It feels to me as though we are continually force fed the notion that we must forgive others for their trespasses. It has earned a place on the list of “shoulds” in our society. Forgiveness is placed upon the pedestal as one of the most holy acts we can achieve, a state for the most virtuous among us and one that remains elusive for many.

Of course there are a myriad of issues that might require forgiveness on our part, some very minor and easy to put to rest, but it is the big ones that we wrestle with many times over. In that struggle to reach forgiveness many are left to feel a great degree of self judgment and less than the most pious among us.

As we sit in that seat of shame a bizarre thing occurs, we hold on tighter to our resentment. Why? It’s pretty simple actually, because we are being denied; denied our feelings surrounding the offender and the offense. We long to be validated. The unspoken message is that a loving person would not feel anger, hurt or vengeful. I have met plenty of people who have felt all those emotions, and more; each one of them kind, compassionate and loving in their own way. When we refuse to allow another or ourselves to own those emotions deemed unkind, we actually fuse the bond to those feelings even deeper. Giving another or ourselves the time and space to give voice to the experience creates an opportunity for the process of forgiveness to begin as the emotions are allowed the opportunity to release.

Notice that I used the words “the process of forgiveness to begin”. That is because forgiveness is many times not a one time act for those whoppers in our life, but is instead a series of steps we take over time as we continue to peel away the layers that keep us invested in not forgiving. You ask yourself, “Did she just say invested in not forgiving?” Yes, I think we can all relate to the common notion that by refusing to forgive another we believe we are punishing them and that is where we become invested instead. We believe that clinging to our righteous anger makes another writhe in pain and discomfort, a penance for perceived sins. The animosity permits us a false sense of power, and power is what we often feel has been taken from us in these moments of conflict.

Do you have to forgive? I would say no, you can make the choice not to forgive another. Is it a healthy choice to forgive? Probably. Because while we think we are holding another emotionally hostage with our grudge, really we are holding ourselves in an energetic prison that remains tied and bound to them and whatever situation that has come to pass. Unwittingly, we continue to give them the power. When we were three we stomped our foot and emphatically stated, “I hate you!” in our efforts to make others suffer for the pain we believe they caused. Today, all grown up, we say such things as, “I don’t forgive him and he’ll have to live with that.” Different words in each scenario but each one is vengeful in nature and requires us to remain continually engaged on many levels with a state of hostility, day after day and sometimes, year after year.

That leads me to the next point, which I know you’ve heard somewhere before, forgiveness isn’t for the other person. We don’t offer our forgiveness so that they might feel better about themselves and what they have done, we do it so that we might feel lighter. Let’s imagine our unwillingness to forgive is like the shirt you pull out of the closet that fits more snugly than the rest. You can get through the day wearing it but it’s truly constricting, irritating and uncomfortable. So, you grab another shirt. This new shirt allows for more freedom of movement, is softer and doesn’t feel binding in any way – that is forgiveness. When we forgive we are simply giving ourselves the permission to go about our days in greater internal comfort as we pick a new emotional ensemble to don.

Forgiveness is not always a matter of will and can not be forced by the “victim” nor the “perpetrator”. Offering words of apology doesn’t automatically entitle us to the golden certificate of forgiveness but instead is about personal ownership, end of story. What the receiver does or doesn’t do with the apology is completely up to them, both consciously and unconsciously. It is the unconscious that often digs its heels in, holding us steadily in the state of an unforgiving mode. With time and self compassion the unconscious will make itself known and it is there that we have the freedom to heal and potentially step into forgiveness if we explore the gifts and intentions of personal awareness. Time and attention to self, not a rigid moral dogma or a denial of our pain, is what can lead us into the freedom of forgiveness for the deepest of our wounds.

It’s important to examine your personal definition of forgiveness. Many of us believe that offering another forgiveness somehow exonerates them from the harm they have caused. With that belief structure we tend to cling to our sense of indignation. Personally, in those instances where I’ve reached a point of forgiveness for some major betrayals, I view it in the context of, “What you did is not okay but I no longer hold onto my hurt and anger towards you.” It’s not that I’m releasing them, instead I am releasing myself.

The act of forgiveness can be a complicated venture, but I suggest if approached with awareness of its complexity and with self compassion we might stand more fully and ever closer to our truth.

Be well and happy.