Forgiving the Unforgivable (and the A’s to your Q’s)

I’ve wanted to talk about forgiveness on the podcast for a while. I’ve touched on it at different points, but we’ve never done a deep dive, and let’s be honest, forgiveness requires more than lip service.

Forgive (verb)

Stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offence, flaw or mistake.

forgiveness

That’s the core definition. Notice… it doesn’t say that you have to absolve the person. Notice that it doesn’t say that you have to reconcile with that person.

And yet, somewhere along the way forgiveness has morphed into feeling believing that to forgive you have to absolve the wrongdoer of their guilt and be fine with them.

I read a great article by Psychology Today which really helped me crystalize the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is an inner quality – we are motivated to forgive (stop feeling angry or resentful), for our own peace and mental health. Reconciliation is an outward quality – we take steps to negotiate a future relationship (an apology might be made by the wrongdoer, we determine boundaries for the new relationship, amends are made.)

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It blew my mind. I’ve always heard people talk about how forgiveness is about you, but this really clarified it for me. I’m a words person, so to see the definition of forgiveness vs. reconciliation… it made so much more sense.

And perhaps to help clarify a little bit more, here’s what forgiveness is NOT:

  • Forgiveness is not saying that the other person’s actions are okay
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to have that person in your life
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’ll never feel hurt again, it’s not a magic pill
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you won’t forget what has happened to you

Forgiveness is about you.

So with that core definition and difference in mind, let’s dive into the questions that you all sent in – and thank you again for doing so!

Q: How do I forgive people who put me in an unforgivable position? My parents put me between them during their divorce and I know things that I shouldn’t as a daughter.

I could have written this question! When I read it, I wanted to say WORD, girl! I am an adult child of divorce and I know many things that I wish I did not.

Whether it’s this exact situation or it’s some other situation that you deem unforgivable, I’d ask from the start – is this about forgiveness or reconciliation?

I’m going to make an assumption that it’s about reconciliation, because I think that’s likely where the pressure is stemming from. One or both of the parents wants you to move on and apologize so that you can move forward with your relationship with them – DM me or email me if I missed the mark and we can chat offline.

Before reconciliation can happen, forgiveness has to happen. And forgiveness is ALL ABOUT YOU.

I have people in my life whom I have forgiven, but I have not reconciled with.

When I think of the people who have repeatedly done me wrong, who I don’t believe deserve reconciliation, I can still forgive them for different reasons.

One of the main reasons that I can forgive them is because I truly believe that what you get from people is what they are capable of giving. Now, I see that statement as an average for their behaviour. Everyone has a bad day and so you might get a day of their bad behaviour. But if you CONTINUALLY get bad, hurtful, harmful behaviour from them, that’s who they are and what they are capable of giving you.

When it comes to our relationships with our parents, they are who they are. What they’re giving you is what they’re capable of.

Believe me, I believe change is possible (I wouldn’t be a coach if I didn’t), but people have to want to change, and do the work to make that change. If thy don’t want to and won’t do the work, then that’s what they are capable of.

At first that used to sound harsh to me, I thought how can you say that this piss-poor behaviour that I’m getting is all that this person is capable of? But when I looked back at all our interactions, when I ‘ran the data’ of my experiences with them, it was true. There might have been moments of good, but the net relationship was negative. And the person was unable and unwilling to change, and so that’s all they were capable of.

I mean, you could dive deep into why people do the things that they do, their history, their own traumas… but I think that muddies the waters and perhaps causes you more unnecessary stress.

When I realize that the behaviour that I’m getting is all that someone is capable of, it truly helps me to forgive, for my own sanity. Instead of constantly having conversations with the person in my head, preparing my words for the next interaction, over time I can get to the point where I can say “that’s who they are.”

And I repeat… you do not have to reconcile with that person if it’s not emotionally, mentally or physically safe for you to do so.

First comes forgiveness for you to be able to let it go for yourself. Once you get there, it’s up to you if you want to reconcile or not. But to reconcile, you need to have clear terms – do you need an apology? Do you need certain amends to be made? Do you need (and in all likelihood I’m going to recommend this from the get go!) to redraw the boundaries of your future relationship?

And if you are still struggling to forgive (definition: stop feeling angry or resentful), I recommend counselling. Even in just a couple of sessions, a trained counsellor or psychologist should be able to give you strong tools and strategies to move forward.

Thank you for your question, and I wish you all the best.

Q: I forgive before I’m ready because I feel that I need to, but the issues always come back up. How do I change this?

You probably reconcile before you’re ready to. Perhaps you haven’t even forgiven in the first place.

As with the previous question, you’ve got to get to a solid place of forgiveness first.

If you’re reconciling too early, perhaps give the person a clear boundary of time for you to process and tell them you’ll reconvene at that point to discuss if there is a future relationship. Or you can simply say, I just need some time, please give me the space to figure out how I feel.

A lot of this will depend on what the issues are that are coming back up. If this person is toxic, if they continually hurt you, harm you, make you feel less than, or lie to you… I hate to say it but the writing is on the wall.

NOW, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have zero relationship with them going forward (again, I don’t know the exact circumstance). What it can mean is that you firmly redraw the boundaries of your relationship. Perhaps going forward you don’t discuss the topic that continually upsets you? Or you stop doing a certain activity together. I’ll point you back to our last coaching episode on boundaries if you’re struggling to figure out what that looks like.

Q: How do you forgive when you don’t know why something happened in the first place?

This is a hard one, because innately we want to rationalize why someone has treated us a certain way. We would never behave that way, right? So, why would they? What have we done to deserve this behaviour?

The hard truth of it is that if you don’t know now… you likely won’t ever know. And that sucks. And I’m sorry for you. For most of us, we find it far more helpful to have things wrapped up in a bow, even if that bow is messy and painful.

The sticking point will be if you decide you want to move forward with that person. If you want reconciliation, you’re gonna need to know what happened, so it’s on that person. If they don’t come to the table, you won’t be able to trust them, and you won’t be able to reconcile.

And if it’s not about reconciliation, then you have to remind yourself that forgiveness is about you. It’s about your heart. As cheesy and trite as it sounds, passing time will help. And depending on the hurt, it might take years, but you eventually will be able to let go if you WANT to.

We can control our thoughts. Our feelings… they can be a challenge, and other intrusive thoughts will come in when you’re trying to change up a brain pattern, but you can get in the driver’s seat and start rewiring your brain. The more you sit in the past, the more easily your mind goes there. The more you make peace, the more easily your mind will move on.

It’s hard work, but it’s worthy work.

Q: I feel like I can’t forgive. How do I let go of the pain?

You might not like my answer.

You can forgive someone if you really want to. I say this, because there are parents of children who have been murdered, who have managed to forgive their murderers. Or other loved ones that can forgive heinous crimes against their loved ones. It is not easy, but it is possible.

I hate saying this, because I feel your pain. I’ve been there. I’ve been in the place where I thought I would hate a certain person forever. That what they’d done to me was beyond repair.

But as time goes on, as you reach out for help, as you surround yourself with community and projects and progress, you’ll find that what’s beyond repair might be that relationship, but you are capable of repair. You might always feel a little dented, but a dented car can still drive.

Tangibles – focus on gratitude. Surround yourself with loving people. Get rid of toxic people. Focus on projects you enjoy. Move your body. Get out into nature. None of these things in and of themselves will be the golden ticket, but in combination they’re very powerful. And doing all of those things… doing those things will allow time to pass so the wound isn’t so fresh.

Q: How do I forgive myself?

This one is a really interesting question, because I think it really highlights a double standard that we have in our minds.

First off, why do we often struggle to forgive ourselves in the first place? Because we don’t believe we’ve met the standard for forgiveness. We beat ourselves up for what we did or didn’t do, without really diving into the steps to move forward.

Whenever I have a client who is in this situation, I ask them to tell me who their best friend is. Whoever they name, I ask them what they would say if this was their best friend telling them the same thing.

Inevitably, they would NEVER dream of talking to their friend that way, they would tell their friend not to beat themselves up, to give themselves grace, and to move forward.

We need to start talking to ourselves the way that we would a loved one, because loving ourselves is a necessary step to a fulfilled life. And you’re capable of it, even if you don’t think you are.

As an action item, if you’re struggling to forgive yourself for anything, I want you to grab a pen and paper (that hand to paper motion is very helpful vs. typing), and I want you to write down ten reasons or examples of you being a good person, doing good things, being worthy of forgiveness.

Depending on how dark a place you’re in, it might take a while, but you will get there. The magnitude of the good deed doesn’t matter, just write it down. And there you go, empirical evidence that you are worthy of forgiveness. Read it, again and again, until you rewire your brain into self-forgiveness.

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