The Tricky Part of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a slippery slope that confuses almost everybody. (OK, maybe just me). What makes it slippery? Because forgiving is often confused with “I accept your apology and now we can pretend that never happened.” That might work in some cases, but not in others. Another difficult logic hill to climb, “Thanks for saying you are sorry. But your saying you are sorry does not obligate me to make you feel better. Or to let you continue mistreating me.”

forgiveness-heart-words-300x199The key to forgiveness on part of the person who was harmed is to stop expecting  retribution or punishment. The person who did the original harm has an obligation to do more than apologize. An empty apology with no intent to stop the harm is not worth the effort of forgiveness. An apology with no real effort to change, or worse, a deceptive appearance of change, isn’t worth an apology either.

Forgiveness is not an agreement that no harm was done. It’s simply an acceptance that the past cannot be changed. But to forgive, you do not have to return to trust. You do not have to place yourself in harm’s way to show that forgiveness is complete.

The best way to forgive some people is to accept them exactly as they are–but not to bring them back into your life. Once you have learned the lesson the relationship taught you, you can forgive the hurt, yes. But you do not have to continue the relationship. Some people are simply not trustworthy. And you are under no obligation to let them prove how trustworthy they are now. You already know that answer, and while they might not, you do not have to repeat what you have already learned–that someone who breaks a trust repeatedly will do so again. Yes, of course, some miracle may have happened, but you do not have to be the one to test the miracle.

Sometimes survival is a miracle, and escaping with your soul intact is enough. You can forgive, but there is no need to forget the important lessons. And certainly no need to repeat them.

Quinn McDonald has been puzzling out the tough knot of forgiveness, only to discover there is a difference between the generosity of the soul and the foolishness of repeating old mistakes.



22 thoughts on “The Tricky Part of Forgiveness

  1. I am amazed at the times when I come to your posts that your words speak to me and to so many others.. This is one of those times. I needed to hear these words, Quinn, and thank you.

  2. Quinn, thanks for writing this and being as Brene Brown says, vulnerable and courageous in sharing these thoughts. I have been fortunate not to have experienced interpersonal violence like many of my art therapy clients; however, I have experienced having intellectual property taken from me this year without remorse or apology and cyberbullying, again without remorse or apology. My colleagues have remarked that it is fascinating to see the individual act as if no wrong has been done. That is one of the greatest challenges to forgiveness I believe. In this world the perpetrator often “walks;” sometimes we just have to forgive ourselves for ever becoming involved with that individual in the first place.

    In the same thought pattern as Traci’s comment, we all have to remind ourselves that “What you allow is what will continue.” As you say, there certainly is no need to repeat what turned out to be a few missteps in this life’s journey.

    • We can’t force someone to walk on our path, neither do we have to walk on theirs to please them. It is so true that what we allow will continue–and get more so. Boundaries are necessary, and bless the person who can set and hold them.

  3. Oh my, you nailed it. Forgiveness is something you do for yourself…not the other person. By forgiving them and not harboring resentment and all its cousins like hate and so forth, you stop drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. And you’re right — you do not have to let them back in your life! Go forth — forgive & learn the lesson they taught you — and live your life without them.

  4. One of my favorite quotes on forgiveness comes from Louis Hay: “Forgiveness means giving up, letting go. It has nothing to do with condoning behaviors.”

    I have so many thoughts on forgiveness but what I’ve learned through the years that has helped me the most is this:

    To forgive does not mean that what the other person did or said was right, it means you love yourself enough not to give away your strength, power and sanity. It means moving on and acknowledging that the other person is walking a different path than the one you are on…..maybe they are insecure, angry, or not able to acknowledge and apologize.

    If we don’t forgive then we walk around angry and upset while the other person is going through their daily life without one tiny thought about the very thing we are so upset about. It doesn’t mean what they did was right; it just means we are not going to let it control us any longer.

    Another great post Quinn!

  5. There seems to be a bunch of us who are or have gone through this. I myself am trying to figure out how to tell someone that I don’t want to stay in touch at all in a way that would be both clear and as polite as possible. What you write about empty apologies and trust hit home hard. Especially the point that I don’t need to be the one to test out the trustworthiness of that someone. There was enough damage done the first time around. Thank you for that realisation. It was just what I needed to hear right now. 🙂

    • As I said to Deb, forgiveness is not reconciliation. There is a huge gap between the two, and I think that was just what I realized. I’m no longer angry, I no longer want retribution, but I’m also not going to permit myself to be manipulated, deceived, or treated badly. As the story says, “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”

  6. I’ve been there too. I’m dealing with a particular situation right now. Yes I want to forgive and move on, but am not quite able to trust again. The other party says if I can’t trust again, then I haven’t really forgiven. But this is a deep hurt, compounded by the problem of never receiving an apology either. But I don’t like it eating away at me either.

    • There is a huge difference (I figured out) between forgiveness and reconciliation. One is not the other. You can forgive, then walk away from the relationship. Anyone who says you didn’t really forgive is a manipulator, and that is the part you are walking away from. We can agree that we don’t want to put their head in a vice anymore, but we don’t then have to continue with the damaging relationship. That, for me, is the heart of forgiveness: “Ok, we can’t change what happened, I will not continue to be angry at you, but I also will not allow you to repeat the process. I’ve learned my lesson.” That was the dime that dropped for me.

  7. Great insight Quinn. I’ve been there. It has taken me a long time to realize I don’t have to continue relationships that have become damaging. Hard when it is your oldest friend.

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