The Fundamentals of Forgiveness: Why We Resist Healing

Intuitively, we all know that forgiveness is something that will lead to great healing and freedom from the chains of our past. We have been taught that it is something we should do, yet we continue to resist. We continue to fight against the very thing that will deliver us into the truth of our wholeness.

There are three primary reasons for this irrational resistance. First, we don’t fully understand the benefits of forgiveness, except perhaps on an abstract level. Some of these benefits include breaking the cycle of dysfunction in our families and modeling a new way of being for children and other family members. When we choose to cultivate compassion and empathy for the world around us and stand fully accountable for our lives, we teach others that they too can experience life with tenderness and curiosity. We also learn to trust ourselves deeply and to see the world clearly rather than through the filters of our resentments. We develop more powerful relationships with other people. And suddenly we begin to see the universe as a friendly, supportive force for our evolution and betterment. And, of course, there are a host of physiological benefits; many studies have demonstrated that forgiveness may add several extra years to our lives and combat a variety of health issues. For more on the benefits of forgiveness, see the August 2016 blog post: The Fundamentals of Forgiveness: Psychological and Physical Health Benefits.

Another source of resistance to the process is a lack of understanding about how to forgive. We think we need something from another person or the world, or we believe it is just a decision to be made. In fact, the majority of us don’t really understand forgiveness, how it works, and how to do it. Many have been taught that forgiveness is just letting go. We make the declaration, “Fine, I forgive you,” and expect that all of the promises of forgiveness will be granted. That is not forgiveness, although it’s certainly a fine first step. Forgiveness is letting go, but it is letting go at the most fundamental levels of our being. It is letting go of being right, of judgment, of the illusion of separation.

Because so many of us struggle with the concept of forgiveness, we think that it will take forever or that it simply isn’t possible—or that we can’t do it unless certain external conditions are met. But absolute forgiveness can happen, and it is possible with willingness and understanding. It is not something that we have to wait to do when the circumstances are perfect. We are capable of the work, and although it may not seem easy at first, we are naturally equipped with the capacity for empathy, compassion, and love, all of which are the foundations for forgiveness. It is simply a matter of building that proverbial muscle through self-acceptance and feeling all of our feelings. It is all about moving from our heads to our hearts.

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

If you are resisting forgiveness, be gentle but honest with yourself. What is the payoff?

There are infinite potential payoffs for holding onto our hurt feelings. For example, many of us have incorporated aspects of our perceived injury into our personality. Maybe we are attached to being victims or get what we want from others by using our anger and resentment.

Perhaps being a victim has become a part of your identity and how you have learned to show up in life. Rather than relating to events that have taken place in our lives as just that—things that happened—we learn with time to falsely believe these things are us. Dr. Brené Brown talks about the distinction between remorse and shame in just this way. Rather than realizing we have done things that hurt ourselves or others, we relate to what we have done as who we are. None of us are just a victim or a bad person. We are all much more complex than that. It is only when we take on these phony identities that it is difficult to see this truth.

When we settle into victimhood, using our stories to relate to those around us, we begin to lose the capacity to navigate life with true balance. Rather than using compromise and equitable negotiation, we learn to manipulate power out of those around us by obtaining their sympathy or pity.

Or maybe we’ve used our resentment as an excuse to hold on to anger. Holding on to our anger and pain can become a way of life; we might use it as a bargaining chip to get what we want or to simply feel that we are “right” while everyone else is wrong. Do you know any rigidly self-righteous people? This is what they have done. But this is never an authentic expression of who you are.

We may also run the story of what happened to us over and over in our minds, filling in details (which may or may not be true) and becoming even more indignant and righteous with each iteration. This gives us a sense of satisfaction and superiority. This is a cycle that continues with greater and greater intensity; and as it does, we continue to rob ourselves of vital energy that could be used on creating life-affirming experiences.

We also resist forgiving because we don’t want to feel our pain. Forgiveness mandates that we get present to our suffering. We somewhat naturally don’t want to do this. It makes sense. But we’ve also been indoctrinated into believing it is better to repress or deny our pain. Ironically, non-forgiveness actually causes us to replay the details of what happened. This internal record causes emotional or spiritual irritation that wears on us. Just like a subtle physical pain that endures, with time, these unattended irritations grow. Often, forgiveness begins when a person finally acknowledges the ache and is motivated to alleviate it.

To heal, we must allow our suffering to move through us on its natural course. The idea that if we do this we will not be okay, or the world around us won’t be, is a myth. What causes us to fall apart is our judgment of our feelings, not the feelings themselves. When we choose to stay in our hearts and to get out of our thinking minds, we find peace. In allowing ourselves to fully process our pain, we heal it. In the absence of judgment and analysis, our anger, resentment, sadness, and shame are transformed into love and gratitude.

Fortunately, as we heal, we will not only free ourselves from old baggage—we will also feel more alive and engaged. We will be more available to our friends, our families, ourselves, and the full truth of who we are.

But forgiveness cannot happen when we resist change. Although it seems natural to avoid moving toward the unknown, it is possible to train yourself to remain receptive and to welcome the new possibilities that forgiveness brings with it. Ask yourself what it would take to motivate you to move through your internal opposition to forgiveness. What do you need to choose peace over suffering? Use the answer to this question as a building block toward self-actualization. I know you are worth it. And I know your healing is as important as anyone else’s.