I once thought that forgiveness was an exceptional event— an unusual occurrence. It was what you did when you were trying to get over what someone did to you. Over time, I realized that forgiveness is a continual aspect of healthy relationships, a regular event, not an unusual one. Forgiveness occurs in healthy relationships repeatedly because we inadvertently hurt one another without meaning to (In unhealthy relationships, people hurt each other on purpose.)
Will You Get Hurt? Yes.
Like everyone else, I don’t want to be hurt. Earlier in my life when I was involved in the hazardous activity of dating, I was having dinner with a woman friend. I told her, “I don’t want to get hurt again in relationship.”
She responded, “What do you really want?” I said spontaneously, “I want a guarantee!” She grinned and whipped out a paper napkin. “What do you want it to say?” she said.
In her wisdom, my friend was saying that such a guarantee would be worth as much as the paper it was written on—not much. There are no guarantees that we will not be hurt in relationships.
Another wise friend told me, “It is impossible to not be hurt in relationships. I guarantee you will get hurt. The question is ‘how much’ and whether or not it was abuse.”
Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships
These insights brought about my realization that relationships are between unique individuals who will inevitably “bump into” each other. (The abusers among them are simply to be avoided.)
I began to understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Unhealthy relationships do not resolve their problems; they simply recur over and over again. They trigger and re-wound the old wounds of the people involved, and as a result, those wounds progressively move deeper into the wounded person. It is as if one person has a bad bruise and the other person repeatedly hits this bruise, causing more bleeding.
In unhealthy relationships, the individuals involved typically do not take responsibility for their own bruises (beliefs and resulting actions), instead take to blaming the other person for hitting their bruise. Obviously, violence and verbal abuse are part of some unhealthy relationships, which add to this wounding.
Another more subtle type of pattern is when individuals in a relationship are being hurt, but do not say anything to the other person, allowing the hurts to accumulate and fester. Sometimes, they choose to take revenge: “If I hurt, then I will hurt you.” Taking revenge does not change the level of hurt inside of the avenger, and can initiate a cycle of “an eye for an eye.”
Healthy relationships resolve the majority of their conflicts. Here, the attitude of those in the relationship towards resolving conflict is the same as one washing dishes or ordering a closet. They know that it has to be done regularly in order for the house to feel clean. Every time people in such relationships resolve an issue, they make a new agreement, forgive each other, and gain confidence and a sense of security in the relationship. This creates a foundation of trust that includes a certainty that the other person will listen to them and protect them, rather than be violent towards them or deliberately hurt them.
In healthy relationships, each person takes responsibility to heal their own wounds from the past so they are not overly-sensitive to interactions. This requires learning emotional skills. In healthy families, parents teach these skills knowingly or unknowingly, but if one’s parents did not know these skills, they obviously could not teach them.
In healthy relationships, there is a mutual understanding that any hurts which occur will be addressed (healed) promptly, so that wounds are taken care of when they are “scratches,” and don’t fester and become infected. This requires communication skills which employ thoughtfulness and tact, getting to the truth in a clear way that leads to resolving the problem rather than causing more wounds. The healthy relationship will use forgiveness to address hurts so that those involved can let them go and move on. I have seen this dynamic in play repeatedly in the loving, deeply-committed relationships I observe in my life, including my own.
Definitions of Forgiveness
Defining the forgiveness aspect of this sequence in a relationship can be challenging. Personally, I find it difficult to wrap my brain around some of the definitions of forgiveness I’ve heard. Some of these seem to make excuses for the offender’s actions. Other definitions require the wounded person to be a saint. Many of these definitions come dangerously close to suggesting that harmful or abusive actions are justifiable, and therefore forgivable.
So, I came up with my own definition based upon my own experience, observations, and healing process.
My definition of forgiveness is as follows: Forgiveness is the process by which a person cleanses their heart of anger, hurt, rage, sadness, fear, and incorrect decisions. Under each of those emotions lie unmet needs that were denied during the event. To come to the place of forgiveness, the wounded person must be able to meet those needs and satisfy them in their current life.
Old Decisions that Need to be Changed
Children in particular make decisions in poor circumstances that are not empowering nor beneficial. An example might be, “My parent is hitting me because I am a bad person.” A more accurate interpretation might be, “My parent is hitting because they are out-of-control and do not know how to deal with the stress of their job.” These mistaken ideas tend to take root and wind up ruling people’s lives and their current behavior.
The only way these ideas change is when the mistaken conclusions are unraveled like a knotted ball of yarn, until the truth can be distinguished from the mistaken ideas. Forgiveness is not about forgiving unacceptable behavior. However, the soul within the offender, expressing deep woundedness and hatred, is a hurt child acting out. When you heal your own wound, then either neutrality towards the offender or even compassion for that tortured soul can arise in the victim without making any excuses for the behavior.
Forgiveness is a Process
There is a process involved in forgiveness that involves skills: introspection, emotional skills, and learning to identify needs and meeting those needs in one’s current life. Then, cultivating the ability to let go of the anger, resentment and grief so that one’s own heart is clean. So… how does one heal their wounds from the past so that they can get to the Land of Forgiveness? One, I highly suggest going to a therapist who is familiar with and practiced in emotional skills and communication skills. This is exactly like signing up for a watercolor class to learn painting in watercolor; the instructor teaches the skills and you practice them. If you knew how to heal the wounds by yourself, you would have already accomplished it! I have always been stymied as to why people think they should be able to do these things by themselves. I drive a car, but that does not mean I am a mechanic. I have a physical body, but that does not mean I am a doctor. Owning a unique mind does not mean that a person is automatically qualified a psychologist. Shop around until you find a therapist who respects your boundaries and yet challenges you to take the next step.
The Think Structure
A good technique to start the healing process is the Transactional Analysis Think Structure. Get a journal and choose one event or one pattern you want to work on. Write down:
- What happened? Write the event down in detail. You might be surprised at how many aspects you neglect when casually considering the event mentally which are actually important. “Oh, I had forgot they had said that! No wonder I felt so hurt!”
- How did you feel? Explore the layers of emotions. “I felt angry. Why did I feel so angry? What exactly made me feel so hurt?” There will be a sense of relief when you come to the emotion at the core of your distress.
- What did you want? You may have been denied the promotion but respect and recognition for all your hard work was what you actually wanted much more than the promotion. Explore your wants.
- What did you need? Needs are physical, such as air, water, and food. However, we also have emotional needs. When people or animals are denied their emotional needs, they become psychologically unhealthy. Some basic needs are safety, security, love, recognition, belonging to a social group, individuality, independence, self-expression, and the pursuit of one’s dreams.
- How can you get that need met? It is a useful guideline to get 50% of your needs met by giving them to yourself, and 50% from other people. When you give yourself the respect you need, then it makes you more independent from other people. You offer yourself recognition every time you are pleased with how you completed a task, overcame an obstacle, etc. You begin creating a healthy Parenting image inside of yourself. You become an adult who is able to parent their own Inner Child in a loving, disciplined, and healthy manner. The ability to parent oneself creates a genuinely adult person.
Find Your Support System
Ask yourself, “Who offers me the safety and love I need?” Frequently, the other person in a relationship has been offering food to a blind man who does not see the outreached hand. People who can aid in empowering you and your healing may have been there all along. You must choose to see their offering, spend time with them, and take in what they are offering to you. The process of learning forgiveness and healing takes awhile, but frees up energy everywhere in one’s life. Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is work. But learning forgiveness will greatly aid you in having a happy life.
Elizabeth Brandon, LMFT, CACII, CHT