Mirriam-Webster defines ‘forgiveness’ as “the act of forgiving”. Well, that isn’t helpful, so let’s look up the definition for ‘forgiving’. Using a different word provides more clarity in understanding as it states “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender); to give up resentment of or claim to requital”. The definition is a mouthful, yet something clearly stands out in the definition; forgiveness is about you, not the person you’re forgiving. No, no you push back on me saying; but yes, yes I push back at you. The definition of forgiving states “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender)”. Who is forgiving the offender? None other than you! So yes, the definition and the act of forgiveness is more about you emotionally, mentally, and spiritually than the act committed against you.

In no way are we discounting the relevant raw emotions you may have regarding what was done toward you. You are hurting and that is what matters. You were wronged and you are allowed to feel that pain. You are allowed to be in your emotions, to not understand why anyone would do what they did, and be in a daze for days, weeks, and months post the unforgiveable act. Yet, as you make your way through the haze and the clouds begin to dissipate, healing will require forgiveness. You will not be able to be completely healed internally if you have not internally worked through forgiveness. And while forgiveness is absolutely needed to move forward, it is a choice. A choice that you and only you can make.

The list is quite extensive on the many sins that can be done against us that make you want to put up your wall and block others out. Where you question who you are to invite such hostilities/negativity/etc. into your presence. There is no answer as to why such acts have taken place that now leads you to a fork in the road of forgiveness and unforgiveness. I personally like this quote from the Dalai Lama that says:

“If you were shot with an arrow loaded with poison, would you spend the time to ask about why they shot your or who shot you, or where did they come from before removing the arrow?”

The answer is NO! Your focus would be on getting the arrow out of you quickly, figuring out a way to stop the poison from flowing throughout your body, and anything else that must be done to ensure your life is no longer at stake. Your focus would be on you, and later it would shift on who did such a horrible thing to you.

This is the same as it pertains to forgiveness. The healing is about you, not the offender; thus the original definition. Once you reach the place of insight and clarity, to know that in order for you to live your life to its fullest capacity, you must forgive. It won’t happen overnight, or even over a month or two. This takes time and you will slowly walk yourself to that place of awareness and you will begin to see the following:

Forgiveness is NOT…

  • Forgetting what happened

  • Condoning the behaviors of those who have hurt you

  • Justifying the actions of yourself or others

  • A guarantee of reconciliation

  • A way to ensure that those who are being forgiven understand, will change, or will accept your forgiveness

  • Something that is used as a bargaining tool to ensure others understand

  • A guarantee that “things will be done right the next time”

  • Something that will change your past

  • Losing who you are in the process

Forgiveness IS…

  • Forgiving yourself

  • Letting go of all hope of a better past

  • Making the conscious choice to move forward

  • Choosing to release yourself from the pain, stress, and resentment you have been holding on to

  • Evidence that we trust ourselves and are seeking resolution

  • Setting boundaries to ensure it doesn’t happen again

  • Accepting responsibility and showing yourself compassion

When I work with individuals and they struggling with moving on, internal forgiveness, I ask “what can the person tell you that will make you say it is okay what they did?”. And when people are insistent to hear the words “I’m sorry” I ask them “what if the person never says I’m sorry to you?”. I see the face look a little bewildered and the lightbulb moment happens. Truly, what do you gain from holding onto hurts? The person who wronged you is continuing to live their life, smile, and do what they do best while you are sitting back hitting the replay button in your mind. Repeatedly you are choosing to remind yourself of every gesture, word spoken, each pain and more your offender did against you. Eventually this becomes exhausting. You no longer can keep up with your racing thoughts, the anger you feel inside is boiling, and you are breaking down every way possible. If this is happening to you, then it’s time to heal and that means it’s time to forgive.

Remember, forgiveness is about you, not them. You want to live your life without constraints. To do so, review the list above about what forgiveness is not and reach out to talk as you navigate this process. You don’t have to do it alone if you feel it’s too much for you.

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Dr. Chemika Burkhalter, LCSW, MCLC

Dr. B is a licensed clinical therapist and a master certified life coach with a client-centered emphasis and a love for helping people navigate their way to the “aha” moment.