This article might bend your brain a little bit, but please stay with me to the end, and it will come together.
So that we’re all on the same page, let’s start with the definition of the word forgive.
Think about what it means to forgive someone. What do you do? What do you say? How do you act or behave?
The most common definition of the word forgive, Google tells us is: “to stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake.” Think about that. To forgive means to stop feeling angry or resentful. That’s all. That’s the only requirement for forgiveness to happen. This is really powerful to understand.
How many of us think to forgive someone, we should have a conversation with them and tell them how we feel – that they hurt or offended us in some way? How many of us think we should give the other person a chance to apologize and promise they won’t do that thing again before we forgive them? Some of us have many rules of engagement for forgiving. For example, someone might think they can’t forgive someone unless that person changes their behavior.
I think we have a misunderstanding about what it means to forgive.
To forgive means to stop feeling anger or resentment. Forgiving someone has nothing to do with the offending person and everything to do with how we feel.
Here’s where things get tricky.
When someone does or says something to hurt or offend you, you have chosen to interpret what they did or said as being hurtful or offensive. When you think what they said was so hurtful, or mean, or rude, or whatever, you create the feelings of hurt, offended, and disrespected within yourself. Let me break it down for you.
Somebody said words – this is a fact. It can be proven in a court of law. Everyone would agree words were said. I call this a circumstance. The circumstance triggered a thought in your mind. The thought was, “Well, that was horribly rude. I’m offended.” The thought created the feeling of being offended. Emotions are created by our brains when we think thoughts. What we think creates physical sensations or vibrations in our bodies that we call feelings or emotions. Think about how feeling hurt feels in your body? Where do you feel it? In your chest? In your head? In your throat?
To forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful.
To stop feeling an emotion is totally and completely within our control. The opposite is true as well. If we want to feel happy, love or funny, all we have to do is think thoughts, on purpose, which create those feelings. It’s a beautiful system. The only problem is that most people think emotions just happen to them. Remember back to a time when you experienced hurt, anger or disrespect. You probably thought, at the time, that something or someone outside of you caused those emotions in you. You now know you caused those emotions in you by what you thought about the circumstances around you.
Forgiveness is all about what you are feeling.
It has nothing to do with the other person. You don’t have to talk to them. They don’t need to know that you were hurt or offended. If you want to forgive someone, you simply need to stop thinking the thoughts that make you feel angry or resentful.
So many of my clients tell me that’s just not right. They think if they forgive someone, that person is getting off without repercussion or consequence. Some people think that withholding forgiveness is punishing the wrongdoer. Others think some people don’t deserve their forgiveness. A few people think if they forgive someone, they’d be condoning their behavior.
Here’s what I have to offer. When we forgive others, we get to feel better because we aren’t angry or hurt anymore. Being angry at someone doesn’t inject our angry feelings into them. Other people can’t feel our emotions. Only we can feel our emotions.
So, what’s the upside in not forgiving someone? We are the beneficiaries of the act of forgiving.
Let me tell you a story. My dad was a good man. He was generous, and he worked hard. However, he had his moments when he didn’t show up as the best dad. For a very long time, years and years, I blamed him for most everything wrong in my life. As I grew older, I told myself that I forgave him. But I hadn’t really, because I thought I was the bigger person by forgiving him. It was like I was one up on him. I thought I was just a little bit better than he was because I forgave him.
This next part is really important. Forgiveness is about how you feel, not how you behave. There is a huge difference.
There are lots of people who say they’ve forgiven someone and they act nice and pleasant on the outside, but inside they are still full of anger and resentment.
One day, I realized I hadn’t actually forgiven my dad. I still felt angry when I thought about him even years after his death. At that moment, I understood I was causing my own suffering by carrying around a story about my dad that made me angry, and blaming him even after he was gone. I took that story and the anger, and I just set it down, and let it go. It was freeing and liberating and wonderful.
All that time, I’d been pretending to forgive my father and causing myself so much misery.
When we forgive, we do it for our own sake, not for someone else. And here’s the thing, when we can learn to forgive others, we get so much better at forgiving ourselves. When we can do that, we’ve really changed the trajectory of our life. Remember, you are the only one who can change the way you think, and the way you think determines the way you feel.