Ask Us: Why Can’t I Forgive?

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.“– C.S. Lewis

In this post we will briefly answer a question that was asked by one of our clients. Here is today’s question:

“I recently learned that my husband had been unfaithful to me. When it came to light, he was totally repentant and remorseful about the whole thing. He says it is over. It is in the past. It is something that will never happen again. The problem is, I can’t forgive him, and just move on. No matter how much he wants me to do that. I want to believe him, but how can I believe him? There are days when I look at him and think to myself: “I will never, ever trust a word you say again.”

I’m constantly triggered and have panic attacks. I also find myself going over and over everything he said, and everything that happened. How can you forgive when you’re dealing with all this?”

It sounds like you have been through a lot, and may currently be dealing with PTSD. I would also say it is understandable that you feel it’s very hard to forgive right now.

Here are a few of my thoughts on this …

1. The fact that you are triggered, and you keep remembering things, and the fact that it is so hard to let go of what has happened, are signs that you have started to look out for yourself.

These are healthy signs of appropriate self-protection. It’s absolutely right that you listen to concerns and make sure your safety and protection come first. This leads me to point no2.

2. Through these instinctive reactions, your subconscious mind is saying: “You need to be more careful, and you need to stay alert. You could be badly hurt again if you forgive, and just move on. You need to pay attention. You don’t want to be naive.”

If he was willing to betray you and deceive you in the past, of course he could betray you and deceive you again. Words count for nothing in this kind of situation. To trust, you’re going to need substantial evidence.

3. This resistance to forgive is an act of pure self-love For your subconscious mind and core self are telling you:

I care about what happens, and I’m looking out for you. I am watching to make sure that no-one ever hurts or harms you. I’ll always be there for you. I won’t abandon you.

These 3 points indicate your mind is trying to protect you. And by rushing to forgive we do ourselves a great disservice.

For now, forget forgiveness. You are processing a trauma.

And processing that trauma must take priority.

The Weak and the Strong

always defend your right to heal at ypur own pace

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

I wonder what you make of a quote like this?

Most of us think highly of Mahatma Gandhi; and yet I feel uneasy when I think about these words. For the quote conveys the message that you’re lacking character if you feel you can’t forgive, or you don’t want to forgive.

And, yes, it’s easy to forgive when it is just a minor matter. It would be petty and small-minded to bear a grudge like that. But if you’re seriously mistreated or the cut is raw and deep, then forget about forgiving. It’s a low priority.

For …

The open wound must be cleaned out; the pain must be anesthetized. You might require stitches; then the scar tissue must form. And you’ll need to take it easy, to slow down, and let things heal. This is going to take a while – for nature has its own timeline.

And it doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you’re practising self-care. And you’re doing what is needed. You are putting first things first.

It’s an appropriate reaction. It’s an act of self-respect.

Someone left you bruised and beaten, lying in a pool of blood.

So the order must be right … You need to work on healing first. For the wound could get infected if you don’t attend to it.

And it’s wrong to say forgiving is the proof that we are strong.

When you’re traumatized and bleeding, it takes strength to rise again.

It takes strength to heal the damage, then enforce good boundaries.

It takes strength to say “I matter”, and my healing matters most.


The Long and Painful Journey to Forgive

none of us wants to have our life story2.PNG

“The work of forgiveness is not easy. It is not an effortless act for any of us, and it does not serve anyone to minimize the complexity involved in the work of forgiving. No, forgiving is not easy, but it is the path to healing.”

These insightful words were penned by Desmond Tutu, Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in South Africa. If you’re aware of the abuses that the people suffered there – false accusations, torture, murder, and so on – then you’ll agree he understands that it’s hard to forgive.

And if you’ve been betrayed, you have suffered beyond words. The damage that it does to your heart, soul and mind are almost unbelievable, and shouldn’t be downplayed. We’re talking about trauma that can resonate for years.

And, of course, you’ve heard forgiving can help you to move on. But that kind of injustice and sorrow grip your heart. They grip it like a vice. How on earth do you forgive? To be honest, it can feel like it’s impossible.

However, The Forgiveness Cycle or The Fourfold Path might be something that could help you with your journey to forgive.  Here’s a summary of what the four steps entail:

STEP 1: Telling the Story – Recall all the incidents that form the narrative. Assemble all the pieces of your experience. These are all the facts. It is shocking – but it’s true. It hurts so much, and it happened to you.

However, if your story can be witnessed and be heard by someone else, then the burden is relieved. You don’t carry it alone.  And that is very healing when you’re deeply traumatized.

“Telling the story is how we get our dignity back after we have been harmed. It is how we begin to take back what was taken from us, and how we begin to understand and make meaning out of our hurting.”

STEP 2: Naming the Hurt – A hurt that is denied or is forcefully repressed will always find a way to resurface in our lives – through depression, self-rejection, or through hurting someone else.

“When we give voice to our hurt, it loses its stranglehold on our lives and our identities. It stops being the central character in our stories.” 

STEP 3: Granting Forgiveness – It is hard for forgiveness to take root in our heart. It requires an acceptance of “You did this to ME.” And you rightly feel indignant for you didn’t deserve this. Your reaction’s very normal … And you should protect yourself. You can’t be used and hurt – for you would end being destroyed.

At the same, you’re aware that you would like to be free, too. You don’t want to stayed tethered to the damage and the hurt.

“We choose forgiveness because it is how we move from victim to hero. A victim is in a position of weakness and subject to the whims of others. Heroes are people who determine their own fate and their own future … But forgiving does not come easy or cheap. We must choose forgiveness over and over again.”

STEP 4: Renewing or Releasing the Relationship – Only you can make the choice to release and walk away, or to renew and reinvest in the relationship again. And releasing is a valid, and a safer, choice at times – especially if you think the person hasn’t really changed. Also, if you choose to reinvest in the relationship with them, it cannot be the same – it has to be on different terms.

“Ask yourself what you need to renew or release a relationship …  Your decision to renew or release may well hinge on whether you get what you need. You may need that person to listen to your story and hear the hurt you have experienced. Also, you may need to know the perpetrator is remorseful before you renew the relationship, and be assured it won’t happen again.”

Let me finish with some truths related to forgiveness. I hope that these will help you if you’re on this road just now:

  • Forgiveness is hard – It takes a lot of effort. It means being willing to hang in there, and keep working on it.
  • Being willing to forgive doesn’t mean you’re weak. It takes tremendous courage, and real strength of character.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean “they get away with it”. The facts and still the facts, and they are still accountable.
  • Forgiveness doesn’t mean “you just forget it and move on”. It means recalling all the pain, and all the damage it has done.
  • Forgiveness will take time – usually a lot of time. As with grief, the healing cycle is repeated many times, before you feel you’re free, and are now able to forgive.

Note: All quotes are from: Tutu, D. (2014). The book of forgiving: The fourfold path for healing ourselves and our world. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Please don’t Tell me to “Forgive” Again

you may have to fight a battle more than once.PNG

Forgiveness is a difficult, and somewhat touchy, topic. It’s something we are ‘told’ that we ought to offer others. But ask anyone, and you’re likely to hear that forgiveness is a struggle if you’ve been hurt and betrayed.  And perhaps its not surprising that this should be the case.

Here are some of my thoughts on the matter.

  1. Feeling that it’s hard to forgive and start again (even if, in your mind, you really want to forgive) is a primal, instinctive, self-protective response. The reason’s not surprising: if we let the barriers down and open up our heart, then our trust could be betrayed. So our brain seeks to protect us from further injury.
  2. We fear that forgiveness – or too quick, or forced, forgiveness – could have the effect of minimising the betrayal, and the extent of the damage and the pain that it has caused. Irritations and annoyances don’t really damage us so it’s relatively easy to move on, and let those go. But betrayal devastates us, and changes who we are. It’s a wound that’s hard to heal, and a serious injury.
  3. When we’ve been wounded by betrayal, it is not a single wound. Yes, there’s a major breach of trust; but there are other losses too. There’s the loss of hopes and dreams, of reputation and respect, the loss of peace of mind, and the life you thought you had. Also, there may be serious risks to health due to unwanted STDs, to PTSD, or stress-related illness. So the losses can feel endless – which makes them hard to forgive. It can feel too overwhelming when you’re in a fragile state.
  4. Related this, there are triggers we are battling, and which stop us in our tracks. They remind us of the fact that our healing’s NOT complete.

Although being able to forgive is liberating in the end, as it means we’re less attached to the emotional pain, it’s ridiculous to think that it should happen “just like that!”

It’s going to be a journey, and will take a lot of time, and it won’t mean that the anguish won’t resurface constantly.

Let me finish with some final thoughts from the book Out of the Doghouse:

Forgiveness is a process, not an event. It doesn’t happen all at once, and it is usually given only when earned, rather than when it’s requested. So if you want forgiveness, you can apologize a million times hoping it will appear, but you won’t get it until you’ve earned it … Forgiveness is not something you should ever expect or demand from anyone, let alone your betrayed spouse. Forgiveness will come when she has done hating you and when trust is restored.

For you, forgiveness may mean, ‘Phew. She loves me again and we are moving on.’ To her, though, it means letting you back into her heart that once again puts you in a position to either love or hurt her. That’s a pretty big difference … You will have to feel the pain you have caused, experience your consequences without becoming defensive, and become rigorously honest in all aspects of life. If you can do that, she will eventually forgive you.”

Maybe …. Hopefully …. Eventually.