It is commonly assumed that your negative feelings are completely replaced by positive ones when you forgive someone.
The problem with this expectation is that it’s so categorical, that it puts forgiveness out of reach and leaves you with no option but to not forgive at all.
When you grant â€œgenuine forgivenessâ€, you make room for anger and identify it as normal and adaptive.
You don’t replace it with compassion or love and simply wipe the slate clean. This sort of magical reversal is not what happens to real people who have suffered real emotional injuries.
Even years from now, when you think about how you’ve been hurt or when something calls up the memory of your suffering, your old pain may resurface, grab hold of you, and drag you down.
To expect otherwise is to deny the power of the human brain to conjure up traumatic moments and force you to re-experience them with the same clarity of detail, the same visceral intensity, as when they first occurred.
Even if you forgive an offender, even if you’re dedicated to a life of equanimity, there may be times when you experience spasms of hate and cannot separate what he did to you from who he is.
You are still human, and to think your response can be separated into neat boxes is unrealistic. Accepting this will broaden your understanding of what it means to forgive and make room for negative spikes in emotion that are bound to arise.
What happens when you genuinely forgive is not that you essentially empty yourself of all hostile feelings, but that you allow other emotions to co-exist with them – more tender or positive emotions, such as sadness and grief.
Along with your anger comes a richer, more balanced, more complex reaction – encompassing both what the offender did wrong and what he did right, both the damage he inflicted on you and his efforts to make good.
However, be prepared because forgiving won’t wash away the injury; you may be left with a residue of bad feelings and an overwhelming sense of loss. This is what my good friend Sherri experienced.
Although she forgave her husband, Robert, for having an affair, she continued to struggle with bitterness and sorrow. “I know he’s trying hard to make me feel valued and safe,” she assured me, “but I’ve lost the idealized image I had of him – forever. My feelings continue to oscillate between empathy and an unbearable sense of betrayal.”
Two years after Robert revealed his affair, Sherri sent me this note: “The affair still hurts very much, even though the therapy helps. So does reading and the passing of time. We live with it and do the best we can, and we both love each other.”
It could be said that Sherri hasn’t forgiven Robert however because her positive feelings toward him are at times tainted with negative ones. It could also be said that she has partly forgiven him and may forgive him more over time. When you forgive, you don’t flip a switch.