One of my favorite refrigerator magnets depicts a well-dressed woman in evening clothes saying, “I would say my biggest strength is my ability to hold a grudge until the day I die.” It makes me think of my maternal grandmother, whom I worshipped. She was famous for carrying grudges forever. Both of my parents were only children, so any close family went back to aunts and uncles of my grandparents’ generation. I know very little about any of them because we didn’t talk to them for decades. Why? Because my grandmother had a grudge against them that was carried like a badge of honor.
We have all been guilty of holding a grudge at some point in our lives. Often, we carry them because we believe that if we forgive the infraction that precipitated the grievance, that makes it all right.
Forgiveness, however, doesn’t mean that whatever happened is now okay. Holding onto resentment or animosity because of something that happened in the past just keeps us locked in that past, constantly reminded of what happened and how it made us feel. It is almost as if we are punishing ourselves by making ourselves feel those bad feelings once again.
Now, I am not talking about serious experiences like abuse. I mean the more venal sins rather than the mortal ones: Someone says something untoward that you don’t like or agree with or that hurts your feelings. Someone blames you or a loved one for something that you had nothing to do with. They refuse to take responsibility for something they clearly need to. Someone tries to manipulate you. Someone betrays a secret confidence or gossips about you behind your back.
Depending on the severity of the impact of the misdeed, the consequences may never be OK. But forgiveness begins to let you off the hook. Think about it this way: The person who spends the most time in jail is the warden. Prisoners come and go over time, but the warden is always there. Forgiving lets you out of the prison.
You don’t have to forgive the what, but to let yourself out of prison, you have to forgive the why. You may know exactly why they did what they did: they’re looking for someone else to blame. They like to feel sorry for themselves and try to manipulate others into feeling sorry for them as well. They never take responsibility for themselves. They have a compulsive need to always be right. Or maybe, if they admit they have made a mistake, in their own mind, they are admitting that they are a mistake, and that is too hurtful for them to process.
Or you may never know exactly why they did what they did. Nevertheless, you can forgive the why.
Now the what. You don’t have to forgive what happened, but you don’t have to keep reminding yourself of it either. That doesn’t mean you are going to kiss and make up or go back to being besties. You can still walk away from them. The glory is that by forgiving the why, you get to stop reliving it, walk away from it and be free of it.
Think about a grievance you’ve been holding on to that is well past its expiration date. Take some time with this. How do you feel about it? Angry? Hurt? Scared? Self-blame? A sense of loneliness or betrayal? These feelings could impede the forgiveness process if not recognized and acknowledged, processed and released. Listen to the parts of you that don’t want to forgive. There may be a part of you that feels forgiveness is weak. There may be a part of you that tells you that you don’t need to forgive. Pay attention to this process. The goal is to understand what you think and feel.
The next step is to look at what you can learn from this. Besides the reason of wanting to let yourself out of prison, what can you learn about yourself in this process? What lesson(s) can you take from this? Finally, forgive the why. Once the why is forgiven, you don’t have to have those feelings of anger or hurt or fear or self-blame around this issue any longer. You can now reclaim some of your power and strength and love that were lost by not forgiving. Above all, you can finally be free.
Living Skills offers positive psychology counseling, spiritual counseling and life coaching services in Atlanta focused on, but not exclusively for, the LGBTQ community. Sessions are available by Skype. If you have questions, comments or want to find out about our services, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.