How to forgive without feeling like you lost
I have rarely in my life done or said something with the intention of hurting another human being, and yet I unintentionally do it all the time. You do it, too.
We trek along our own paths as we navigate through our daily lives, our thoughts mainly on ourselves — How many meetings today? My head hurts. Is it my day to pick up the kids? I need to stop at the store. We tend to keep our heads down, focused on what we need to do just to keep going. It’s no wonder we bump into each other.
I’ve crashed into my fair share of unsuspecting family members and friends. I don’t seem to have a problem forgiving myself for hurting them, if I even realize I’ve done it at all. I know my intentions were pure. I know I didn’t intend to hurt them.
So why can it sometimes be so difficult to forgive someone for hurting me? And worse, why do I feel like they somehow won if I forgive them? I’m not sure what it is they’ve won, really. Maybe the right to go around and act like a jerk? Maybe I’ve given them the right to treat me disrespectfully?
But that’s not what happens when we forgive. What happens is we lighten our emotional load, we open ourselves up to receiving our own forgiveness, we reclaim our ability to empathize with others.
How I hurt others in my own ineptitude — just one of my many, many examples
A co-worker invited me to her annual Christmas party along with hundreds of other people. This was the first year of our acquaintance, so I had never been to this party. I could, however, imagine it. I was pretty sure her house, however large, was not designed to accommodate hundreds of people at one time. Other than her and a two other co-workers, I wouldn’t know a soul. I am claustrophobic and fear most social situations, so this crowded and impersonal event was a pass for me.
I used to struggle with directly turning down invitations. I could never say, “No, thanks.” I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Instead I’d try something like, “Is that Saturday the 20th? I’m not sure, but I think we have something going on that weekend. I’ll check and let you know.” Then I would simply not follow up and also not go.
Somehow, in my twisted thinking, this was the way not to hurt someone’s feelings.
I rationalized that out of a group of her one hundred closest friends, how could she possibly miss me? Honestly, the invitation smacked of a courtesy invite anyway because I’d overheard her talking about it every day. It was the only thing she talked about starting November first.
Instead of my brain registering, “Hey, this party is pretty important to her.” it chose the more cynical, “Oh my God I get it, you’re having a party! Your sister is making your mom’s famous Crunchy Arugula Pudding Dip served in your grandmother’s hand-made bowl lovingly carved from the charred remains of the old homestead. Yes, yes I know!” Then I would use an imaginary knife to make slashing motions toward my ear to make the hearing of her words just stop. From my office, by the way, so no one could actually see my juvenile air slashings. I hope.
The first day at work after the holiday break, I knew immediately, before even seeing her, that something was up. There was no coffee made. As the first person in the office, she unfailingly made the first pot.
When I saw her, she said good morning in such a way that I knew she was stewing. It wasn’t the mellifluous good morning tone I was used to, rather it was a clipped I’ve acknowledged you now get out of my sight good morning. At least I assumed that was the message. I had never heard her good mornings imply anything other than she was pleasantly happy to be alive.
When I got to my desk there was a bottle of wine sitting in front of my keyboard. The label was custom made, with a cute saying from one of the coffee mugs I kept at work. Oh shit.
I stared at it and then wondered how long I could stare at it before I had to come out of my office to thank her. I felt worse than horrible. I felt like spat out chewing tobacco stuck to the bottom of someone’s aging flip-flop soaking in pee on a gas station bathroom floor.
This had been a take-away gift from her party for “special” guests. Among all the planning talk I’d been hearing for over a month, I remembered this detail. First time guests, party-noobs! she called them, (Can I really be faulted for the air slashing?) get a bottle of wine. How was I supposed to know the wine would be anything more than a dodgy re-gift of one she didn’t like?
I guess I never really had made it clear I wasn’t going. I never said, “Sorry, we can’t come.” When she’d try to follow up with me, I never once gave her a straight answer. I was hoping to go unnoticed, fly under the radar, like I always do. Any attempt now to explain my social anxiety would seem cheap. I did apologize, but even to my own ears it came off as insincere. She was never outright rude to me after that, but also never friendly.
I offended her, I hurt her, I trampled on her kindness. How could she have known that I’m socially inept, awkward, even terrified?
Everything I inadvertently did to hurt her was to prevent myself from getting hurt. This incident is but one of my casually indifferent decisions, and it made me realize that I handle these situations poorly.
Consider these 5 things when you really, really want to feel wronged by someone (it is a choice).
Don’t assume the worst.
We’re all self-absorbed. Yes even you. You may be the most thoughtful, self-sacrificing, doting, loving, person in the world, but you still have moments of thoughtlessness, disregard, and un-mindfulness. A lot of the time you won’t even realize it. Keep this fact in mind the next time someone hurts or offends you. They are probably a lot like you. Can your first assumption be they are tired, busy, distracted, frustrated, hurried, worried, or clueless?
Give someone else the slack you would appreciate at your worst moments.
(*I’m not talking about criminal acts, by the way. Obviously there is more going on than being worried or clueless in the mind of a criminal.)
Nothing is personal.
I’ve said it many times, I will continue to say it, even if no one believes me. Sometimes whipping up a frothy self-righteous rage feels better than admitting you’re not the center of someone’s universe. But it’s a good thing you’re not.
We are all all coming at life from different angles and everything each of us does is in our own self-interest or self-preservation — even the good stuff.
It feels personal because sometimes we get caught in someone else’s line of fire.
When we are angry or scared, self-preservation speeds to our rescue. What we feel as a personal attack on our being is probably the lash-out of fear. Definitely get out of the way of it, but anyone could have been the target. It’s not personal, even when it feels it.
When I was in high school I was a Goth. No one was actually using that word yet though. For some reason the kids in my high school called me and my Siouxsie Sioux inspired friends “Chips”. To this day I have no clue what that meant or where it came from.
There was a kid who went out of his way to tell me how ugly I was. He even expressed his doubt that if I lost fifty pounds and got a girl haircut I could pass muster. He sought me out to tell me this, I would hear him yell, “Hey Chip!” from the end of the hall and feel dread in my heart.
He didn’t do this to any of my friends. Did it feel personal? Hell yes it did! But it wasn’t. He sensed I was the one he could pick on, my shyness, face red even before he got near me, and I never once fought back. His issues were his issues and I was merely the one being culled from the herd.
Stop keeping score.
Stop adding to your running list of everyone else’s transgressions. What if on that imaginary scorecard you keep, you zeroed out your list right now, just forgave all the misdeeds? For example, if you’re dragging around the baggage of who does more around the house or who puts more effort into the relationship, set the score to zero.
Now when you have a task in front of you that you can’t happily accomplish without giving yourself a point, don’t do the task. You were not born to be the laundry martyr. Take a moment and ask yourself, can it wait? Can you ask for help? When’s the last time you made dinner together over a bottle of wine? Or just said, “Hey, I can’t do it tonight, can I please have your help?”
Beware of being the silent sufferer. Speak up, ask for help, say no. Don’t assume anyone should just inherently know what you need. Stop the resentment before it gets started and tallied on your scorecard.
Forgiveness is not saying it’s ok.
When we forgive someone, we allow ourselves to stop feeling resentment toward the person and the deed. It’s not condoning the act. It’s not telling the offender it’s perfectly fine to hurt us again. It’s saying, “I need to move on from these feelings I have about what you did.”
We might hurt to the point where we have to cut certain people out of our lives completely. I’ve done it several times with the knowledge it was the right thing to do. I became resentful anyway. I had to change my life for them. I felt embarrassed, frightened, hurt, lonely, and angry because of them.
But absolutely nothing can compare to the feeling of finally saying, “I won’t expend any more energy on you — not rage, not fear, not hatred. Done.”
People are disconnected.
It’s easy to launch into a cruel email rant, to troll someone’s Medium post from the safety of never meeting them face to face, to ghost someone you once liked. But haven’t we all done things out of fear, laziness, or just plain self-centeredness?
Simply drive your car during rush hour on a five lane interstate to experience the very pinnacle of this phenomenon. Even better if you’re a passenger, so you can simply observe and not have to apply survival skills.
We’ve all seen the reckless insanity. We all know about road rage.
People drive their vehicles like weapons and you’re the enemy keeping them from family and homeland. It doesn’t matter if you drive an H2 armored up for the End of Days or a BMW Z4, you are suddenly the only real human on the road and everyone else out there is trying to stop you from getting where you need to go.
But something happens once we exit our vehicles in the grocery store parking lot. Very few people have actually screamed profanities at me, given me the finger, and just plain tried to kill me while walking through the dairy aisle. Suddenly, with our metal exoskeletons removed, we are human again.
We are all humanly disconnected to some degree. Have empathy for others because you’ve done these things and need to be given empathy. Step down from your Tower of Wrongedness and move on. Forgive because it helps you.
You haven’t lost in some game. If you forgive someone, they don’t have one over on you, you don’t even have to tell them about it because it’s not for them. It’s for you.