made for yourself alone to assist you in reaching an understanding space in your heart. Also, to make it possible for you to forgive your wrongdoer for the harm done to and for the sake of your own overall emotional wellbeing.
Then, allow your wrongdoer to forgive you
If we are honest with ourselves, it is very rare that any dispute is ever solely the responsibility of one party. This is naturally not always the case – particularly in relation to acts of violence or other unlawful acts.
Whilst you may have reached a state of forgiveness of yourself by admitting any role you may have played in the conflict to yourself, it may be necessary to have this conversation with the other party too. This is particularly true if you seek to actually reconcile with the other party as opposed to simply move on from them.
Reconciliation versus the end of the road
Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Forgiveness may lead to reconciliation but it does not necessarily have to.
If you seek to reconcile with your wrongdoer, it is important to treat the reconciliation as an opportunity for a fresh start. Now is the time to set new boundaries that will help you to avoid being harmed in the same way again. Make your boundaries clear to your wrongdoer and hold fast to them.
If it is time to let your wrongdoer go on a more permanent basis (as in my instance), then take the opportunity to reflect on what you have learned about yourself as well as from the relationship as a whole. Consider how you may avoid a similar situation in any of your other relationships from materialising, and implement methods and habits that ward against history repeating itself.
I had to continue working with my wrongdoer. I was able to do so harmoniously once I had forgiven her. Why? Because I had reclaimed my personal power over how she made me think and feel. She no longer had any impact on my wellbeing and I was no longer drinking from my own poisoned chalice. I had taken back control of my myself and my work environment, and I had reached a state of content indifference – and it felt good.
A final word
In forgiving your wrongdoer, you are saying that person no longer impacts on or influences how you think or feel. You are able to achieve peace of mind and no longer allow your wrongdoer to impact on your life.
Forgiveness is a process. It can take years, months, days to reach a truly authentic state of forgiveness. There is no set timeline within which you need to forgive. Take as long as you need as it is essential that your forgiveness is genuine. Just remember that the only person who suffers whilst you harbour unresolved feelings of ill will or anger towards another, is you.
Start taking the steps necessary to free yourself of the harm caused by another’s wrongdoing today.
With nothing short of Love, Joy and Peace,