After a few posts on body image, wardrobe management, and transitioning to gray hair, it’s time to switch gears and pivot back to the realm of personal relationships. In the next two posts, I’m going to cover a difficult topic when it comes to relating to others: forgiveness. I wrote about that subject a few times on my first blog (this one is number five!), The Healing Project, back in 2010. If you’d like to read those essays, they are archived HERE.
In today’s post, I highlight what forgiveness is and why we should endeavor to do it. I also summarize the three different types of forgiveness and the situations to which they apply. This information comes from an excellent video from Prager University, featuring psychiatrist Steven Marmer. I’ve also heard Dr. Marmer interviewed on this topic and found his ideas on forgiveness both interesting and helpful. While you can certainly watch the video on your own and learn the information, I hope my summary will enable you to better internalize the concepts. I have watched the video probably ten times at this point, but writing this blog post deepened my comprehension of the material considerably. My next post will offer guidance on how to more easily forgive those who have wronged you.
What is Forgiveness?
Psychologists define forgiveness as a deliberate decision to release feelings of anger, resentment, or vengeance toward someone who has hurt you. In contrast, “unforgiveness” is marked by a mix of bitterness, hostility, anger, and fear. Holding a grudge or aiming for revenge can sap our ability to find peace and happiness, but finding a way to forgive without giving up our principles is no easy task. However, if we can find a way to do so, we will reap many benefits. Studies have found that those who score higher on measures of forgiveness are less depressed, sleep better, use less medicine, have more energy, and enjoy improved cardiovascular health and better life satisfaction.
While we are all familiar with the word “forgiveness,” it is actually inadequate in describing a very complex concept. In fact, Dr. Marmer suggests that forgiveness actually implies three different things, each of which applies to distinct situations and produces diverse results. The three types of forgiveness are:
This is what we generally have in mind when we think of the word forgiveness. Exoneration essentially means that the slate is completely wiped clean and the relationship is fully restored to its previous sense of innocence. Basically, exoneration means to “forgive and forget,” as the old saying goes. When you exonerate someone, it’s as if the harmful action never took place at all.
Part of the reason why it can be so difficult to forgive those who have committed transgressions against us is that we believe forgiveness always means wiping the slate clean. As you will see later in this essay, that isn’t necessarily the case, but there are three types of situations in which exoneration is appropriate:
- The hurtful situation was a complete accident for which no fault or blame can be applied. In the video, a knocked over glass of wine is shown, but there are many other types of honest accidents that could apply. We all make mistakes and sometimes the appropriate response to such failings is to forgive completely.
- The person who committed the offense is a child or someone who wasn’t capable of understanding the implications of their actions. In these situations, the person wronged also holds positive or loving feelings toward the offender. The video shows a child drawing on the walls, but I remember ripping up a Palm Sunday palm at a friend’s house when I was young. I wasn’t raised with that tradition, so I had no idea I was doing something wrong (I thought what I was playing with was a remnant of a plant or something dragged inside). This is a relatively minor offense, but it was one that popped into my mind while watching the video.
- The person who hurt you is truly sorry and takes full responsibility for his or her actions. They don’t make excuses, they ask for forgiveness, and they also provide you with the necessary confidence that the bad action will not be repeated in the future. I believe that even in the event of an accident, as mentioned in #1 above, an apology and asking for forgiveness can go a long way towards facilitating exoneration.
In these three situations, Dr. Marmer feels that it’s essential for the wronged individual to accept the offender’s apology and grant them the full forgiveness of exoneration. Doing so will lead both people to feel a lot better, whereas failing to offer forgiveness can actually be harmful to the wronged person’s well-being. Furthermore, not being willing to forgive may signal that there is something more wrong with you than with the person who hurt you.
This second level of forgiveness applies when an offender either makes a partial apology or lessens their apology by suggesting that you are also partially to blame for their wrongdoing. They may even explicitly state that you did something to cause them to behave badly. While an apology may in fact be offered here, it’s usually not what was hoped for and may feel inauthentic (the often heard, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “If I did anything to upset, I’m sorry,” come to mind). Forbearance comes into play when the relationship at hand is one that matters to you. If the person is someone who is important in your life, you should exercise forbearance even if you bear no responsibility for what happened.
Forbearance means that you should stop dwelling on the offense, release any grudges you hold, and banish all revenge fantasies. However, unlike exoneration, the slate is not wiped completely clean with forbearance. Instead, it’s recommended that the person offering forbearance maintain a degree of watchfulness over the other person. This is similar to “forgive but don’t forget” or “trust but verify.” With forbearance, you’re able to continue relationships with people who are important to you but who may not be fully trustworthy, at least at the present time.
An example for my life when I exercised forbearance was when a relative shared something I told her in confidence with other family members. When I confronted her about this behavior, she gave a half-hearted apology along with the excuse of, “But they’re family.” Even after I explained to her that it should be my decision who I do or don’t share information with, she demurred and insisted that these other family members had a right to know. I forgave her, but I am very guarded about what I share with her now. I only tell her things that I’m okay with other people knowing as well.
In some instances, forbearance is a temporary situation. If the person who hurt you maintains good behavior for a long enough period of time, they may be able to earn back your trust. If this happens, forbearance can give way to the full forgiveness of exoneration. The time required for this to happen will of course vary and some relationships will always require a cautious and watchful approach. For example, many adult children are able to forgive their parents for past negative actions perpetrated during childhood, but they remain wary whenever they engage with them. This may be because the parent never fully accepted responsibility for previous wrongs, and it may also be due to poor behavior in more recent interactions. In either case, exoneration is not merited, but forbearance enables the relationship to continue on a healthier and more positive ground.
Release is the lowest level of forgiveness and applies to situations in which the person who hurt you has never acknowledged any wrongdoing. He or she has either never apologized or has offered an incomplete or insincere apology. Apology or not, no reparations have been given and the perpetrator has done little or nothing to improve the relationship. Some examples of where release may apply include:
- Survivors of child abuse
- Business people cheated by partners
- Betrayal by friends or relatives
The hair color issue that I wrote about in my last post applies here, as the stylist neither apologized to me nor accepted responsibility for any part of what happened. The fact that she has never apologized and basically washed her hands of me has made it far more difficult for me to forgive her and let go of the situation. While I know that extending my gray hair transition by as much as a year is not nearly as serious an offense as child abuse or deep betrayal by a loved one, it’s still something that has been very hurtful and difficult for me to deal with.
Even though it is hard for us to forgive people in these types of situations, Dr. Marmer believes that we should in fact do so. The solution here is release, which is a much lower level of forgiveness than exoneration or even forbearance. With release, you don’t even need to continue the relationship, but you do need to let go of your bad feelings and preoccupation with the negative thing that happened to you. Release demands that you stop defining your life by the hurt done to you, and it allows you to let go of the burden placed upon your psyche. This burden is like a silent “tax” that weighs you down and erodes your ability to be happy and enjoy peace of mind.
If you do not release the pain and anger and move past dwelling on old hurts and betrayals, you are essentially allowing the person who hurt you to live rent-free inside your mind. Holding on to past hurts and betrayals means that you continue to relive the original event over and over again, which takes a strong toll on your enjoyment of life. In contrast, release liberates you from the tyranny of re-experiencing your traumatic past and enables you to move on with your life.
While it would be nice to be able to fully forgive – exonerate – all those who have harmed us, this isn’t always possible. Even the more provisional type of forgiveness that is forbearance isn’t always an option in certain situations and relationships. But failing to let go of the past hurts us more than it will ever hurt the people who have done us wrong. Having the option of release available to us can take away a lot of our burden and allow us to live more positive and fulfilling lives. Of course, releasing the pain and resentment is easier said than done and may require both time and a concerted effort. My next post will focus on factors, tips, and strategies to enable us to exercise the various forms of forgiveness.
In the meantime, however, I’d like to hear from you:
- What are your thoughts on the three levels of forgiveness?
- Can you think of examples of when you have exercised exoneration, forbearance, and release?
- What makes it easier or harder for you to forgive someone?
- How has being able to forgive positively impacted your life?
- How has holding onto to past hurts affected you?
- What tips do you have for those who are struggling to let go of something?
I welcome your thoughts in response to the questions above, as well as on anything I have covered in this post. As always, I look forward to reading your insights.