A Therapist’s Reflections on Forgiveness (Part 3–Conclusion)

This is the third and final of three posts on forgiveness.  If you haven’t already, it my help you to read the first two posts before reading this one.  

Important Vocabulary Words

Forgiveness is the simple (but difficult) task of letting go of anger, bitterness, and retribution.  Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation.  Reconciliation is the act of getting the relationship back on track and reestablishing trust after there has been an injury.  If someone has hurt you, and they are either still hurting you or failing to accept responsibility for what they have done to you, reconciliation is impossible.  This may lead into some “victim blaming.” You, as the injured party, might be criticized for not forgiving, when what you are really doing is setting boundaries in place so you don’t get hurt again.  Some offenders are very skilled at flipping the situation on you and making it appear your fault.  You can forgive, but you can’t let that person close again until they change.  Healing is something that can only happen over time between you and God.  No amount of remorse on the part of the offender can heal your wounded heart.  If John punches me in the face and breaks my nose, we might kiss and make up and start working on trusting each other again.  However, that reconciliation process is not going to cause my nose to be un-broken.  Mistrust, heartache, anger, bitterness, fear, and other wounds take time to heal, and the healing process cannot be rushed.  You might want to evaluate whether or not the offending party is giving you the time and space to heal.  If s/he is not, it might mean that you need to slow down the reconciliation process.  You want the offender to be able to be with you as you cry over wounds that s/he has caused.  You want them to be able to do that without being defensive or trying to shift blame onto you.  The most common kind of “victim blaming” is an offending party’s rushing of the healing process and then criticizing you for not healing faster.

A Step-By-Step Model of Forgiveness

(Some of the concepts in this post come from the work of Larry W., PhD.)

  1. Ask yourself if you need to accept some responsibility for the problem.  Often people hurt others when they feel hurt by them.  As a part of the healing process, you might need to own your part.  Be careful though, because often people who hurt you also try to convince you that it’s your fault as a way to sidestep having to acknowledge how they have hurt you.
  2. Acknowledge the pain and loss, and take time to grieve or process the situation.  You may need to take a step back and grieve the losses you’ve suffered because of the hurt done to you by someone.  Especially when there have been a lot of wounds over a long period of time, the losses may be staggering.  Take, for example, situations when a parent was abusive to you when you were a child and that abuse caused you considerable heartache and difficulties adjusting to life as an adult.  Or, it might be that your spouse has been an active alcoholic and emotionally absent from the marriage for 25 years.  Even if the alcoholic repents and changes, the hurts take time to heal.  People grieve in different ways.  Some people need to cry.  Others need to talk it out with a trusted friend or counselor.  Still others may need to spend some alone time reflecting and praying, while some need to hit the gym or go on a trip.  It can’t be overemphasized how important this step is.  After all, if you don’t even acknowledge or process what has been done to you, how are you going to be able to put it to rest? You will be left with some important unfinished business.
  3. Make a decision to forgive.  This is releasing the anger and bitterness and any attempts to render retribution.  In this step, it’s about you.  It’s no long about what “they” have done as much as it is about your letting it go–whatever the issue may be.  Focusing on the actions of the offender at this stage will keep you stuck.
  4. Set boundaries for the relationship going forward.  Decide if you want to reconcile or maybe keep the relationship but change it some.  As they say, “It’s hard to forgive you for punching me in the face as long as you are still punching me in the face.” Boundaries have to be set in order to stop the abuse or wounding.  This may include ending the relationship, creating some distance in the relationship, or proceeding with measured, incremental steps toward reconciliation (if there has been repentance and remorse).
  5. Expect imperfection.  The person who hurt you should be expected to make progress, not attain perfection.  This is where you may benefit from listening to your intuition.  It might be able to guide you as you determine if the offender’s motives are good and if s/he is making a good faith effort to correct their behaviors and attitudes.
  6. Keep reminding yourself that the offense has been forgiven and released–Every day if necessary.  Remember, you are the primary beneficiary when you do that.


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