How To Unleash The Transformative Power Of Forgiveness

Photo: Manuel Meurisse

When people are working on forgiving someone who has wronged them, they often say they're doing it because their offender deserves it. Maybe he or she has shown remorse, or the victim believes they should be pardoned for their offense. But interestingly, not everyone chooses forgiveness. The non-forgiver believes that his or her offender does not deserve forgiveness, so they refuse to even try. Unfortunately, this makes that person live in fear of being hurt again—which never feels good.

Almost invariably, people think of forgiveness as something you do for the person who has hurt you and that it is predicated on whether you feel your offender’s genuine remorse, whether you like him or her and want them back in your life, or whether you can trust him again. These considerations are especially important in a case such as infidelity, in which you're evaluating whether or not to resume a relationship with your offender.

There's no question that forgiveness can be a useful first step in reconciling a damaged relationship—but there's a lot more to it. Here's what you should know.

Forgiveness is for YOU.

The single most common misconception about forgiveness is that you're doing it for your offender. Actually, forgiveness is for you—it's the most effective way we have found to take back the power you gave up when you became a victim. It's a fresh start with new possibilities.

If your decision to forgive is strongly influenced by your view of your offender, or your forgiveness is primarily for him or her, your offender maintains the power. A student in one of my forgiveness classes, Sarah, told us she couldn’t forgive her sister, who had a long history of drug addiction and had betrayed her many times. When we asked why she couldn’t forgive her sister (who had been sober for three years), she said that she had doubts her sister would stay off drugs. By forgiving the past, our student had an opportunity to take back her vulnerability and her power, but by making forgiveness conditional on her sister’s sobriety, she gave up that power to her sister’s addiction.

If her sister picked up drugs again, of course Sarah would be hurt and disappointed, but she wouldn't lose her peace of mind. Because she can forgive and make good decisions about how to behave when and if her sister relapses and set appropriate consequences for her sister, she has a real sense of empowerment. It's so much different from living in fear. That fear makes people like Sarah feel constantly victimized by people like her sister.

Forgive with the goal of being at peace.

When we forgive for the simple goal of being at peace, we become empowered. We don’t desperately need better behavior from our offender, as we are in charge of our inner well-being. We move on whether or not our offender changes. This is not to suggest that we don’t grieve our loss or feel pain in the process. Pain is a part of human life, but once we grieve and forgive, we are freer.

Long-term grievance is one way hurt folks keep their hearts protected to cope with life’s inevitable suffering. But the danger of this coping is that, over time, we become hardhearted. And in the process, we lose touch with our soft heart, with our ability to love.

Forgiveness is the best practice to maintain access to our soft heart in the face of loss, hurt, and betrayal. That soft heart is what makes us happy in a relationship. The importance of forgiveness is not only for the offender—forgiveness leads us back to ourselves.

Interested in learning more about forgiveness? Here's how to forgive when it seems impossible.

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