It’s a common saying that we should forgive and forget when someone offends us, but the truth is that there’s a little more to forgiveness than that. Throughout my years as a therapist, I’ve worked with many clients who struggled with the concept of forgiveness (what it means, how to do it, etc.). Whether it’s with minor offenses or severe abuse, we don’t always quite get the whole idea of forgiveness. I define forgiveness as ceasing to feel resentment toward someone who’s wronged us. Forgiveness is beautiful and can heal hearts and relationships, but I think we still may misunderstand it at times. Here are some common myths about forgiveness:
Myth: Forgiveness is Forgetting
Forgiveness is about giving up a grudge and releasing negative energy, but not necessarily never thinking about what happened again. Particularly with individuals who’ve suffered abuse, it’s impractical (and unhealthy) to expect them to forget what they went through. Also, we so often learn from our experiences, so why would we want to forget the life lessons that may have come from a situation where we forgave someone? Occasionally thinking about what happened does not mean dwelling on it or drumming up that resentment again; what it means is that the incident may still be in our memory but it’s not in the forefront of our hearts and minds anymore.
Myth: Forgiveness Means Continuing the Relationship
It’s possible to forgive someone, to give up that hurt, and to not continue your relationship with him/her. For example, in the very difficult and traumatic instance of infidelity, a man may choose to let go of the pain of his wife being unfaithful while not also continuing the marriage (each family and situation is different, and I’m not necessarily advocating for divorce!). On an everyday level, even if you don’t make a clean break from someone emotionally, you still can set boundaries and choose to not spend as much time with him/her.
Myth: Forgiveness Means Not Feeling Mad or Hurt
In order to cease to feel resentment toward someone, you have to feel resentment first! Therapists are fond of saying that we should let ourselves experience that emotions that naturally come to us-anger, sadness, etc. If you find yourself in a situation where you want to eventually forgive another person, first allow yourself to really feel the impact of that individual’s behavior on you personally. The only way past it is through it, and part of forgiveness is processing those painful feelings.
Myth: Forgiveness Should Happen Immediately
There seems to be something admirable about those people who can immediately let go of others’ mistakes. While it’s okay to aspire to be like this, please understand that it’s not the norm to be able to do do that. It’s a gift for some, but for the majority of us, we need time to forgive others who’ve hurt us, and that’s okay. Be patient with yourself as you work to forgive.
Myth: Forgiveness Requires An Apology
An apology can certainly help bring restitution and reconciliation, but sadly it doesn’t always come, and it’s not required for forgiveness to take place. I’ve worked with clients in psychotherapy who are harboring hurt from a family member who has passed on. You can’t get an apology from someone who has died, but you can still grant yourself the gift of forgiveness to release that pain.
I’d like to continue this discussion about forgiveness and get your questions and feedback. Find me on Instagram (@drjuliehanks) or on Facebook, and tag your comment with #forgivenessmyths. Can’t wait to hear what everyone has to say!