Nancy Colier
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What is Forgiveness, Really? When “Letting it Go” and “Burying the Hatchet” Fail…What Works?

What is forgiveness and how does it happen?  We talk so much about forgiveness, throw around so many slogans, and yet it seems that we all have radically different ideas about what it actually means. We want to know how to forgive and yet it can be very hard to achieve or practice something that we don’t really understand.

We often hear the idea that forgiveness is a gift, an act of kindness for ourselves, as the forgiver, that forgiveness is not for or even about the one we are forgiving.  It’s said that if forgiveness benefits the one we are forgiving, then that’s an added benefit, a gift, but not really the point. And yet, one of the obstacles we face in forgiving someone we perceive as having done us harm is not wishing them well, not seeing their benefitting from our forgiveness as a gift, and in fact, wanting them to suffer because of what they did.  The idea that the other person would somehow feel better as a result of our forgiveness is challenging and precisely what we want to prevent.  We imagine that not forgiving then is a form of punishment, a way of forcing the other to continue suffering, a way of being in control of a situation we didn’t feel we had control over.  At a primal level, we imagine that not forgiving is a way of taking care of our wound, proclaiming that our suffering exists, and still and forever matters.  Not forgiving, paradoxically, is a way of validating and honoring our own hurt.

So too, when the one we believe caused us harm is unwilling to take responsibility for their actions or insists that they did nothing wrong, we conclude that it’s even more necessary to withhold forgiveness.  Not forgiving then becomes a way of holding on to our rightness—remaining justified in our version of the truth, and the sense of having been treated unjustly.  Our non-forgiveness, as we imagine it, continues to prove the other wrong, which legitimizes our pain.  And indeed, it is the validity of our suffering which above all else we’re trying (often desperately) to confirm and have confirmed.

Furthermore, we think that forgiving the other somehow implies that we are now okay with what the other person did, and maybe even one step further—that what they did is okay on a grander scale. Our perception is that forgiveness announces that what happened is no longer relevant, significant, or alive.  It’s as if we’re allowing the past to be done, and thus to move out of mind and heart, which can feel intolerable.

Perhaps most troublesomely however, forgiveness, as we relate to it, is letting the other person “off the hook.”  We equate it with absolution—excusing the other from blame, guilt or responsibility for what they did.  We imagine it as symbolically setting them free from having to carry the burden of suffering that we believe they caused.

And so the question follows, What actually is forgiveness?  And its partner inquiry, What is forgiveness—not?

Forgiveness is Not Saying… 

-You were not hurt by what the other person did.

-Your pain is gone.

-You are back to being the person you were before it happened.

-Life can now pick up where you left off, you feel the way you did before, as if what happened never happened.

-You no longer believe the other person was responsible for causing harm.

-You excuse the other person’s behavior.

-You no longer view what happened as important.

-You share the blame for what happened.

-You can ever forget what happened.


The way we view forgiveness, in many ways, is flawed.  We say “forgive and forget,” but when we forgive we don’t forget.  Forgetting is by no means an inherent part of forgiving, nor should it be. So too, we refer to forgiveness as “burying the hatchet.” But when we bury the hatchet, the hatchet is still there, just under a bunch of dirt, or we could say, a bunch of denial.  Buried or not, we still need to find peace with what’s happened.  So too, we’re flippant about forgiveness, encouraging ourselves and others to “just let it go!”  But again, forgiveness is no small affair and we cannot rationalize, intellectualize, manipulate or bully ourselves into feeling it.

Forgiveness is different for every human being that lives it.  For some, it comes on suddenly, blessedly, without having to think about or try and create it.  For others, it’s a more deliberate process that requires effort and practice.  And for others, it’s a permanent destination and once discovered, never slips away.  But it can also be a feeling that comes and goes and ebbs and flows.  There’s no right way to find or live forgiveness; any path to and version of it will do.  And yet, despite the fact that there are infinite paths to and colors of forgiveness, certain key components exist in its sentiment, aspects of forgiveness that essential to its basic nature.

What Forgiveness Is

Forgiveness is, in part, a willingness to drop the narrative on a particular injustice, to stop telling ourselves over and over again the story of what happened, what this other person did, how we were injured, and all the rest of the upsetting things we remind ourselves in relation to this unforgivable-ness.  It’s a decision to let the past be what it was, to leave it as is, imperfect and not what we wish it had been.  Forgiveness mean that we stop the shoulda, coulda, woulda been-s and relinquish the idea that we can create a different (better) past.

Forgiveness also suggests an openness to meeting the present moment freshly.  That is, to be with the other person without our feelings about the past in the way of what’s happening now.  Forgiveness involves being willing and able to respond to what’s happening in the present moment and not react through the lens of anger and resentment, the residue from the past.  In meeting now, freshly, we stop employing the present moment to correct, vindicate, validate, or punish the past.  We show up, perhaps forever changed as a result of the past, but nonetheless with eyes, ears, and a heart that are available to right now, and what’s possible right now.

A primary component of the forgiveness process also includes our attention and where we choose to direct it.  The process of forgiveness invites and guides our attention away from the other person, away from what they did, haven’t done, or need to do.  It takes the focus off of them; off waiting for and wanting them to be different, and moves towards ourselves, our own experience, our heart.  We stop trying to get compassion or acknowledgment out of the other, stop trying to get them to see and know our pain, to show us that our suffering matters.  Forgiveness means that we lose interest or simply give up the fight to have the other get it, get what they’ve done, get that we matter.

We stop struggling to get something back from the other in part because we take on the role of our own caring witness, decide to offer ourselves the compassion we so crave, that we’ve tried so hard to get from the other.  True forgiveness means acknowledging that our suffering matters—to us, the one who’s lived it—whether or not the other person ever agrees with us.  We say, you matter—to our own heart.  And it bears repeating… we do all this with or without the other’s awareness.  Forgiveness is an inside job.

Forgiveness, ultimately, is about freedom.  When we need someone else to change in order for us to be okay, we are a prisoner.  In the absence of forgiveness, we’re shackled to anger and resentment, uncomfortably comfortable in our misbelief that non-forgiveness rights the wrongs of the past and keeps the other on the hook.  And, that by holding onto that hook, there’s still hope that we might get the empathy we crave, and the past might somehow feel okay.  When our attention is focused outward, on getting the other to give us something, so that we can feel peace, we’re effectively bleeding out not only our own power, but also our capacity for self-compassion.  What we want from the other, the one we can’t forgive, is most often, love.  Forgiveness is ultimately about choosing to offer ourselves love—and with it, freedom.

2 Responses

  1. What if you forgive but the person you forgave does the same thing again? If they refuse to have compassion for or even acknowledge your pain, what is to stop history repeating itself again because they are unable to see how their actions are creating that pain in you? I imagine most people would, in the first instance want to forgive someone who wronged them but the very act of doing so is also an act of trust to presume they won’t do it again either to them or someone else.

    1. A good question, saff. sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for keeping a safe distance from those who harm us continually, and are also not able to take responsibility for it. still, when we forgive, we don’t have to presume the other will not do it again. we forgive the hurt that was caused, and, make sure to take care of ourselves with the person going forward. we hope they will not repeat the behavior but that is not always the case and certainly not in our hands.
      in support,

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