A friend of mine refers to the word “forgiveness” as “The Ultimate ‘F’ Word.”
No matter who you are, where you come from, or what you do, there is a 97% chance that you have a visceral reaction to the word “forgiveness.” There may be a few clues in your body’s reaction to the word that let you know how you feel – the body always knows first.
Recently, I attended a training seminar on grief that included an entire section on forgiveness. As soon as the instructor uttered “The Ultimate ‘F’ Word,” I felt my back straighten, chest puff out, and my jaw clench. My muscles were poised for a fight! I looked around the faces of the Zoom room, adults like me who were studying grief and how to deal with it, and saw that I was not the only one who had an immediate physiological response to the word.
Forgiveness is a tricky subject.
What We’ve Been Taught About Forgiveness
It is not our fault that we have this visceral reaction to the word itself. We’ve been taught a lot of unhelpful and damaging things about forgiveness from a variety of sources in our lives, and some of these things are simply not true.
I am a complex trauma survivor, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by my father. Around the time I disclosed the abuse, I had been introduced to the church, going every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening.
I was 16 years old.
The lessons that I absorbed during my childhood – and, more specifically, during this time – included the following:
- Crying is for weak people
- Emotions don’t matter, ignore them
- Follow the rules
- We don’t talk about anything
- Forgive immediately
- Reconcile above all else, even personal safety
- Forget what was done to you
- Fake it ‘til you make it
Forced forgiveness. No discussion. No sense of feeling heard or respected. No witness to or acknowledgement of the pain and suffering caused. No negotiation of changed behaviors, and certainly no promises, even false promises. Just the words, “Forgive me” and “You have to forgive me, because the Bible said.”
The Definition of Forgiveness
These memories stick in my throat, a lump that is impossible to swallow. I take deep breaths, lift my soft palate, lower my shoulders. I approach this lump from the side, sneaking up on it, gentle and reassuring, and it slowly dissipates.
I’ve been training myself to connect my body with my brain – my body feels sensations first, then my brain makes meaning out of them. In between, there’s a tiny space where a pause is possible. The pause where I can take a breath and remember that those messages were not about forgiveness. That is not what forgiveness means.
In the training seminar, the instructor gave the dictionary definition of forgiveness: “Cease to hold resentment towards an offender.” In other words, living without the pain from what someone else did or didn’t do, what someone else said or didn’t say.
Forgiveness is a choice to live without pain. Forgiveness is a choice to let go of the hope of a different person or experience or situation or outcome.
Easy peasy, yes? NO.
This is like someone telling you to “just stop” biting your nails. If I could stop, I would have already done so.
What Forgiveness is NOT
After the instructor gave the dictionary definition of forgiveness, they spent a lot of time talking about what forgiveness is not, which includes:
- Not letting someone off the hook
- Not condoning behavior
- Not forgetting
- Not reconciling
- Not “one and done”
- Not automatic
- Not a feeling
- Not liking them
Basically, the opposite of what I had been taught, in every possible way.
Later on, we went through the process of forgiving, which is absolutely a process that honors feelings, emotions, and thoughts, giving witness and acknowledgement to the hurtful person or event. That was the whole point of this grief training that I attended in order to be certified to take others through this process of forgiveness. And guess what? In the mental health world, certification partly means, “go through this whole process yourself.” Which makes me – all of us – better at what we do.
How You Feel About Forgiveness is Revealing
Like I said at the beginning, no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you do, there is a 97% chance that you have a visceral reaction to the word “forgiveness.”
We feel our responses to “forgiveness” in our bodies, and these emotional responses reveal what we need to know.
In other words, your feelings about forgiveness reveal a lot about you. And you are ultimately responsible for dealing with them.
When these emotions and feelings come up, you can ignore them, sure. And to that I will ask, “How’s that working for you?” Generally the answer is, “Not well.”
Here I offer an alternative, with the comfort that it takes about 90 seconds for a feeling to pass. Only 90 seconds.
Take that one and a half minutes and lay your feelings out on the table, like playing cards. Where do you feel something in your body – (like a lump in your throat) – and what feeling does that signify – (betrayal). Really take a look. Witness the wrongdoing and how you felt about it. SEE these feelings and name them.
Get curious. What is the source of these feelings? Where do they come from? What are they about? Write or draw or talk it out with someone you trust.
Do you have to talk with the offending person about what happened? No. This isn’t about anyone else, anyway. This is about you.
What Does Forgiveness Look Like in your Life?
What if you can’t forgive? What if this is simply impossible?
There’s no shame in that, my friend. In fact, you are not alone.
Many times, we need a bridge between two disparate feelings. For instance, I hated my body for years, and then I decided to love my body. Switching between these two actions and all of the accompanying feelings takes years of work, because my brain has been trained to hate my body.
I needed a bridge, which was neutral acknowledgement. “Here is my body,” I say to myself while looking in a mirror. “My body does a lot of cool things.”
We can do that with our grievances, too. “Here is something that someone did to me. Here are my feelings about it. What they did was wrong. I acknowledge that.”
Regardless of where you are in your journey of forgiveness, take care of yourself. Forgiveness is a tricky subject that digs into our most painful wounds.
These wounds deserve tending, because you deserve freedom from emotional pain.