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Stop Trying to Forgive People

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

I used to conduct “Forgiveness Rituals”. The participants would write down the name of the person they need to forgive on a piece of paper, and when they were ready to release their grudge they'd throw it in the fire. More times than not people were unable to throw the entire paper in the fire.

Well, maybe they were “able".

Perhaps they were just unwilling?

After a while I observed that most people feel the need to hang on to at least a piece of their victimhood story, so I lowered the bar. Rather than release the entire grudge, I'd walk them through a process of identifying exactly how much of the story they were willing to let go of. We began with 90% and slowly moved down from there. If they were willing to release just 10% of the grudge, they’d tear 10% of the paper and throw it in the fire.

They’d tuck the remaining 90% in their pocket and leave the ceremony with most of their story - and pain - intact. When presented with an opportunity to choose complete peace, it was mind-boggling to see how easy it was for folks to opt out. Even when informed it was a matter of choice, most people clung to that painful story like a man clings to the side of a cliff.

In “Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can”, Carolyn Myss coins the term “woundology”: the formation of an identity that organizes itself around a wound. According to the Halexandria Foundation, woundology is "a form of scapegoatology which means outside events and others are blamed for what a wounded person experiences.”

Lets face it: when we say we’re "working on forgiving" someone, what we’re really saying is we’re unwilling to let go of a story. The story fuels painful emotions. The energy from trauma gets trapped in the nervous system, and the mind nourishes a narrative to keep it alive.

Many of us get a perverse pleasure from holding onto stories that hurt us. When given the opportunity to release it and experience the freedom and peace that comes from dropping a story, most people will choose to hang on to what’s familiar. There’s a certain kind of comfort in that, admit it.

This began as my Mother’s Day post. It was going to be for all the son’s & daughters out there working on forgiving your mothers. Or your fathers. Or your ex.

Last week Social Media was awash with Mother’s Day tributes. It was lovely, of course.

Occasionally, between the standard “I’m grateful to have the best mother in the whole world” somebody drums up the courage to admit: “Um, actually, my mother wasn’t so great.”

I spent a good portion of my adulthood inside that work. If you’ve ever been abused by a parent or any authority figure, you know what I’m talking about. Forgiving parents, perpetrators and abusers is an ideal, if you can reach it. This is what healing looks like, we’re told. So either we become angry, bitter old people or we work hard at forgiving. It’s not just about forgiving mothers, but also fathers, priests, abusive teachers, hostile bosses, Boy Scout leaders, former boyfriends, toxic husbands, wives, and so on.

Memes and sound bites about forgiveness shine through like light slipping thru the cracks in a dark IG. They’re usually accompanied by a bible passage or a profound statement from a guru, Pema Chodron, or Oprah.

Forgiveness = Freedom. Right?

We all want to feel peace. So if you’re having trouble forgiving, we're told, that’s a sign its time to get into therapy. Thus enters the “I’m working on it” phase.

I spent about 3 decades inside that phase. Eventually I didn’t even know what it would feel like to not carry that story around. My identity was wrapped up in it: This is who I am because of what happened.

What about you, reader? Who are you working on forgiving?

Here’s a concept: if it were so liberating and joyful, it wouldn’t be called “work”.

“Working on it” is a fancy way of saying "this can't be done by simply dropping it". Too easy. The “work” is actually making the decision to drop what you’re holding. That’s a decision. That’s not a process.

I hear a lot of clients tell me about things they want to change. They usually say, “I’m working on it.”

I’ve never had anyone who was really winning say “I”m working on it.”

The people who are winning say, “This is what I am doing.”

Maybe “working on it” is a metaphor for “I’m not doing it yet”, or “I’ve decided to cling to it”.

I went to every kind of therapy in the book over the span of 30 years. I "worked on" forgiveness like a coal miner. It took most of my life to realize that forgiveness is a red-herring.

I was clinging to a story that I was culturally & genetically inclined toward holding grudges, so in that story I had no choice. I practiced hanging onto the story that would guarantee to keep my anger fresh. I remained tethered to the past without even realizing it. Every time I replayed the memory of what had been done to me I dug deeper into the past. I created from that place for so many years my life began to look like Groundhog Day.

When we hang onto stories of victimhood, no matter how valid the experience was, the clinging ensures we remain victims. True Story: Too many of us get an awful lot of benefits from clinging to that identity.

When engaging in “forgiveness work”, the “work” isn’t around the person victimizing you. It’s around the narrative that “I’ve been victimized and therefore that means (fill in the blank).

Suffering grudges and resentments gains traction when we reinforce them with more data to confirm their validity. The data doesn’t have to be valid. Research tells us we embellish old memories with more intense emotion, thus modifying the memory each time we access it. Most memories are embellished and modified to some degree, but the more we feed them the more “real” they become.

“Forgiveness work” is like trying to get blood from a rock because freedom can never come from clinging to a page from the past. Even if your work is to change the story and pretty it up. No matter what new story you come up with, there’s still a story you have to gyrate your mind through like a kid climbing the monkey bars.

How about this: Drop the story entirely. If you feel like you need to work on forgiveness its because you’re still giving power to the story. Allow for the possibility that your story is limited, incomplete, or entirely wayward. Take the power out of the story and there’s nothing to forgive.

The “work” isn’t around forgiving anybody.

The “work” is around releasing my iron-clad grip on a story I’ve been carrying around.

The “work” is around detaching from the identifications I’ve claimed as a result of the story, with names like “victim”, “survivor”, “traumatized”, “damaged”, and so on.

The “work” is a lot less work than we think it is.

I want to thank my mother her for all the "mistakes" she made.

She wasn't without flaw. In fact, in general she was often a serious challenge for me as a child. Because of that, I have been gifted with precious traits to work with, acknowledge, love & heal.

My mother taught me that there is nobody who has just "one" mother. Indeed, my mother was a living, growing, evolving being who presented many different faces in her life.

She inspired me to continue re-creating myself, continue giving birth to new dimensions of my wholeness.

That was the gift of my mother.

Thank you. I love you forever, mom. I don’t forgive you for anything.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If this moved you to think more deeply or broadly and you’d like to explore how working with me might benefit you, here's my calendar link to make finding time easy. Just click the link and plug in the time you like, and we’ll talk. Looking forward to connecting with you! #forgiveness #Possibilities #Relationships #MothersDay #Trauma #woundology #CarolynMyss #scapegoatology #rituals

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