Forgiveness requires self-compassion: stop skipping this essential step
Be forgiving. Let it go. Just get over it. Let the past be the past. Have you ever heard these casual suggestions about the nature of harm, forgiveness, and love? While It is commendable to want to be empathetic, caring, and compassionate, it is impossible to forgive without acknowledging our experience of the hurt, anger, sadness, and pain. Forgiveness without the authentic acknowledgement of pain, even if only to ourselves, is simply self-sacrifice for a false "greater good." True forgiveness can be life-changing if the process is honored, understood, and includes a critical component: you.
Many of the women I work with enter therapy seeking to forgive someone who hurt them. While a worthy goal, a crucial ingredient of the process is often missing: acknowledgment of the pain and hurt that was caused by the person they desire to forgive. The subtext goes something like this: This person did something that really hurt me, but I should be good and loving and it wasn't really that big a deal (why do I always make everything such a big deal?). I will just get over it and forgive them. This strategy can be especially compelling when the person who hurt us is partner, parent, or other significant relationship. The problem with this approach is that it is based on erasing the experience of the hurt person. Consider the following responses as equations:
your discomfort with hurting me - my pain = relational harmony (aka I "erase" my pain so we can be "happy" again)
your hurting me - my anger = I am a good and nice person (aka I deny my anger and hurt to keep the identity of "nice" and "good")
your hurting me + my anger and demand for accountability = your emotional collapse/rejection of me/end of the relationship (aka if I express my anger and hurt, you will punish or leave me)
These approaches attempt to gain resolution by denying the pain that was caused and engaging in self-sacrifice to make the relationship "harmonious." In this situation, the attempt to forgive is actually the attempt to brush our feelings under the rug and create relationship harmony at the sacrifice of ourselves. In order to seek true forgiveness, we must acknowledge the depth and realness of our own pain, even if we never process it with the person who hurt us. It is not always possible or wise to process hurt feelings with the person who inflicted them, but we can make space to process our own pain.
In an ideal situation where harm occurs, we would tell someone they hurt us and they would respond with care and remorse, apologize, ask what they can do differently and then do it. As many of us know, this is not always what happens. How others respond to us when we are hurt creates our beliefs about and reactions to our own pain. Additionally, conflict resolution within systems of oppression often invite self-sacrifice and forced acceptance of the status quo on the part of the wounded party. If this experience of social oppression is mapped over a childhood experience of an unresponsive or punishing caretaker, we can form a strong habit of minimizing or ignoring our own pain. When we experience ongoing dis-interest, minimization, humiliation, or punishment for sharing our pain, we learn to ignore it or try and fix things on our own.
These experiences can show up in our adulthood as:
- always being the strong one
- never asking for help
- minimizing our own needs
- apologizing for things that are not our fault
- blaming ourselves for relationship difficulties
- believing that we are 100% responsible for a two person relationship
- thinking we can change how someone feels or behaves if we get the right answer
- never sharing that we are having a hard time
- over-working, over-committing, over-functioning in relationships
In childhood, these listed strategies are clever and essential. In adulthood, we can even use these responses consciously and strategically, as in the case of a boss or abusive family member. However, with ourselves and those who love and support us, we can learn to be with our own pain and hurt in a self-compassionate and loving way.
If your social conditioning has been strong in convincing you to take blame, be responsible for fixing relationships, be "good or nice," be spiritual, not rock the boat, or always forgiving, then the process of claiming and feeling your own hurt may feel foreign and new. It may be difficult for you to allow for your authentic anger and pain at the harm that was done to you. You may desire to go right around those feelings and create a quick and easy sense of forgiveness for the person who hurt you. Additionally, you may feel anxious about what it might mean about your identity if you let yourself feel pain, anger, and sadness about what happened.
Instead of jumping straight to offering compassion and forgiveness to the person who hurt you, try to begin with yourself. When we allow ourselves to acknowledge the pain someone caused us, we may feel selfish, uncaring, blaming, or mean, but it is a critical step. Forgiving someone without acknowledging the pain they caused skips over the reason for forgiveness in the first place. When we acknowledge our pain and hold ourselves in compassion and love, we open the way for healing. Genuine forgiveness may follow, but it will never come if we are busy denying that we were hurt in the first place.
Here is a simple exercise to invite reflection if you are experiencing hurt feelings:
I am hurt because you/they __________________________.
What happened made me feel _______________________.
That made me think that you ________________________.
I forgive myself for feeling ___________________________. Most people would feel that way if the went through the same thing.
To take care of myself, I need to _______________________.
I give myself permission to be _________________________.
I am grateful that I allowed myself to feel my feelings. This is hard for me, because ____________________.
When my feelings are hurt, I usually ___________________ instead of acknowledging my feelings.
I love and accept myself, even though I feel __________________.
In order to feel resolved about this hurt, I need to ______________________________.
It is possible to begin to be kinder to yourself, to learn to take it seriously when you are hurt by another. It is possible to change how you accompany yourself through your own painful experiences. Instead of continuing the toxic ways that shaped you without your permission, you can learn to offer yourself compassion for feeling hurt, angry, jealous, enraged, upset, wounded, or any other feeling. Once you have attended to your own experience of hurt with self-compassion and love, you can begin to take steps towards forgiving the person who hurt you. Remember: forgiveness can only come after acknowledging your own pain.
For more resources on self-compassion:
Tara Broch RAIN of Self-Compassion Guided Mindfulness Exercise
Self Compassion by Kristin Neff
Self-compassion for Black Folks