There are words in the English language that make me cringe. For example, the word varicose makes my skin crawl. Scabies is another word that makes me want to take a bleach bath because I find the sound of it to be so disgusting. I have a love-hate relationship with the word weenus – part of me thinks it’s fun to say, while the other part of me can’t stand it. Yes, weenus is a real word…a part of your anatomy, in fact…go look it up.
There is another word…the F word…that absolutely scares the living crap out of me. We all know the F word. We all struggle with the F word. Some go their entire lives without experiencing the F word. Certain people don’t know how to express the F word. Others don’t know how to ask for the F word. It is a terrible and powerful word. It’s absence can cause relationships to end, while its presence can change the world. In the end, every single one of us must embrace the F word.
Forgive (Verb): “Stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offence, flaw, or mistake” (n.d.).
Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult to wrap our brains around? The short answer, I believe, is that is requires us to let go. We as humans like to be in control. We like to hold onto things and to own them, which allows us to feel in control of our world. It’s easier to be angry and know what’s going on than to be vulnerable and face unknown emotions.
According to Thesaurus.com (n.d.), which pulls its list from the 2013 Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, some antonyms for forgiveness include: condemn, accuse, blame, sentence, charge, and punish. Ouch. Those are some heavy concepts. When I think of the opposite of forgiveness, I think of a festering resentment that is seeping into the deepest corners of my being. It is a disease – a disease that will likely be fatal if left untreated. I like how the Mayo Clinic describes what happens if forgiveness is withheld: “If you dwell on hurtful events or situations, grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility can take root. If you allow negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, you might find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). Oh…and guess what can happen if you hold onto a grudge? You can “become depressed or anxious” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). Seems like an important detail, so I’m just going to tuck that away for future reference.
Although the list of situations resulting in a need for forgiveness are too numerous to count, in my world there are only two main types of forgiveness. Those two type are forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. I personally think the latter is much more difficult for a number of reasons. Before I get into those reasons, my stream of consciousness is telling me to turn left at the fork in the road. In case you were wondering, left takes us to the topic of forgiveness of others.
Saying F You to others.
At some point in our lives, we have all been hurt by another human being. The fact of the matter is that many things in this world hurt because this world is ugly, but some things cause significantly more pain than others. For example, if someone snatches up the parking spot I had my eye on and then flips me the bird, I may be less likely to hold a grudge than if a significant other were to cheat on me with someone else. Two uncomfortable situations with two vastly different resulting pain scales.
Grudge (noun): “A strong feeling of anger and dislike for a person who has treated you badly, especially one that lasts for a long time” (n.d.).
Look at the parts of speech for forgive and for grudge. A grudge is a thing. It’s alive. It’s feeding on your resentment and thriving on your anger. Forgiveness is an action. You can’t passively forgive. It is a conscious decision that must be acted upon. In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Alex Lickerman says, “To my way of thinking, forgiveness involves recognizing that the person who harmed us is more than just the person who harmed us… At its core I believe forgiveness is an acknowledgement that a person who’s harmed us still has the capacity for good” (2010). I mean…wow. I can’t say I’ve ever really broken forgiveness down to the point that I see one broken person acknowledging another broken person. Forgiveness has a lot in common with namaste. We are looking at someone who has wronged us and saying, “Hey…I’ve messed up plenty of times before too. I owe it to both myself and to you to find peace with this situation.” You are looking past the wrongdoing and seeing the humanity that surrounds it on all sides.
What’s more, “as you let go of grudges, you’ll no longer define your life by how you’ve been hurt” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2017). Speaking from personal experience, there is something so degrading and humiliating about being hurt by another, especially if it is a conscious act on their part. There have been times in the last few years when all I can see in front of me is the action of another, and how it drastically changed my life forever. Infidelity is a big one. Finding out that my husband of several years had been actively cheating on me with the same woman for nearly all of those years made me feel like a character out of the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids or Antman. Tiny. Insignificant. It’s hard not to see it as a reflection on yourself when someone carries on in a way that they know is going to cause irreparable damage to the relationship, not to mention the wellbeing of the souls involved. But what he did to me does not determine who I am as a person. It certainly has no bearing on my worth as a woman, as someone’s potential partner, or as human being. Likewise, I would argue that is has no bearing on his worth as a man. I would certainly think twice about being his partner, but he is human and no less worthy of forgiveness than me.
The important thing to remember is that forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to let them hurt you again. If you want to give them another chance, more power to you. But forgiveness does not mean turning a blind eye and painting a target on your back so it’s easier for them to hurt you next time. You do not forgive at your own expense, but rather for your own sake. “There is great value in mastering the skill of forgiving but not forgetting,” says author Dr. Kurt Smith, “Taking good care of ourselves requires regular forgiveness of others. Remember, we do it for us, not for them. And we don’t obsess, but we don’t forget, either, so we can take the valuable life lesson with us” (2014). Always forgive, but guard and protect yourself too.
I remember sitting on the couch next to my soon-to-be ex-husband after finding out about his secret “other” life. We were sitting in silence because…really…what is there to say at that point? When life as you know it ceases to exist, it’s hard to find any words. I remember looking at him and saying, “I forgive you.” And in that moment, what took my breath away was that I realized how deeply I meant it. I can’t even begin to describe the weight that was lifted. I still grieved. I still hurt at a depth I had never experienced before and will hopefully never experience again. But I was at peace. I forgave and moved on with my life, making sure he was not part of it so that I could heal and find out what I was truly made of. I still haven’t found out what I’m made of, by the way, but each year seems to chip a little more of my façade away and I’m starting to catch glimpses of who I am.
Saying F You to yourself.
This. This is the hardest task of them all. I was able to forgive my ex-husband and the pain got easier because he was no longer in the picture. Out of sight, out of mind. But when it comes to forgiving ourselves? There is no escaping ourselves. There is no running away from our thoughts or self-abuse. When it comes down to it, “it’s easier to forgive others. After all, they don’t live in your head, reading you the same old riot act” (Lawrence, 2003).
We have all done things we are ashamed of. We have all hurt other people, whether we care to admit it or not. As someone with a self-proclaimed guilt complex, it comes as no surprise to me that “difficulties with self-forgiveness are linked with suicide attempts, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse, among other problems” (Breines, 2012). Figuring out how to forgive ourselves is kind of a big deal and may have hefty consequences.
As with any good apology, I think the best place to start is to say “I’m sorry.” And we have to mean it. A truly heart-felt apology is one that acknowledges the pain and suffering caused. We may have apologized to the other person, but we also need to apologize to ourselves. I feel this is important because it is the first step in recognizing that, yes, you screwed up big time, but you are human and will only poison yourself by starting a long term relationship with self-hate and regret. I find the following statement incredibly encouraging in my own battle to forgive myself: “Importantly, self-forgiveness need not be all-or-nothing. It’s a slow process that may not result in a full release of negative feelings or an exclusively rosy view of oneself. Rather than being a form of self-indulgence, self-forgiveness might be better seen as an act of humility, an honest acknowledgment of our capacity for causing harm as well as our potential for doing good” (Breines, 2012).
For years I have had the unhealthy perspective that I have been paying an ongoing penance for wrongs done to others in the past. I have accepted each bad or painful thing that has happened to me as karma’s way of making sure justice is done. Combine that with my knack for overthinking, a raging guilt complex, and a depression streak a mile wide. Probably not a healthy outcome. I’m working on it. I have reached out to specific individuals I have wounded in the past and expressed sincere apologies. I felt better after doing that, but still have been unable to reach the point of fully being able to accept my human flaws. In the meantime, I try to do my very best to never cause that kind of pain again.
The emotional impact of withholding forgiveness can be devastating. If we refuse to forgive someone else, it can cause bitterness, anger, and maybe even a sense of entitlement. If we refuse to forgive ourselves, it can cause our self-worth to plummet and may take away our fragile belief that even broken people can make a difference. I have to remind myself on a daily basis that the good I do now is for the sake of the here and now – I am spreading love and goodness to those around me in this moment, not because I need to pay for my past sins. This is life…not some purgatory. Forgive others so that you may live without bitterness. Forgive yourself so that you may see your own worth and then spread love and joy in a world that so desperately needs some TLC. Go on – don’t be afraid of the F Word.
Breines, Juliana. (2012). The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself. Great Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_healthy_way_to_forgive_yourself
Forgive. (n.d.). In online English Oxford Living Dictionaries. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/forgive
Grudge. (n.d.). In online Cambridge Dictionary. Retrieved from https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/grudge
Lawrence, Jean. (2003). Learning to Forgive Yourself. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/balance/features/learning-to-forgive-yourself#1
Lickerman, Alex. (2010). How to Forgive Others: The freedom forgiveness brings. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201002/how-forgive-others
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692
Smith, Kurt. (2014). 4 Reasons to Forgive but Not Forget. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/4-reasons-to-forgive-but-not-forget/
Thesaurs.com. (n.d.). In 2013 Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus (3rdEd.). Philip Lief Group.Retrieved from https://www.thesaurus.com/browse/forgive
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