The Paradox of Forgiveness

Rachel Landman, LMHC December 27, 2021

Forgiveness takes time and is rarely easy. But it’s worth it in the end because the process can deepen the way you understand your values and feelings when you get hurt.

“If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear… Forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable.”—Derrida (2001) 

People behave and take action based on how they feel or what they value. People who explore what is meaningful to them tend to be happier in life overall (not always, but more so than not). 

Emotions are here to help us understand and interpret the world. They offer some guidance as to what matters to us as humans. Before acting on the direction our feelings inspire, we need to consider whether these momentary feelings match our values. Ultimately, we want to act in ways consistent with our values, not our feelings. Feelings are fleeting. Values tend to stay more consistent, which brings up the sticky topic of forgiveness.

For some, this concept is painful. But for others, it’s a non-issue. We are not encouraging you to forgive, as that is a personal decision entirely up to you, your experience, and your interpretation of the events. 

Instead, we encourage you to think about your actions and whether you’re acting on what’s important to you (your values), versus how you feel in the moment. It’s ideal to be conscious and aware of our choices, especially regarding resolving transgressions. This affects our relationships with others.

What Forgiveness is Not

People are remarkably unique, and so are the situations that create emotional pain. The timeline for forgiving someone is different for everyone. A great place to start your process is understanding forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is:

  • Not forgetting or pretending that nothing happened. It’s not letting people “get away with it,” but it is about opening up to being hurt again. It doesn’t mean we have to reconcile with the person who violated or upset us. 

  • Not a negotiation—it’s a risk. Sometimes the people we forgive change, but we dare to remove ourselves from destructive relationships. 

  • Not an instant pain reliever for feelings or past actions that we cannot change. 

  • Not a one-and-done act. It’s a process of changing how we view ourselves, our lives, the offending party, and ultimately the world. Some days it might be easier to forgive others, and those ebbs and flows are okay. Coming to terms with these changes is part of the process. 

What Does It Mean to Forgive?

It’s an action, not a passive thought. Forgiveness is taking the awfulness of what has happened seriously and acknowledging that you were mistreated. It’s the act of clarifying to yourself (and possibly others) that what happened was wrong, should not have been done, and will not be tolerated in the future. Practicing forgiveness may instill a sense of personal agency. 

When we retake charge of our lives, this creates space to focus on other things in life that matter to us. 

Ultimately, forgiveness is a gift of mercy to ourselves and the people that have hurt us. We can liberate ourselves from holding onto the anger and pain from a situation or person that cannot be undone. You are under no obligation to inform the person you forgive that you have done so. This is your gift to give as you see fit.  

“Don't be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time”—Ruth Bader Ginsburg

We forgive by overcoming the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to that sensation of resentment. 

How to Forgive and Let Go 

Laying out a plan for forgiveness is a healthy way to practice self-care for yourself throughout the process. Here are some steps to get started. 

Validate and Empathize

  • You have a right to feel the way you do. Feel all your feelings that come up with the issue. 
  • Acknowledge that the offense was unfair and will never cease to be unfair. We have a right to anger, a right to respect. 

Evaluate and Decide

  • Ask yourself: “What do I value?” Think about what is actually important and meaningful to you. Decide on an action, to forgive or not to forgive. 

Take Action   

  • Think about the steps you can take to forgive, whether through a conversation or other types of actions.
  • Journal to help you process and understand yourself better, facilitating self-reflection that supports you to grow from the experience. 

It’s up to you to decide how the steps of forgiveness unfold. If you come from a religious tradition or background, there might be guidance outlined in these belief systems worth discovering. Whether you’re religious or not, therapy is another powerful tool that can support you through the process of forgiveness. 

The choice to forgive is always yours. Forgiveness can be as empowering and fulfilling as you make it. 

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