Letting Go: Choosing Why to Forgive or When to Hang On

It often seems that it’s when we are the most hurt by the acts of others that “just moving on” feels almost impossible.  Part of us wants to “let go,” but a seemingly equal part just can’t.

The harm may have been caused years; maybe even decades ago, but it can still feel raw to the touch.  It may involve someone we loved and trusted; maybe even someone who is still in our life.

Do we forgive or not forgive? 

Do we let go or hang on? 

How do we know what to do?

Here are 5 things to consider as you confront this most challenging of human dilemmas.

(1)  Forgiveness is a process.

Forgiveness is the process of changing our attitude and emotions towards a wrongdoer.  It means, quite simply, someone has wronged us in a way that would seemingly justify us retaliating in some way against them, and we make the conscious choice not to do so. 

As the victim, although we always need to recognize we deserved better treatment from the victimizer, this process shifts our focus and we are driven by the intentional, voluntary desire to forgive. 

The dictionary definition, however, sets forth the scope of what forgiveness entails. It means that we “grant free pardon and give up all claim on account of an offense or debt.”  Translation, forgiveness is a really, really big deal and it takes time to happen. 

If someone hurts us, we’re supposed to have a negative reaction.  The more intimate the relationship and/or the more serious the harm, the longer it can or will take for the process to work itself through.  Be patient with your process.

Sometimes we hang on to an old hurt because we need to learn something for ourselves about what happened and why.  The lack of forgiveness is how we stay connected to what we need to learn about that person or what they did, to make sure we avoid it in the future.

Sometimes even when we forgive, however, we may need to end a relationship because the person’s unacceptable conduct continues.  I can forgive you for saying and doing mean spirited things, and have compassion for whatever happened to you to make you behave that way, but I don’t have to allow you to mistreat me. 

Forgiveness never involves continuing to allow ourselves to be mistreated. 

Forgiveness also doesn’t mean we don’t hold people accountable for their misbehavior and bad acts.  It does mean that we find a way to let go of the “need” to see them punished or that they suffer.

(2)  Forgiveness is ultimately about you.

No one has the right to try make you forgive anyone else.  It’s your gift to give or not; the thing to remember is it’s also most often a gift you are giving to yourself as well as the other person.

Staying resentful at someone who has harmed you to punish them is much like eating poison and expecting the other person to die.  Studies indicate that unforgiving people tend to have greater levels of health and emotional problems than those that choose to forgive. 

A University of Wisconsin – Madison study found that people who are unforgiving tend to be more neurotic, angry and hostile than those who do forgive. Hanging on to resentment, however justified we may feel, ultimately physically and emotionally damages us. 

Forgiveness is also often the step needed to let go of someone from your past whose bad acts, in some way, still hold you prisoner.  Letting go of needing them to be different; or to “get what they did to you,” or to atone for what they did, can be the act that finally allows you to be free of them once and for all.

Until we let go of trying to get an irresponsible person to behave responsibly, we’re often letting them “rent space in our head for free.”

(3)  Forgiveness is only for the strong.

Unfortunately, our culture often confuses dignified restraint with weakness.  Pop culture, especially, seems to venerate those people who constantly lash out at anyone for any slight, real or imagined. 

The truth is, however, that mercy and compassion are virtues of only the strong.  As Mahatma Gandhi so eloquently put it “. . . The weak can never forgive.  Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”

Any creature knows how to lash out when it’s injured; what truly makes us human is our ability to control our impulsive reactions and be “our best selves,” especially when that’s most challenging.

A study in the United Kingdom, in fact, found that when we are forgiving the frontal lobe of our brain, the most evolved area where reasoning, complex thought and problem solving takes place, literally comes “on line” and “lights up.”

In many ways, choosing to forgive gives us back the power that was taken from us by those who harmed us.  Simply put, no one can make me forgive you for the wrong you did me; but me and me alone can choose to do it.

My choice, that choice to forgive you, is testament to my strength, and the fact that what you did to me holds power over me no more!

(4)  Forgiveness is a world view.

To an extent, our ability to forgive may be based on our view of human nature.  A study at the University of Pennsylvania found that when people have the belief that a person’s character is fixed (people are either good or bad and they stay that way) forgiveness seldom happens.

On the other hand, when someone’s core belief is that people can change if they want to, forgiveness happens and trust in someone who hurt you can be re-established.

So if you’re finding it hard to forgive, you may need to inventory your core beliefs about people and the world.  We tend to see our world in ways that support our already existing world views.

(5)  Forgiveness is never required.

Because forgiveness is a process that belongs to you, it is also a choice that you alone can make.  No one can compel you to forgive another.

Sometimes our very safety can be compromised if we forgive without consideration; the classic example is the person with an abusive spouse who forgives and returns to the home after a promise of “It won’t happen again”. 

In some cases, you may feel that what has been done is so abhorrent you simply can’t let it go and although you will not seek retribution, you choose not to forgive.

In cases where behavior affecting your physical and/or emotional well being is involved, a distinction needs to be made between, as the Bible puts it, “the sin and the sinner.”  Unsafe behavior that remains unchanged is still dangerous, and forgiveness of the “sinner” never means turning a blind eye to that danger.

Forgiveness always brings us to a cross road.  It puts us right up against the paradox of life; that it is our freedom to choose how to react, and not our physical, financial, or social strength that makes us truly powerful.

The process of forgiveness is the power to decide who you will be, regardless of what was done to you.  It is in those moments of choice that we can become more than we ever thought we were capable of.

So choose well.

Photo credit:  knowhimonline via Flickr

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