Forgiveness is a tough subject — and frequently misunderstood by people who need it the most. To quote Buddha, “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
I’ve written about forgiveness before and talk to people every day who are suffering from the loss of their most cherished relationships. Forgiveness and moving on are mightily difficult, especially when you have gotten your heart broken into a million pieces.
The idea of turning the other cheek to someone after getting hurt can feel downright offensive to your pride.
Often, people falsely and superstitiously believe that if they carry the torch of their hurt feelings by withholding forgiveness and refusing to move on, it might somehow change the cold, hard reality of the situation.
Part of the reason that people are hesitant to forgive is that withholding has a few serious potential emotional payoffs that people are really hesitant to admit to.
You get to nurture the mistaken belief that your hurt feelings might somehow change or repair the situation and prevent you from being hurt again.
You get to feel justified about making someone rue the day they hurt you, and fantasize about the day they crawl over on their knees and convince you they’re sorry for breaking your heart.
You get to cling to the last hint of a petty sense of control over a situation where you might otherwise feel completely out of control.
And if you feel angry and wronged right now, I’m not trying to make you feel worse. Nor am I suggesting that your hurt feelings are wrong.
You deserve to feel however you feel. Your feelings are neither right or wrong — they simply are.
However, when you withhold something inherently healthy (in this case, true forgiveness, which provides near-immediate relief from emotional pain), there is some payoff that you’re gaining for the story you get to tell yourself about why you’re staying stuck.
For example: Say you’re holding a bucket of water and you’re standing next to a stranger who is obviously on fire. You can put that fire out right now if you turn and pour the water on them.
Would you pour the water out or keep it for yourself? Seems obvious that you would save the person right?
Now, imagine that water happens to be the last water you get in your life. If you use it to put out that fire, you’re essentially sentencing yourself to death.
Unless you’re a total masochist or have a death wish, you’ll probably keep the water. It suddenly seems crazy to give it away to anyone. The payoff for keeping your water suddenly went off the charts but the only thing that changed was the story about the water.
If you believe you need something, you’ll only grasp it tighter to protect yourself.
If you decided that you need to prevent yourself from ever getting hurt again, you’ll naturally withhold forgiveness since anger is energizing. It helps you feel in control — and this is much comforting than helplessness — which naturally underlies any experience of being hurt.
After all, if you’re actively not forgiving someone, you have gained control over something — your grudge and pain over the whole situation.
But that bid for true control never works because refusing to move on by maintaining that caustic well of anger only backfires by controlling you. The person who hurt you may or may not care about what happened.
No matter how regretful or guilty they happen to feel, their thoughts and feelings don’t have the power to make you feel better.
Your pain comes from you. It stems from your interpretation of any event that happens in your life.
Staying in your pain takes one situation and plays that out cookie-cutter style every day that you hold onto it — keeping that dark coal of pain lit somewhere deep in your psyche.
Even if your pain had the power to make someone else hurt from a distance, all you would accomplish is multiply the hurt around that situation.
Mercy starts with you. So be angry. Be sad. Feel all of your feelings about what happened.
But don’t for a moment think that by withholding your forgiveness and staying stuck in pain, you’re hurting anyone but yourself.
Instead, why not feel your feelings, make your peace and let go?
The relief is worth it.