We've probably all heard the sayings about forgiveness being more for ourselves than for the other person such as, “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” (Marianne Williamson) I think very few of us would disagree with such sentiment or the importance of forgiveness for our own spiritual, emotional, and relational wellbeing. The problem is that it is hard. When forgiveness is based on a feeling, it is hard to let go of the hurt or fear that is usually covered by anger or hate. That is probably why religion teaches us that forgiveness is not based on a feeling but rather a decision. If we can decide that we have forgiven, hopefully, as cognitive therapy suggests, our feelings will follow suit. But once again, the problem occurs; forgiveness is hard.
Perhaps it would be easier if we could understand why it’s so hard to do. Why do we have to fight so hard to let go of the pain? That should be easy to do...if it hurts, let it go. But that’s much easier said than done. What if I told you that unforgiveness is serving a purpose? And, until we don’t need it anymore, it will fight very hard to stay. “What,” you may ask, “could its purpose possibly be?” I would answer, “to protect you.” Until we no longer need the extra emotional energy of anger to stand up for ourselves or to protect ourselves, unforgiveness will stay to provide what we need.
This leads me to the lesson I want to share: You do not have to hold on to the hurt or the hate to remember the lesson and take care of yourself. You can stand up for and take care of yourself just because you deserve care and protection, not because you are angry. And there it is; we have to really believe it’s ok to take care of ourselves: to have boundaries, to say no, or in some cases, to cut someone who is hurting us out of our life. This is easy to do when we are angry, but without the extra emotional “oomph” from being angry, it can be very difficult for many of us: difficult to stand our ground, difficult to say no without excuses, difficult to not feel bad for protecting ourselves in relationships. So the anger stays and gives us the protection we need when we can’t trust ourself without the anger to protect us from the person or situation that has caused us pain by putting up boundaries and saying, “this is not ok.” So you can see that we actually need to stay angry as a way of self protection until we can be trusted to protect our self without it.
If this is true, it means we can actually help ourself through the process of unforgiveness when we are stuck. When we learn to love and care for ourself, we will no longer be dependent on the anger to take care of us so we could actually let it go. We could let anger do it’s job, which is simply to send our brain the message that someone has hurt us or done us wrong and for us to take appropriate measures to protect ourselves. When this is done, the emotion of anger can go back from whence it came because its mission is complete. Would it surprise you to know that the definition of “forgive” in Webster’s Dictionary is actually “to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong)?” And this is why forgiveness is hard. If the purpose of the message of anger is not being acted upon, it will keep sending the message.
Perhaps this is why it is often the kindest, gentlest ones among us, the “people pleasers,” who have so much trouble with letting go of the anger. Often times when we do, we are defenseless against the person who has wronged us, and the cycle repeats. The anger stays because it is necessary for self protection. Without the anger, we often “feel bad” or “mean” for standing up for ourselves.
We can also get stuck because we are looking for and expecting what we need to be able to forgive from the other person: the validation of our right to be hurt, the caring that we are hurt, and the assurance that we will not be hurt again. When the other person offers us these things, we are usually quick to forgive. The problem is that often times what we need never comes from the other person. Perhaps they only offer a defense or justification of themselves or blame us without caring for our hurt feelings and offer no understanding that would show us they won’t do it again. So as long as it depends on getting what we need from them, we are stuck. The lesson I have learned, is that it doesn’t depend on them. You have the power to heal all along just like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz had the power to go home. You have the power to give to yourself what you need to heal from the hurt by doing exactly what you have sought from the other person. 1) You can validate your own right to be hurt. 2) You can care for your hurt by allowing yourself to feel your painful emotions and heal from them, perhaps with the help of therapy. 3) You can take the steps necessary to protect yourself from a repeat of the hurt through boundaries.
Of course, we can’t prevent every hurt. There is great pain in our world, and as human beings, we often cause each other pain, intended and unintended. However, we can handle our hurt in a better way. We can provide for ourselves the love, care and protection we need. Or we can hold on to the anger, the unforgiveness, and the bitterness that is the recipe for the very poison we drink. Remember, you do not have to hold on to the pain to hold on to the truth of what happened.