In response to being wronged or mistreated by a loved one, whether emotional or physical abuse, or betrayal and infidelity, forgiveness is often considered the most critical ingredient for healing to eventually take place.
Indeed, depending on the context, forgiveness is a powerfully healing agent. In fact, a refusal to forgive or let go often prolongs suffering for the person that was wronged.
But what happens when the hurtful actions are repetitive and ongoing? Or, when the person who has acted wrongly is not willing (or able) to make meaningful amends? Or when the wronged person is not ready to forgive?
In these circumstances, argues Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring, author of How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To, genuine forgiveness can only take place when the onus of responsibility rests on the person who acted wrongly to earn forgiveness, and that, in certain situations, the best option for the person who was mistreated or betrayed is to have the freedom to not forgive, and to instead turn to the healing power of acceptance, one of four approaches to forgiveness.
Drawing from her clinical work with couples dealing with infidelity, she notes there are at least ten interconnected steps for the betrayed person to take in self-directing their healing. These steps can also be universally applied to traumatic experiences and situations other than infidelity. Briefly summarized below, they are to:
1. Honor the full sweep of your emotions.
In this step you recognize the magnitude of the wrong that was done and seek to fully feel and express the emotions you feel in a way that allows you to more deeply understand the full impact of the trauma on you and your life. The secret to living an emotionally fulfilling life, or healing from hurtful experiences, in many ways, lies in how you respond, and the extent to which you have developed your ability to relate to yourself compassionately, seeking to understand your emotions, thoughts and other inner sensations, the painful ones in particular, so that you can embrace them as valuable feedback designed to inform your choices and responses.
2. Replace any need to retaliate and do this for you, to embrace your greatest need to grow and heal as a just resolution.
A big part of healing is to let go of the natural instinct to hurt back or to take revenge when hurt, as the most just resolution. Remind yourself that, whereas entertaining retaliatory thoughts/plans may give you a false sense of power over another, such ‘cheap thrills’ can come at great cost to your peace of mind and health. Truth be told, to keep your mind in revenge mode is akin to leaving open wounds continuously exposed. Lasting peace and healing can only be found on a path that allows you to mindfully turn away from retaliation and turn toward instead to better understand yourself as a human being, to compassionately validate yourself for what you went through, what you learned or took from the situation that would possible empower, grow and strengthen you to create a preferred present and future.
3. Let go of obsessive thoughts about the injury and reengage with life.
For healing to take place, it’s essential to become aware of, to stop and to replace any repetitive toxic thinking patterns that may be causing you to obsessively think about the injury in ways that it continuously intrudes and interrupts your life. This causes ongoing distress, trauma and harm. Instead think about how you can fully reengage with your life and the persons and activities you love, and do so as fully as possible. Remember that toxic thinking patterns can trick your brain as they largely operate beneath the radar of your conscious mind. This is why a conscious awareness of these patterns is foundational to replacing them with life enriching thoughts instead.
4. Wisely guard yourself, your mind in particular, to disallow further abuse.
This step involves fully accepting the fullness of how wrong the other’s actions against you were in order to learn to distance and to protect yourself from such actions in the future. This conscious acceptance allows you to chose to use the pain of your experience as an asset that motivates you to learn how to better protect yourself from harm, and to take precautions to ensure your safety in the present and future, setting up physical barriers if necessary. Your success depends on how much you want the abusive pattern to stop, the extent to which you believe in yourself to make whatever changes necessary, and what you’re willing to do to realize change.
5. Frame the hurtful behavior in terms of the offender’s problem behavior.
This step asks you to re-think and reframe the actions taken against you so that the wrongful actions are mostly about the person who acted wrongly, their neediness to feel important by tearing others down, for example, and not about you. This means taking the time to see the story of how this person was also wounded by experiencing or witnessing the same or similar actions themselves, perhaps in their childhood. The more you know about a person, the more this allows you to never take their behavior personally, and thus – to increasingly replace any feelings of shame you may feel about what happened to you – with empathy and compassion, at minimum, for one another as human beings. The purpose here is to learn to make it a rule you follow in life to never let another person’s actions dictate how you feel about yourself. You always have a choice, once you realize you do, that is, to take steps to free yourself from any mistaken notions that you deserved or caused the behaviors in any way.
6. Look honestly at contribution you made to “allow” the injury and pain.
In this step, you examine how your actions, approach and choices may have contributed to the injury you suffered. For most, this sounds more painful than it is because it is not about blaming yourself. It is rather about allowing yourself to authentically examine your own life and self and issues, perhaps to look at how your own fears, past experiences and beliefs, etc., prevented you from seeing that you deserved so much better than the mistreatment, and so on. The purpose here is to allow the pain of the experience to teach you that you were (and are!) much more than a victim, that you acted in misguided ways because, for example, your fears misled you to believe that disapproval or abandonment was far worse than abuse or infidelity. Another thing to learn from this step is that the person who most needs your forgiveness, especially at times when you’re feeling vulnerable because you’ve made a series of mistakes, is yourself.
7. Challenge any false assumptions (“story” you tell yourself) about what happened.
This step asks you to identify and challenge any toxic thinking patterns or limiting beliefs (false assumptions) regarding how you explain what happened in your mind, or when you explain what happened to others. To identify any toxic or limiting patterns, let yourself get into your anger or hurt as you write down what happened without editing or rationalizing your ideas. Then, looking at each thought or belief separately, ask the following questions:
- Is this totally true? Do you need more information?
- Does it promote your healing? Is it emotionally beneficial to keep telling this to yourself?
- Is this one of the toxic thinking patterns?
- It is an empowering or a limiting belief?
8. Look at the offender apart from his offense, weighing the good against the bad.
This step has you look more closely at the person who wronged you separate from their wrongful actions or even their benevolent ones. This permits you to see them and their behaviors more objectively, rather than shift from all-good to all-bad images of the person, which are difficult to reconcile. Acceptance doesn’t require you to feel any particular way toward the person that hurt you; it just asks you to look at the person and his behaviors for their impact on you and your life. You may have wondered, for example, how can a person who is so generous to others be so hurtful, and thus concluded that perhaps you were the one that was crazy to feel so hurt. The person may have been generous and helpful to others, however, if these kind actions were not extended to you, they were selectively both generous and withholding.
9. Decide carefully what kind of a relationship you want with the person who wronged you.
In this step you decide in advance how you will overall relate to this person – on the basis of their actions toward you thus far. Their actions up to this point, and not their words, tell you who they are, and what they plan to do in the future. If the person refuses or is unable to make amends, it is up to you to decide what kind of a relationship makes sense to you under the circumstances. If reconciliation is not possible, therefore, is it possible to even interact with the person? If so, what steps can you take to remain authentic to yourself and still interact in a constructive, and relatively calm and confident way? In the case of a person that is no longer living or accessible, is forgiveness an option, now or in the future? Be gentle with yourself, and take the time to carefully ponder and reflect upon these questions, not hurrying for answers, rather allowing your inner sense of wisdom and knowing to speak to you. If you do not already, learn to trust yourself.
10. Forgive yourself for any mistakes, failings.
Last but not least, the closing step is to fully forgive yourself for any of your own mistakes or failings related to the trauma. Keep in mind this does not mean to look for how you hurt the one who wronged you. It rather refers to how you may have trusted them blindly, believed their lies, blamed your self, minimized their wrongs, stopped believing in your magnificence as a human being or dismissed your own suffering, and so on! Maya Angelou puts it this way, “When you know better, you do better.” In many ways your mistakes or failings stem from ingrained old ways of getting your universally human need to matter met, which didn’t allow you to see alternative ways of responding to those you love. Forgiving yourself will make it easier to let go of obsessive thinking patterns, such as blaming yourself for what happened, which would only keep you from living your life fully engaged with the people and activities you love.
Acceptance, a form of forgiveness?
“Acceptance is not forgiveness,” Dr. Abrahms Spring points out. It is rather a critical choice that allows the person wronged to fully take the reins of their own healing – independent of the actions of the person that wronged them.
In a sense, acceptance is a form of forgiveness, however, as both are expressions of genuine love. Like forgiveness, at heart, acceptance is a letting go of instinctive response to hurt back or retaliate – and this letting go, when healthy, stems from a caring understanding that it is in the highest interest of the wronged person’s life to do so. Like compassion, both acceptance and forgiveness invite parties to see and understand self and other empathically, as human beings, in the context of natural life processes that, albeit painful, are ultimately designed for their highest good. It takes an enormous amount of courage to not forgive prematurely, to allow the other to step in and make amends, as it does to repair a relationship.
Forgiveness and acceptance are essential ingredients in learning to love wholeheartedly.
Whether you choose to live in acceptance, or fear in relation to a past betrayal or mistreatment, your response accordingly shapes both the present and future. It’s a choice between allowing automatic defense strategies to decide the course of your life, or consciously accessing the strength of both your courage and your compassion by choosing acceptance. Your choices are powerful emotional energies, fueled by your beliefs, wants, yearnings, thoughts and actions, etc., that powerfully determine the direction your life takes.
In all, acceptance is a transformative emotional stance in life that, in addition to being energy efficient, is a form of genuine love, infinitely more powerful than fear or shame, force or guilting one into forgiving too easily or prematurely.