The Fundamentals of Forgiveness: Why We Resist Healing

Intuitively we know forgiveness will lead to healing and freedom from the bonds of the past. Anyone who grew up in a mainstream religion or household centered on ethics has learned that forgiveness is a thing we should do, yet we resist. We fight against the very thing we know will open the door to living more powerfully in the present moment.

There are three broad reasons for this resistance: We don’t understand the benefits; we don’t know how; we get something out of not forgiving. Let’s look at each in more detail.

We don’t understand the benefits

Forgiveness is a little like gravity. We think we grasp it until we try to explain it. Our comprehension stops at the abstract and is based primarily on knowing it when we see it. The capacity to predicably keep one’s feet on the ground is sufficient advantage when it comes to gravity, but what gains might motivate someone to decide to forgive voluntarily?

Some benefits include (among many others):

  • When we choose to cultivate compassion and empathy for the world around us and stand fully accountable for our lives, we teach others they can too. Just imagine the impact of breaking the cycle of dysfunction in families and modeling a new way of being.
  • We learn to trust ourselves by seeing the world more clearly rather than seeing life through the filter of our resentment or shame.
  • Develop more intimate relationships; begin to see the universe as a friendly, supportive force for your evolution and betterment.
  • And, of course, there are a host of physiological benefits; many studies have demonstrated that forgiveness may add years to our lives and combat a range of health issues, including chronic fatigue, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.

We don’t know how to forgive

Another source of resistance is a lack of knowledge about how to forgive. To continue the analogy, sure, not floating up into the treetops every time you step outside is helpful, but what’s keeping you on the ground?

One way to begin to bring to form what something is is to look at what it is not. Here are some (there are many more) of the common assumptions and falsehoods about forgiveness that help us start to define what it is.

  • Forgiveness is not dependent on the actions or inaction of others. It’s evident that a demonstration of remorse and making repairs can help, but if one does not receive such remuneration, it just means there’s a little more work to be done.
  • Real forgiveness is not a pronouncement or a gesture. We proclaim, fine, I forgive you, and expect that all of the promises of true forgiveness will be granted. Unfortunately, this is not how it works. It requires intentional effort.
  • It does not come from somewhere outside of you, at least not the forgiveness we discuss here. Can grace happen? Sure, but you cannot control that.

So, how do we do it? We know we don’t need to wait for an apology and that it is more than just saying, I forgive you. We know we have to work.

The first step is to acknowledge your emotional pain; begin to allow yourself the freedom to process that pain. This step can take time as we learn to balance allowing with moving forward. From here, start to look at the story you have about what transpired. Compassionately question the judgments you have about the people, the story, and the impact. Learning to parse out events from the story (what occurred through the lens of time, judgments, and preferences) requires rigorous honesty and consistent tenderness. These two pieces of the puzzle alone can take months, even years. It is likely, however, you have already been doing this part of the work. The possibility of forgiving doesn’t occur to most people until some emotional processing has taken place.

The next step is developing empathy. Perspective-taking is an integral part of authentic forgiveness, but this can be very painful and even injurious without true empathy. Empathy allows us to see more clearly through the eyes of others, leading to an experience of common humanity.

Developing the skills outlined above will naturally begin to reframe the relationship you have to what happened and open your heart to the possibility of true healing. Then, you can begin a series of simple steps to forgive. See the steps outlined in the post, 8-Steps to an Empowered Future, or the in the book, chapter 3.

We get something out of not forgiving

The last broad category of reasons we don’t forgive is the all-too-human reality: we get something out of not forgiving, and—most likely at an unconscious level—we evaluate the payoff as more important than healing.

There are immeasurable possible rewards for holding onto resentment, contempt, or even fear. We may have learned that playing the role of victim works well in our relationships, failing to see the sacrifice we make or the harm this way of being causes for those we love. While the illusion of powerlessness is convincing, and you’re likely to find ample cultural and social support for the narrative, it’s not an authentic expression of the unique value you can offer. Overcoming the illusion is, but living in it is not.

Conversely, many people use their anger to control others. Who can blame you if you had a rageful abusive parent or other influence on your life, right? And, you might have found (particularly if you are a man) that being a bully can be quite effective at bringing success. The question is, what are you missing by choosing to hold onto your anger and indignation. Intimate connection, playfulness, joy?

Rather than relating to the deeply impactful past events as just that: events that happened, the stories became who you were. I don’t know what human beings do this, maybe because we have failed to teach that living is a dynamic, ever-unfolding endeavor. To be alive—truly alive—is to reject knowing in favor of curiosity and constant discovery. You are not a victim. You are not the “bad guy.” No matter how much of a hot mess you’ve been, you are more than the things that have happened.

Another payoff to holding onto the status quo is not having to feel our emotional pain. Forgiveness mandates that we get present to suffering. To some extent, this resistance is instinctive. But we’ve also been indoctrinated to believe it is better to repress or deny our pain. Ironically, non-forgiveness causes us to ruminate on painful memories. This internal record causes emotional or spiritual irritation that wears on us. Just like a subtle physical pain that endures, over time, unattended irritants grow. Often, forgiveness begins when a person finally acknowledges the existential ache and is motivated to alleviate it.

Finally, you may resist forgiving yourself or others simply because to do so means to lose control temporarily. After all, you’ve built a life based on how you see things, and that will likely change. Not knowing what will unfold is terrifying for lots of folks. Funnily enough, we never know what will happen next; we just do a good job of fooling ourselves into believing we do.

If you are resisting forgiveness, be gentle but honest with yourself. What value are you gaining by maintaining your current stance? No judgment, just compassionate introspection. It might seem natural to avoid moving toward the unknown, but it is possible to teach yourself to remain receptive and to welcome the new possibilities that forgiveness brings. Ask yourself what it would take to inspire you to move through internal opposition to healing. What do you need to choose peace over suffering? Use the answer to this question as a building block toward self-actualization. You are worth it. And your healing is important to us all.