I wish I were better at forgiveness.
I feel like, as a Christian, I should be. Every week at church, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” I am now technically a card-carrying Presbyterian, and so that’s how we pray it at church. But growing up (and when I pray it on my own), I said, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
I suppose if Jesus felt the need to include this very specific line in one of the few direct answers he gave to a question, we can probably deduce that it’s universally difficult. And that trespasses/debts are an inevitability.
I used to have this picture of what it means to be good at forgiveness. It was a cool, collected Marebs who was generally unfazed and unbothered by anything. Like a raincoat in a thunderstorm, the wrongs were supposed to collect on my outermost layer and roll off like they never happened.
I don’t think that’s the ideal anymore. In fact, I wonder if that’s even healthy.
The appeal of that level of stoicism lies in its lack of discomfort and tension. It’s uncomfortable and painful to acknowledge our feelings of hurt. For me, the ideal I had in my head was about avoiding feelings I didn’t want to deal with. But if we are to be good at forgiveness, we need to be honest about the fact that there is something to forgive.
There was a time in my life, not too long ago, when I believed I didn’t get angry. Maybe here and there in dramatic circumstances. But I believed I was good at letting things go. I later learned that I was actually good at burying things and disconnecting from my “negative emotions.” Which is not the same thing.
Our guy Freud once said, “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” My mentor and friend Emily P. Freeman talks about this same idea as our feelings “coming out sideways.”
Either way, pretending our anger and hurt don’t exist isn’t the same as being good at forgiveness.
Back in May, my buddy, Kerrah Fabacher, and I were on IG live talking about what to do when a friend holds a grudge. Kerrah is a counselor, writer, and boundaries coach, so she had so many great, practical thoughts. Towards the end of our conversation, however, I turned the tables to ask about how to let go and forgive when we realize we are holding a grudge. If you’re like me, it can be really hard to move past it when we are seriously, legitimately hurt by another person. Particularly when it’s a person we love and trust.
For me, it can feel like my anger is the only thing holding the other person accountable. And if I let go of it, doesn’t that mean they will have gotten away with it? Kerrah said a couple of things that are helping me reframe forgiveness.
- “Grudges can become toxic and they can really mess things up within us and they can mess things up among us.”
- “The hurt is real and justified, but it’s eating away at you. No matter how terrible the wrongdoing was… if we continue to hold onto the hurt it just hurts us.”
Conceptually, you might be tracking with me. Mayhaps it’s an idea you’ve heard before and you’re thinking, That’s nice, Marebs, but how in the actual frick does that translate into my lived life?
It’s a swell question, and I’m glad you asked. I asked a more diplomatic version of that same question in my conversation with Kerrah. She gave us five very practical steps to walk through when we’re having trouble letting go.
- Name the very specific thing that hurt you.
- Name why it was hurtful.
- Practice letting go.
- i.e. Go through all the things you’ve named and say, “I forgive [person who hurt you] for [thing they did].”
- Do you need to tell them? Maybe, maybe not.
- Set some boundaries.
- Ask yourself, “What are some boundaries I need to put in place so this doesn’t keep repeatedly happening?”
Here’s an important nuance that Kerrah and I each touched on in our conversation. Forgiveness isn’t the same thing as reconciliation. This is why point five exists. Forgiving someone isn’t the same thing as giving them full access to your life. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean a toxic relationship is no longer toxic. Letting go of hurt isn’t the same as pretending it never happened and assuming that person will never do that hurtful thing again. There is a difference between holding a grudge and being mindful of red flags.
If there is mutual care, humility, and respect, that’s one thing. A persistent pattern of harm and disregard for your well-being is something else entirely.
Mayhaps like me, it’s hard for you to even acknowledge the hurt because you have a negative association with certain emotions. One of my first breakthroughs with Dr. Therapist came when he said, “We can’t get to where you want to go if we’re starting at where you think you should be. We have to start where you are.”
What do you think? What’s the hardest part of forgiveness? Leave a comment and let me know!