When you forgive too easily, you’re likely to be the master of extenuating situations, dredging up whatever you can about the offender’s injured past as evidence that his behavior toward you is no fault of his own.
“He was victimized by circumstances he didn’t deserve or control, so how can I hold him responsible for what he did to me?” you tell yourself, ignoring the fact that, though life may have loaded the gun, someone pulled the trigger.
When you dwell on the fact that he inherited a genetic predisposition to alcohol, say, or was born with a physical disability, you fail to see that biology is not always destiny.
By writing off his injurious behavior, you free him from any obligation to treat you with the same respect he’s likely to expect of you. Excusing a persons behavior because of his personal damage is pseudo-forgiveness.
So is over-identifying with him, and reasoning, “We’re all wounded. We’re all sinners who need to be forgiven. We’re all products of our upbringing. No one has it easy. Everyone has a story to tell. Who am I to judge?”
I’m not suggesting that there isn’t truth and wisdom in this charitable approach to forgiveness. But compassion needs to be balanced against a full appreciation of the harm he did to you.
I ask you to have as genuine a concern for yourself as for him, to care as much about how you have been wronged as about how he has been wronged. Setting these priorities will free you to consider Acceptance as an alternative to Cheap Forgiveness.
Share Your Pain with Someone You Trust
The most important element to forgiveness is to tell a handful of trusted people what happened. This means talking about how you feel and what about the hurtful situation was not okay.
Sharing your pain with a few trusted people helps you cope; it helps you put feelings into words and makes them clearer. Sharing pain allows other people to care for us and provide us with guidance and support. Sharing our pain helps us to connect with the universality of hurt and allows us to feel less alone.
To talk openly with one to five people does not mean it is better to tell twenty people. When we share our story with a couple of people we do so for support and guidance. When we share our story with a larger number of people, we often do so to denounce the offender, offer a cry of pain, or let people know how we have been victimized.
These reasons are different from looking for support and guidance and are too often simply the retelling of our grievance story.
If you cannot find trusted friends or family, then try a therapist or support group. If no one is available, you can write down your experience on paper and then review it. You can share what you have written anonymously in chats on the Internet.
I must mention one caution: please do not share your pain with people who can hurt you or take advantage of your confidence. You also do not have to share your pain with the person who has hurt you, for that person is not necessarily an appropriate one.
When you have shared your pain with a few trusted people, you can take the next step and learn to forgive. You know how you feel, you know what is wrong, and you have shared your pain.
Sharing Your Hurtful Relationship Experience
Sometimes we have a hard time admitting that bad things really happened and that they hurt. We may even deny the intensity of our feelings to remain in problematic relationships.
Acknowledging how you feel is one step in the fight against the tendency to stay in abusive and painful relationships. In any case, you are not ready to forgive until you are clear about how you feel.
It is just as important to know exactly what was done that was unacceptable. This means trying to remember details as best we can. It does not mean we have to exhaustively examine every minute of what happened.
The purpose is to free us of the tendency to deny and minimize what occurred. We want to know that what we experienced was unacceptable behavior and to be able to state in clear language what was not okay.
How can we know what to avoid in the future if we are unclear about the lines crossed? Coming to clarity about what causes us pain makes us less likely to repeat a hurtful situation.
When You Refuse to Forgive
Those of you who refuse to forgive will balk, “Don’t ask me to waste my time picking through someone else’s garbage. Why should I care why he hurt me or how his parents neglected him? Is it my job to dredge up compassion for someone who has deliberately wronged me, and make excuses for his transgression? To hell with his story.”
This response is understandable. When you view him as a victim, not just as a perpetrator, you risk feeling empathy and compassion for him. Seeing him in one-dimensional terms – as evil, asÂ bad – makes it so much easier to keep your distance, feed off your self-righteous anger, and dismiss him.
When you frame him in more complex ways, as a flawed human being struggling to survive his troubled past, you make it more difficult to condemn him.
To those of you who are determined never to forgive, let me ask: If by learning more about the offender you come to feel compassion for him, must you feel compromised? Is there anything dangerous in deepening your understanding of him?
You can be softer without feeling weak or foolish or allowing yourself to be stepped on. You can know with certainty that what he did to you was wrong, yet be touched by whatever hardships he has personally endured.