(The following is an excerpt from chapter 9, pages 189-193 of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life)
Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Holding on to anger, hurt, or sadness based on others’ past actions, thoughts, and comments has a corrosive effect on you. So being unwilling or unable to forgive and move on hurts you, not the other person. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself, not someone else.
Acceptance is the last of the five stages of grief. It symbolizes that you’ve processed the loss and are ready to look at the future and less to the past. It’s not that you’re glad about the loss, but that you’re not stuck in it forever.
Forgiveness and acceptance are natural complements: forgiveness helps us move to acceptance, and vice versa.
Forgiveness can be a lightning rod topic for so many people. “He doesn’t deserve my apology!” or “I’ve done nothing wrong so I’m not asking her to forgive me for anything!” But it’s not about them. It’s about what holding on to these negative thoughts is doing to you.
At this point it’s no longer about whatever happened, it’s about the time it takes up in your life, and the space it takes up in your head. It’s taken on a life of its own. That’s when you know it’s really time to accept and forgive.
It doesn’t matter what you call it. Whether you choose to call it forgiveness, letting it go, apology, moving on, refusing to bear a grudge, there’s no need to get caught up in the label. For forgiveness to work, you have to find a way you can open a door in a dispute, even just a tiny bit, to see what happens, without feeling any sense of loss or compromise of your personal values. We call this practical forgiveness.
Practical forgiveness is for you and not the other person. It’s difficult to believe this until you experience it personally, so we encourage you to prove it to yourself by giving it a try.
The Meaning of Forgiveness
Some people are reluctant to “forgive” based on a misunderstanding of what forgiveness is. The way you’re going to practice it is completely neutral and natural, free of any “shoulds.” Forgiveness is entirely personal and will come in time, when you embrace the concept and its benefits and you’re ready to try.
Practical forgiveness does not mean that:
- You weren’t hurt or shouldn’t have been hurt.
- What happened was okay.
- You must have a relationship with the person who hurt you (except in the case of divorcing spouses who want to effectively co-parent).
- You should forget, deny, or ignore what happened.
- You have to excuse the other person.
- You can feel morally superior and condemning toward the person you forgive.
- You can demand an apology or reparation.
- All your painful feelings are resolved at once.
- You must go along to get along, even if it means being abused.
- You will go back to the way things were before.
- Making forgiveness a natural part of your relationships with others will make it easier to practice.
The Blame Game
When you get caught in the blame game, you get stuck and you can’t forgive. The problem with this is that although you may be right and the other person is wrong, as you dwell on this trespass, it’s taking up space in your brain. It’s present in your thoughts and continues to make you upset even though the incident is long past. You’re continuing to be “punished,” yet you did nothing wrong. This is why learning to forgive is so important and why it’s something you do for yourself, not someone else.
Holding on to blame echoes the same issues as not being willing to forgive. When we are hurting, the last place we look for the source of our pain is within. On some level, it just does not compute that we would purposely injure ourselves.
We immediately look to the environment to seek revenge for how bad we feel. Shifting blame feels terrific. We are absolved of any responsibility for our own upset and get all kinds of attention from compassionate friends when we vent and grouse. Blame has the same counterproductive, corrosive issues as refusing to forgive.
If you have held on to a grudge for longer than a month, you may already realize that it doesn’t feel very good after all. Grudge holding has many druglikequalities. It feels good to wallow in self-righteousness, smug that you’re right and the other person is wrong. After a while you find the buzz has worn off but you’re addicted. You can’t let go of this wrong that’s been done to you. Who cares if your complaint is even true at this point? Holding on to this negativity is eating you alive.
Who Does Forgiveness Benefit?
Forgiveness is a paradox. We are accustomed to thinking that when we give something to someone else, they gain and we give something up. When you forgive someone else, it benefits you. This is entirely illogical to our human sense of giving. Only experience will show you this is true. Forgiving will not make you a better person; you already are a good person. Forgiving will make your life easier.
She is the co-author of Making Divorce Work: 8 Essential Keys to Resolving Conflict and Rebuilding Your Life (Penguin/Perigee 2010) (Simon & Schuster/Fireside 2001) and writes for the Huffington Post, as well as her own blog, Making Divorce Work.