"Forgiveness is an essential key to healing. The opposite of forgiveness is judgment,
and judgment always creates separation and guilt."
~ The Way Of Mastery
As a therapist, I have seen many clients who have been burdened by their ideas of forgiveness. They often think that forgiving those who have hurt them is something they should do in order to be a good person. Many seem to believe they have forgiven, and let go of whatever happened, but it becomes clear that a charge of unfelt emotion remains. Can we “forgive” too soon?
I believe that forgiving someone before you have worked through and felt all of the hurt and anger and betrayal - and any other unfelt feelings and impulses - is an act of self-violence. It is a bypass, a skipping over of the natural process that needs to happen. This act becomes another layer of imposition and trauma that only serves to drive the hurt and angry parts of yourself deeper, where they fester and remain unresolved. Seeing forgiveness as an act, something you do in relation to another, doesn't seem to work.
So what is this forgiveness? The word as we know it today is derived from the prefix for, meaning “completely,” and the word give, “to give, bestow, grant.” The basic sense of the word give, from the original Proto-Indo-European root ghabh, is “to hold.” It forms the Latin habere “to have, hold, possess,” the Latin habitus “demeanor, appearance, dress,” the Lithuanian gabana “armful,” and the Sanskrit gabhasti “hand, forearm.” The original sense here is to have and to hold, completely.
When something hurtful is done to you by another, the first order of business, as soon as you are able and ready, is to feel it. All of it. Allow yourself to have the full experience of whatever it is. If you have been betrayed, be betrayed, feel betrayed, completely and without minimizing or rationalizing. If you feel angry or enraged, feel all of that. Express it fully, without censoring or judging (and without hurting yourself or anyone else). If you feel rejected or worthless, let it have its way with you, without avoiding or protecting. Allow yourself to have the experience. Let it have its impact on you, without deciding if it’s good or bad, right or wrong, and without trying to change it in any way. A compassionate witness is very helpful here.
Notice that this is not what we typically do. We naturally go to great lengths to avoid all these feelings because they are so painful and threatening. That is part of the problem: the unfinished business stays unfinished. Unfelt feelings have a charge to them that requires energy, in the form of tension, to hold and contain. They want out, but for various reasons other parts of us won’t let them out. This tension is a burden, constantly draining energy that could be used for something productive. It damages our health and degrades our bodies. When we forgive prematurely, the initial feelings are banished even further down than they were, where they wreak havoc. If some of those angry or hurt feelings leak out, we often then feel guilty and ashamed, further adding to our burden.
Feeling fully the impact of what was done to us is consistent with the original meaning of forgiveness: to hold it, to wear it, to inhabit it. If you can safely let the painful feelings work their way through you, they are then completed, finished, resolved. Their charge is gone, and there is nothing left to contain. In my way of thinking, that is forgiveness. It is the full acceptance of what is. It is admitting and experiencing the truth of what happened, honestly and directly. It requires safety, and vulnerability, and compassion. You can acknowledge your innocence, how vulnerable you were to being hurt. You might then also be able to see the humanness of the perpetrator, and yes, even their innocence. Perhaps they were scared, or felt threatened, or were unconscious, and that led them to harm another.
It is a gentle process. Forgiveness naturally happens within you, all by itself. It is not something you do, nor is it something you give to someone else. It imposes nothing, bypasses nothing.
I believe it also helps us to see that the things that happen to us, including the unpleasant and painful things, make us who we are. The gifts that we possess, the unique perspective we have of the world, the level of compassion we are capable of, the person we are, flows from all our experiences, even the nasty ones. Wishing them away would be to wish ourselves away. Our experiences prepare us to be who we are, to live the life we were meant to live. I would not wish it otherwise.
"There would be no need for love if perfection were possible."
~ Eugene Kennedy