All of us have been hurt, in one way or another, by someone else. While it is easy to forgive a friend for note returning our phone call, it is not so easy to forgive those who have harmed us in a major way. The greatest hurts seem to come from those who play the most significant roles in our lives.
The enormity of the hurt may lead us to conclude that we can never forgive the other person. However, to forgive or not forgive is one of our most important life choices. It is vital for our own emotional well-being to understand that it is a choice that has consequences.
Consider this question – if the harm we have experienced leads us to a life dominated by unresolved anger and mistrust, are we not allowing the offender to continue to have power over us? When we lose sleep because of endless thoughts about old hurts, when we seethe with anger, when we keep asking questions that seem to have no answers, we continue to suffer the consequences of being hurt. Perhaps our goal should be to find a way to free ourselves from the damage and to reclaim our lives for ourselves.
There are many ways of being hurt. Some are minor and some are more severe. In some cases we are the unwitting victim of those who hurt us. At other times we collude in allowing ourselves to suffer by building expectations that make us vulnerable or placing our trust in the wrong places.
Whatever the nature of the damage done to us, it is a potential source of learning. We can allow the hurt to keep us down as we continue to play the role of the victim – or, alternatively, we can learn to overcome it, adapt to it, try to make sure that it never happens again, and, if it does occur again, learn to deal with it more effectively.
Here are some ways that we can be hurt:
- Unmet expectations: We don’t always get what we want, and this is to be expected. When we build our hopes on achieving a major goal, however, like not getting the promotion we had hoped for or losing the love we had so longed for, the result can be catastrophic. The hurt can be enormous.
- Humiliation: When we are ridiculed by others – especially during childhood, as often happens when children are called derisive names – or when our pride is wounded, as might happen when a supervisor at work berates us in front of others. The shame can drive us into emotional withdrawal. We put up impenetrable walls, and vow never to be hurt again.
- Rejection: When we are rejected or abandoned, we experience loss and emotional pain. But perhaps more important is hearing the message that we are not good enough – that we don’t matter. We have to deal with grieving the loss of an important emotional bond, and our damaged self-image. The fear of abandonment is a powerful force in the lives of many people and damage the way we relate to the world and other people.
- Deception: Some people may manipulate or lie to us, using us to further their own goals. This occurs, for example, when we are asked to keep “family secrets” or to deny real problems. Not only do we learn to distrust others, but we might also come to distrust our own judgment for falling victim to the lies other people. This harms our ability to trust, and our self-esteem as well.
- Abuse: We frequently hear about abuse in the media these days. Abuse comes in many forms – physical, emotional, sexual, or through neglect – and it can happen in childhood or in an adult relationship. Many people who suffered from abuse during their childhoods go straight into an abusive adult relationship. The consequences are enormous for the victim. We feel low, unable to share with others, and suspect that others must somehow know about our horrible secrets. We are left with a sense of powerlessness and a legacy of guilt and shame.
Choosing to Forgive
When our pain doesn’t seem to go away, how can we choose to forgive? Forgiving the one who caused us harm may seem like the last thing we would want to do. After all, by not forgiving, we can hold onto the belief that we have some power over them and that we can therefore prevent the harm from ever happening to us again. Or we may be so invested in playing the victim role that to forgive would mean giving up a large part of how we define ourselves. We may feel that evil should never be forgiven.
An important point to keep in mind, however, is that when we forgive, we are doing it for ourselves, and not for the other person. Forgiving is one way of letting go of old baggage so that we can move on with our lives. Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does change what we can have in the future.
When to Forgive
There are no deadlines for choosing to forgive. Forgiving is a highly personal act and it won’t happen until we are ready to let go of the old hurt and move on in life with a sense of personal empowerment. Premature forgiveness is not really forgiveness at all. We must first prepare ourselves to forgive by taking a deep look into our lives and understand where our anger or bitterness or resentments come from. Above all, forgiveness is a choice. Some people may choose not to forgive at all, and this is a perfectly valid personal decision in certain situations.
The Nature of Forgiveness
- Forgiveness is not a way of forgetting the past. Indeed, if we have been harmed, we should not forget it. We can learn from the past about how to avoid being harmed in the future. Nor is forgiveness a way of giving the offender freedom from their guilt. We recognize that the harm did happen, that the other person is responsible for this and that they must come to terms with their own guilt.
- Forgiveness does not imply that we are minimizing the harm done to us or that the offender’s behavior was acceptable. When we forgive, we are not sacrificing anything or giving up our sense of self-worth. Indeed, we are doing just the opposite – by taking a stand that says that we are strong and finally free of playing the role of victim.
- Forgiveness is a way of saying, “It’s time for healing. The pain of the past should now be put behind me.” Forgiving is a way to express self-assertion and positive self-esteem. To forgive is to declare that our identity is not based on feelings from the past. It means that we have better things to do in life than continuing to live under the influence of the one who has caused us pain.
- Forgiveness implies that we no longer need to hold grudges – we no longer need self-pity or hatred, and we declare our independence from victimhood. Forgiveness signifies breaking the cycle of pain and abuse, giving up the belief that the other person should hurt as much as we do.
- Forgiveness means abandoning the myth that if we hurt the other person, it will make us feel better. To forgive implies giving up the unrealistic hope that an apology will have the same meaning to the perpetrator as it has for us. It tells us that we are moving our energy from the negative to the positive.
- Forgiveness is a way of saying that it is time to heal – it is time to put the past behind us. Forgiveness is a way of declaring our integrity. According to Webster’s Dictionary, ‘Forgiveness’ is a verb, meaning “to give up resentment against or a desire to punish.” And according to Mother Teresa: “If we really want to love we must learn how to forgive.”
If you are struggling with letting go of the pain from being hurt by someone close to you, or if you cannot forgive a coworker for offending you at work or a friend that you were counting on being there for you, or if you can’t stop grieving the loss of a loved one or you just want someone who will listen without judging, consult with a professional therapist
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