Monologues on Internal Strength: Forgiveness
I recently listened to a webinar where one of the speakers highlighted that focusing on developing your strengths will naturally lift up the weaker areas of your life. This also aligns with the idea that we become what we think about. These concepts are what guide my new series, Monologues on Internal Strength.
The strict moralism of cancel culture has made “forgiveness” a dirty word, as if extending forgiveness would somehow transfer the locus of power back to the other person. In fact, the opposite is true — by refusing to forgive our oppressors, we are essentially leaving ourselves trapped as their victims. Refusing to forgive comes under the guise of “they don’t deserve my forgiveness,” but it is an illusion of power. It leaves off the implied why of the equation — “they don’t deserve my forgiveness because…” Because your pain is so great? That leaves the power to resolve your pain with them. Because they are so fundamentally unworthy of your forgiveness, because of how low their value is when compared to yours? How much more would forgiveness serve as a testament to this power, then? Forgiveness is not a passive “oh, whatever, it’s fine” or a total pardon of the wrongdoing. True forgiveness is when you stop letting the wrongdoing define your emotional responses and you instead consciously decide what you are going to do because of it.
When I have stayed focused on the ways people hurt me, such as my parents or past partners, I have made my identity “victim.” On the other hand, when I have repressed these feelings of hurt, I have been dishonest with myself, and the anger has found other ways to manifest itself. I believe that the “matter can neither be created or destroyed” principle of physics applies to emotions as well. Those feelings WILL go somewhere, whether that is in the tension in your neck or in an impassioned journal entry or in blowing up at your partner. Consequently, actively choosing to go through the process of forgiveness gives you the power to define how you will react to old wounds and new offenses.
Step 1: Identifying the Blows
The first step in the process of forgiveness is to understand what is hurting you. It removes the self-deception layers of “this is fine, I can handle this”/ “they didn’t mean it” etc. and forces you to mindfully confront the reality of how you are actually being treated.
In conversation, it is not actively looking for attacks, but rather actively looking for when you feel attacked so you can slow down and ask “why is this hurting me?”
This will help you to clarify what someone meant to say and confront them if necessary. It will also help you identify whether you are actually being triggered by a previous (and possibly unresolved) hurts that could benefit from the process of forgiveness. This process can be painful if you have to face the reality that you are, in fact, being mistreated, but it can also help prevent a lot of pain if you come to find out it was just a misunderstanding.
Step 2: Decide What You Want & Enact Justice
Once you have identified the core offense, the next stage of forgiveness is to determine what justice will look like. This will help you address the “so what do you want from me?” that often arises when people are called out on their behavior. If they have violated a boundary, this is a good time to reiterate that boundary (if appropriate and safe). If they still protest your boundary, this is a good time to clarify why something is your boundary (based on values and not wounds) and then emphasize the consequences of future boundary violations. Figuring out what you feel like justice would look like helps you to take an active role in feeling better about the reality of the situation at hand by identifying your needs and asking for them to be met, regardless of whether or not the other parties involved are able to carry out their part. That way you know how to gauge successful problem resolution — what, if anything, will make YOU feel better? If they can? If they can’t?
If the other party fails and continues in the wounding behavior, this also allows you to enact further boundaries and consequences from a place of internal strength since you know what you want and what you’re not getting. “If they won’t do this, what am I going to do?” It also respects the other party as having the agency and strength to do better but just refusing to do so. (Rather than perpetuating “oh they’re just a victim too” thinking that could have you stay passively complicit in unhealthy dynamics.) Choose to believe they CAN do better, they just aren’t currently, and that’s why you’re upset. (Otherwise, that means this is the best they can do. This may be true in some cases and should be treated accordingly, but it’s much more empowering for everyone involved to believe they can improve their behavior by being asked to do so [rather than being manipulated into it].)
For more severe incidents, this may look like jail time, cutting off contact, etc. The importance is that you, not just some other person or system, define what you need to happen to feel better about what has already happened. It acknowledges the reality of the wound and asks, “now what?” It keeps you as an active agent in the process rather than a passive victim of your own very real pain.
Step 3: Feel Your Feelings
The process of forgiveness, as much as it involves justice, also involves choosing how you want to feel about the situation and moving towards that feeling. Throughout the process of enacting justice, it is also important to let yourself feel the hurt without rationalizing, stuffing down, or lashing out. Experience the pain as it is, whether that’s a stabbing in the chest or tears in your eyes or rushing thoughts. Tell yourself “I am feeling hurt/angry/sad/etc. This situation has hurt/angered/upset/etc. me.” Acknowledge all of your true feelings, even the ones that scare you or seem inappropriate. If you are better with external processing, this can be done with a journal, a trusted friend, or a stuffed animal. Leave no emotional stone unturned; let all of your feelings rise up to the surface naturally.
And then, when all of your feelings feel acknowledged, ask yourself: how do I want to feel about this? How long do I want to feel the way I currently feel? That’s not to say feelings are totally rational/controllable, but it will help you understand what personal choices will move you in the direction you want. E.g. do you want to wake up every day for the rest of your life angry about this? Or do you eventually want to replace that with a different feeling or none at all? Both could be appropriate because they are your choice based on your values. Again, this acknowledges the reality of “this really did happen and I need to integrate that fact into my emotional reality,” but it empowers you to choose what that emotional destination could look like. It is saying “I am not going to let your mistakes define my identity” even though they do impact your experience. It allows you to visualize a future where you have done your best to integrate that pain so that you can keep pursuing excellence today.
All of these processes can help you to wield your inner strength, even if the person you have to forgive is yourself. “I forgive you” may be a wrong way to phrase the active and dynamic process of forgiveness, which is not really a one-time act but an ongoing posture of reflection and emotional agency. Perhaps that is in part what Jesus meant when he told Peter to forgive others “…not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” It is a difficult discipline, but it is ultimately one that puts the power back in your hands and allows you to live with much more freedom than remaining stuck in your pain.