The Fundamentals of Forgiveness: What Forgiveness Is and Is Not

Forgiveness is one of the most important things you will ever do in your life. It is the process that will restore you to one of the deepest truths you can recognize: You have always been whole. Absolute forgiveness is a state in which we perceive, beyond a doubt, that there is nothing to forgive. When we are filled with love and gratitude for everything that has led to this moment, we have an instinctive understanding that there are no mistakes. We develop deep self-compassion and a limitless sense of love. We come to see that, had we not had the experiences that impacted us (even leaving scars in their wake), we would not be who we are today.

Unfortunately, for most of us, forgiveness remains a choice we do not make, because the dominant culture does not understand what it is, or what it entails. In fact, society expects us to not forgive. The world has fallen into a collective trance that believes that if we heal, we are advocating our perpetrators’ harmful actions or we are indifferent to justice. Not only do we have to overcome our own resistance to letting go of judgment and cultivating empathy, but we also have to subjugate the social pressure of going against the norm.

It is so important to understand what forgiveness isn’t, because these misunderstandings are our primary source of opposition to healing. The more clarity we have, the easier the process becomes and the more willing we are to take on the work of forgiveness.

First of all, let’s delineate what forgiveness is not:

  • Condoning unfair or unacceptable behavior
  • Injustice, or letting someone off the hook
  • A sign of weakness
  • Forgetting
  • Simply moving on
  • Trust, or reconciliation
  • A request from another person, or a negotiation
  • Inherently religious

Let’s talk about a few of these. One of the biggest misunderstandings I’ve encountered is this idea that if we forgive someone, we are condoning their harmful behavior. So let me just say: If it caused harm, it is not okay—period.

In fact, forgiveness is an act of self-empowerment because it removes us from the circumstances and paradigms that allowed us to be harmed, to begin with. Through the forgiveness process, we become even more present and aware of how our experiences impacted and continue to impact us. We learn to honor what happened, and how it left its mark. As we learn to love and accept ourselves as we are, we intuitively create boundaries that reflect this love. We are able to make bolder, better choices. We free ourselves from the filters we create in the present moment, which leads us to see the world more clearly. That clarity empowers us to respond to the world more accurately and to express ourselves with integrity.

Forgiveness is also not explicitly about trust or reconciliation. We may rightly never trust someone who has caused us harm, and nor might we wish to have a relationship with them—but we can still forgive. The Buddha made a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation that is helpful to note. He said that reconciliation is much more difficult than forgiveness and is not always possible. However, forgiveness is always possible. Trust and reconciliation require something from others. They demand an understanding and belief that the people who harmed us will behave differently. And, often, trust and reconciliation ask for compromise. What we know to be right and true may very well not be what others believe to be so.

Because forgiveness is an inside job, it doesn’t require negotiation with anything outside of ourselves. We don’t need other people’s buy-in or even their genuine remorse in order to forgive. It is, of course, up to each of us to decide what we feel we need to move forward, but that is a choice. If you are choosing to demand something from the world that you may never get, you are actively choosing to not forgive.

Often, our judgments and perceived desire for a gesture of remorse are not about what happened in the past—but about what is happening today. We want things to be different—to be “right.” So, we hold onto resentment, hoping we can cajole those around us into falling in line. For me, this was perhaps the most powerful realization when forgiving my mother. I wanted so badly to prove to the world that she was wrong and I was right. I almost died trying to prove the point, in fact. When I accepted that my mother would never become the person I thought she should be—and never express to me her remorse for the impact of her choices I perceived in my life—I became free to move forward.

And something miraculous happened when I did this: Suddenly, what I was so sure of for so many years seemed irrelevant. Suddenly, with a healed heart, I saw her as exactly who she was always meant to be. And I finally felt free from the torment of giving my power away to another human being, which always leads to suffering no matter how perfect they may seem today. I was free. In this way, although there is a collective or communal benefit to forgiveness, it is first and foremost about our freedom; we embolden ourselves when we recognize that the other person has nothing to do with our healing and need not be an active participant in our evolution.

The journey of forgiveness leads you toward a full expression of who you are—who you were always meant to be—and it will be challenging. It will require releasing some, or all, of your past ideas about forgiveness, even if you think you’ve already done the heavy lifting. This means you must begin with a clear understanding and faith that the result will be worth the effort. It requires a determination that will transform your very idea of who you are, and what you are capable of.