Forgiveness Is Not An Emotion

Forgiveness is not an emotion, it is a process.

Sometimes we can become disillusioned as we try to live out our concepts or ideals of what we think forgiveness is. This can make us feel quite defeated. It can also literally add shame to the mix by having us feel not “moral/loving/forgiving/Christian” enough. This whole way of thinking about forgiveness is a trap.

One aspect of forgiveness that we forget is that forgiveness is not an emotion, it is the unloading of emotion, of the emotional charge that comes with thoughts about, or memories of, the offense that we suffered at the hands of another. It is a process of adjusting to having been on the receiving end of bad intent, lies, half-truths, deceit, and worse while trying to move from a stance of reacting to one of responding. It is adjusting to another’s failure to relate to us ethically, which is ultimately a failure in love and in loving well. And that hurts in a particular way that nothing else does. It makes us regret being vulnerable and that is an offense to the soul.

Sometimes, we cannot “let it go.” By “it”, I mean pain. Sometimes it(the pain) has such a hold on us that it won’t let us go. Sometimes what “letting it go” really means is participating in the work of detaching from the pain, not identifying with the pain in a way that incorporates it into our identity, therefore defining us. This is what causes a “victim mentality.”

I’ve yet to personally experience, or witness among clients, a single time that what we were calling unforgiveness was not really unforgiveness at all. In tracing it, I’ve seen a consistent pattern.

The first clue is “unresolved” anger. But the unresolved anger was actually just a symptom of deep, deep relational hurt. And that type of relational hurt causes grief. There is almost always a thin layer of anger covering a sea of hurt. And the anger is a necessary gift, temporarily. The anger is a defense against hurt. It is like an emotional dam holding back the waters, the tears, the come apart.

Often anger serves the function of a scab. Like a scab, it keeps us from bleeding out and protects us from contamination in the spot that has been compromised/torn/cut/wounded. It forms the barrier underneath which healing can begin. But we can over-identify with the symptom. We can not only become angry but become anger. The symptom can run the show. We can get stuck in what M. Scott Peck called the “mood of unlove.” I think that this is in part because the most underutilized word in the counseling professions is grief.

It is important to acknowledge that with the need for forgiveness comes the need to grieve. Pathological anger is often the refusal to grieve thoroughly and properly. And it usually involves the storyline that is created around the offense. When we have been relationally wounded, in addition to negative feelings towards the offender, we typically take our own inventories, feel unloved, not good enough, and turn their actions into a commentary on our worth. This is unavoidable because their actions are a commentary on our worth, to them. Being objectified by someone you trust is a commentary on how much they value you. But it’s more of a commentary on the status of their hearts in general, not just specific to us. Therefore, their treatment of us is not a commentary on our worth or value as humans. To believe otherwise is to buy into a storyline that we can spend up to a lifetime trying to resolve. You can tell an erroneous belief system by the deadening effect it has on you.

For the record, complete resolution in every situation is an ideal, a myth. The theories around grief seem to miss the point that some things never get “resolved” but are simply endured. As Alice Walker says, “Sometimes the way forward is with a broken heart.” Some wounds require that we go on living anyway, in light of/in spite of, but they are never 100% fully “resolved.” The discomfort that others feel in relation to our pain can cause us to stop opening up. Sometimes the best we can do for one another is just be there, in that painful place, together. To bear witness to one another’s suffering without trying to take it away. Grief demands that it be honored.

Grief is at the root of the inability to let go, to forgive. And theories on grief also seem to not get the fact that acceptance and depression are not two different destinations, but two sides of the same coin. To accept a lesser reality than the one you previously had and loved is depressing. To accept that the person that hurt you is not who you thought they were and the relationship is not what you thought it was is something that has to be grieved. What we knew and loved has died. So in some sense, forgiveness/resolution is like a burial. Not just as in burying the hatchet, but also as in burying the past in order to live in the present, to be intentional about managing our tendency to get lost in hurtful memories and daydreams that belong to yesterday. When we are actively learning about the dark side of love and are actively having to come to terms with the realities of toxic love, we must practice really good self care.

When someone that we trusted to be good stewards of our trust and to make it safe for our hearts to unfold and flourish breaks our hearts, we enter a process, not just of forgiveness, but also of grief. Forgiveness grows as grief lessens. Maya Angelou said it best when she said “I can be changed by what happened to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”


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