I’m Not Always Good at Forgiveness — But I Want to Be

the word "forgiveness" drawn in the sand
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

As long-time readers know, on the weekends I run a feature called Psyched for the Weekend. Basically, I do brief takes on new studies or old psychological concepts I find interesting.

At the date of this writing, there are 142 articles in that series. Wow.

As with all my essays, sometimes when I’m writing I feel rather intensely and passionately about the subject. Other times, writing a post is a more cursory experience, where in my own mind I’m quickly summarizing something and getting in and getting out.

And as of now, there’s one strain in research that I’ve covered that has affected me more than any of the others. Not only did it hit me hard when I wrote about it, but it’s continued to linger in my subconscious. To effectively haunt me.

It’s the fact that people are incredibly unforgiving. (I’ve mentioned this study in several subsequent pieces since then, which I will link below for further reading after this essay, if you’re interested.)

To me the idea that people are so unforgiving is incredibly depressing news. Worse news than just about anything else I’ve seen in social science research. Because the reality is that people are also imperfect and prone to making mistakes — even when they’re acting in good faith.

And it’s also personally quite striking to me. Because forgiveness is one of my favorite experiences — no matter what side I find myself on.

Forgiveness Is Solely About Not Feeling Angry or Resentful, Nothing More

forgive (verb) – to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake

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Resentment is heavy. It feels bad.

Even in cases where someone has hurt me, my preference is to impose distance and/or restructure our relationship. But not to seethe about them. Or to feel resentful.

Sometimes people act like forgiveness means you also forget what they did or you allow them to get as close to you again.

But that’s not actually rolled into forgiveness. Those are optional add-ons. The core package does not require this. At all.

All forgiveness means is that you don’t seethe about them.

I’ll be honest: I don’t always do a good job forgiving. But I always want to.

Not because of some high-minded ideal that forgiveness makes you a better person. I don’t see it that way at all.

No, I want to forgive because I don’t like feeling angry or resentful. And I don’t like feeling like the other person is the only one who can take that feeling away. I don’t like feeling like the person who hurt me is the only person with the power to make me feel better about it.

It’s Easy to Grow up Confusing Healthy Boundaries and Resentment, Especially If It Was Modeled for You

But of course, this is easier said than done.

Letting go of resentment can be particularly hard if you grew up around people who interpreted your attempts to set healthy boundaries with them as an attack by you or a sign that you resented them.

And chances are you did. Because it’s very common for people to confuse healthy boundaries and resentment.

I can think of a person I once knew who would request space and a short break from his parents when he got stressed out in conversation and felt emotionally overwhelmed. He didn’t get this. He was instead cornered, angered, and then punished for this anger.

My own mother searched my room when I was a teenager. Not just for more standard threats, like alcohol or drugs (which I did not have). But she also read any notebooks and diaries she found, and not only punished me for anything untoward in them but routinely destroyed them if she found anything objectionable. And not signs of actual misbehavior but smaller misdeeds: Profanity, blasphemy, or even just sheer surrealist weirdness (sometimes literally accounts of dreams I’d had, clearly labeled as such).

Into the flames they all went, all of my writing. My attempts to have a safe place to put thoughts I shouldn’t be speaking aloud were thwarted.

I responded to this by making my creative outlet more secure. I began to write in letter/number cipher substitutions. Essentially, I learned to write in code. And getting a computer as a present from my father made my life even easier, as Mom wasn’t techno savvy at all in those days, and so I could store my writings safely on floppy disks which would remain inscrutable to her. Even password protect them as an additional precaution.

When You Defend Your Boundaries, Some People View It as Punishment or a Sign of Resentment

I noted on a recent trip to visit family in Maine that my mother dumped salad dressing onto my 11-year-old nephew’s salad after he told her he didn’t want any. And continued to pour even as he continued to tell her to stop.

“But it’s good,” she said. “Yum, yum. Ranch makes everything better.”

My husband and I gave her a stern word and a stern look, but Mom was entirely unmoved. Salad dressing you don’t want on your plate is generally not a big deal in isolation (unless you have an allergy or something). But this is how she operates all of the time. And her disrespect for (slash disregard of) other people’s boundaries follows her into the big things, too.

Mom has always been a bit like a cat in that respecting boundaries aren’t her thing. Other people’s boundaries are more of a suggestion than anything else to her, one she will happily ignore if she can. (And not just with children but other adults, as far as I can see.) And the way to get distance from Mom has always been to impose structural barriers rather than exert social pressure or appeal to fairness or kindness.

In the event that you do defend your boundaries in an obvious way, she will begin to interpret the act as a sign that you resent her or are exacting a form of punishment.

Anger Is Just Trying to Do Its Job, But Usually You Have to Make Your Own Fairness and Emotional Closure

Anyway, I’m sure countless other people out there have their own stories. But one thing’s for sure. It’s easy to grow up mixing up self-protection and resentment.

Anger is an emotion, after all, that’s trying to protect us. It’s there to tell us when a situation is unfair. To call our attention to it and perhaps make it so we are motivated to take action to resolve that unfairness.

The trouble is that this is not always possible. At least not to achieve a fairness that is neat and satisfying. One that looks like the tidy emotional closure that’s touted in movies.

Sometimes the only fairness and the only closure we get is the one we create ourselves. The meaning we make from what has happened.

I find a lot of solace in learning lessons from my past. From noting how a particular pain has brought me to a new insight, to a different understanding of myself and what it actually means to be alive. Even if those truths are ugly or disappointing at first, second, or even third blush, there’s usually something unexpected there, if I can bear the pain of examining the wreckage for long enough to find it. Something that I may have missed if I were still wracked with blind anger and in a hurry to get away from it.

And I get a lot of gratification in sharing what I learn with other people. Even if it doesn’t always come out right or make sense.

The act itself of trying is helpful.

Wanting to Get Back to Okay

As I said before, I don’t know how good at forgiveness I actually am. (I suppose it would depend on whom you asked and when.) But I know that I want to forgive. Not because it’s high minded or noble or whatever the heck thing other people like to club you over the head with.

But because it feels better. And because I don’t like depending on the person who hurt me to be the one who needs to also heal me.

Anyway, I find this attitude follows me into my intimate relationships. A few years ago, I wrote an essay called “How Do We Get Back to Okay?” about the way I try to approach relationship fights:

My eyes are raw from crying. As I sit on the downstairs couch, I feel like there are bricks in my chest. If I think carefully through the last hour, I can actually retrace the series of statements that took us here. But he’s sitting upstairs in the bedroom angry and frustrated. Not in the mood to talk about anything. He has his shields up.

I take a deep breath and text the following: How do we get back to okay? I want to be okay, but I don’t see a path to getting there.

A few seconds later, I hear his footsteps moving on the floor above. The sound of the bedroom door opening. Then he’s on the stairs. And finally in my arms. Smoothing down my hair.

We’re both crying.

“This fight is stupid,” I say. “We’re worth more than that, to be arguing over pointless things.”

“Yup,” he says. “Stupid.”

“All we need to make up is a unanimous vote that we want to,” I say. “We’re the only ones who count here.”

The key here is wanting to get back to okay. Wanting to forgive. Wanting to reconnect. To reconcile.

In general, I do. Particularly in my closest relationships.

Forgiveness, Breakups, and Exes

Does this mean I never go through break-ups? No, not at all. I’ve seen my share. (Although I’ve also had relationships that lasted for a decade or more.)

But my impulse when I’m in conflict with someone I care about deeply is to try to find a path away from resentment. Away from anger. My goal in a fight is not to be right but to work through whatever the issue seems to be. Which is easier when people are both invested in finding common ground. In finding a way towards a peaceful resolution. When both people, generally speaking, are primarily concerned with getting back to okay (and less concerned with protecting their own ego).

It’s hard to begin to solve problems when you’re slinging blame back and forth at each other, trying to make one person the scapegoat. Or lashing out and/or being defensive.

Does this mean that every relationship works out? No. That you’re compatible with everyone? No. Sorry to say you aren’t (and that I’m not).

Compatibility is a funny, fiddly thing. I find mine heavily hinges not only on just plain liking a person, being physically attracted to them, and/or thinking they’re a good human being but also on more specific concerns like whether we have shared values in the ways that matter most to me.

But I don’t resent any of my exes. I’m not angry with them (even the ones who left me or hurt or disappointed me while we were together). Does that mean I necessarily like everything that happened between us? No, not necessarily (and I’m sure they’d say the same about me).

But even in situations where great mistakes were made (by me, them, and/or both of us), I am generally glad we dated, because I learned things about the world, other people, and myself.

I’m Not Friends With All of My Exes, But I Don’t Resent Any of Them

Am I friends or even friendly with all of them? No. Some I talk to, some I don’t. And the ones I talk to, some of them I talk to more than others (to be fair though, I can be a bit of a hermit to everyone, even my favorite people, especially when I’m working on a large writing project, which I have been lately).

I do have a few exes in the distant past (we’re talking over 20 years ago) that I consider to be somewhat dangerous people, so I’d never have contact with them, but I don’t feel much at all emotionally when I think about them.

There’s no hot cognition there. No anger. No resentment. It’s actually pretty hard to stir up even if I try to. Even if I sit there on purpose and focus on the things I know were troubling about those relationships. If and when I do write about those former relationships (and others), it’s typically in a state of cold cognition. Where I’m thinking and analyzing but not feeling a lot anymore re: the parts that were once painful.

I’m happy, and life is good, and those experiences are now almost like a story that I know by heart but feels like it happened to someone else. I am not that person anymore. (And in all fairness, maybe neither are they.)

Again it’s not about revenge or rumination. But about creating closure by learning whatever productive lesson I can (and sometimes sharing it).

I Don’t Know How Good At Forgiveness I Am — All I Know Is I Generally Want to Forgive

I know I keep saying this in this essay. But I’ll say it one last time for emphasis — because it’s important to me.

I don’t know how good at forgiveness I actually am. All I know is I generally want to forgive.

And I generally want to be around other people who want to forgive — regardless of how good at it they are.

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Further Reading

Here are the articles I alluded to at the beginning of this post, the ones that reference the research about how unforgiving people generally are:

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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