Forgiveness: It’s More Complicated Than You May Think

by Kassandra Lamb ~ I recently went to a spiritual retreat that was centered around forgiveness. I unloaded some of my own emotional baggage, but I was also reminded that this thing called forgiveness, it’s more complicated than most people think it is.

photo by Alex Shute on

(This is Part 1 of a multi-part series. I don’t know how long it will be yet, because, well…it’s complicated. Probably 3 parts.)

What we think Forgiveness is vs. what it really is.

It’s easy to assume we understand forgiveness. Someone does something to you and you forgive them for it. Right?

But what does that mean exactly? Are they off the hook now? With no accountability for whatever they did?

And should we then truly “forget about it?” (More on this in Part II)

Say someone bumps into you with their cart in the grocery store. They immediately say they’re sorry. You say, “No problem.” And you both go your merry way.

If someone asked you a few minutes later if you had truly forgiven that person, you would say, “Of course.” No harm was intended, not much harm (if any; maybe a tiny bruise) was actually done, they apologized (took responsibility for their actions), you excepted the apology.

Actually first you might say “What person?” Because you’ve already stopped thinking about the incident. You’ve let it go.

photo by Brett Jordan on

That’s what forgiveness is. It’s letting go!

And it’s also the LAST step in the letting-go process; not the first.

Timing is everything!

Often people try to rush forgiveness. They may feel that they’re a bad person if they don’t forgive quickly.

But true forgiveness cannot be rushed. A lot of other stuff has to happen first.

When someone does us harm—hurts us physically, hurts our feelings, offends us—our first and totally natural response is anger.

“Hey,” we might call out in an angry tone, when the other person’s cart rams our leg.

Anger is an incredibly important human emotion that often is not given its due. It is the emotion that gives us the strength and courage to defend ourselves. Without anger, our species would have long since died out.

Feelings first, then Forgiveness

So we have these hurt and angry feelings because we perceive that someone has done us wrong. Those feelings have to be dealt with first.

If we try to suppress them because we think we should forgive now instead of later, our forgiveness is a sham! Let me say that another way: if you force yourself to forgive before you’ve dealt with the other feelings, you are not truly forgiving. You just think that you are.

As I’ve said in other posts, three things have to happen for a feeling to go away.

First, we have to acknowledge what the feeling is really about.

This sometimes means digging deeper into our psyches, something we humans are not always comfortable with.

But if you want your forgiveness to be genuine, it’s necessary. We have to analyze the situation a bit and see if there’s a deeper layer to our hurt feelings.

What is at the core of that hurt? A sense of betrayal, an attack on our integrity, on our sense of identity…?

The second thing that needs to happen for feelings to dissipate (in this case, hurt and anger) is some kind of resolution of the conflict.

photo by Joshua Fuller on

Conflict? What conflict?

Whether there’s been an open confrontation or not, if you are feeling hurt and angry, then some kind of conflict has occurred and/or is still occurring (sometimes, the remaining conflict is mainly inside yourself).

That conflict has to be resolved IN SOME WAY.

The resolution may be the offending party realizing the error of their ways and apologizing. That makes it much easier to release the feelings.

But what if they don’t do this? What if they won’t own nor apologize for their actions?

That makes resolving the conflict more difficult, but not impossible. Because ultimately forgiveness is not about the other person. It’s about you—letting go of those emotions that interfere with your health and happiness.

We’ll explore that situation further in Part II of this series, but there are ways that one can reach a sense of resolution within one’s own heart and psyche, without the other party’s cooperation.

The third requirement for a feeling to dissipate?

It has to be expressed in some fashion, although not necessarily directly at the person who triggered the feeling. Emotion is energy, and it needs to “move” out of our system. We usually have to do something physically to move that energy out.

But that doesn’t have to be yelling at the person we’re angry with. It can be journaling about our hurt/angry feelings (writing is movement), or writing a letter to that person that we never send. Speaking is also movement; we can vent about it to a friend. One of my favorites is a therapy approach called the “empty chair technique.” You imagine the person sitting in a real chair (that is actually empty, but you visualize them sitting there), and then you tell them off in absentia.

And of course, crying is also movement. Having a good cry, once we’ve identified the true nature of the feelings, can get them out of our system.

One additional step for Forgiveness to occur

photo by sincerely media on

Part of what makes forgiveness more complicated than dealing with emotions in general is this additional step in the process. You have to feel safe from future harm from that person.

Keep in mind that anger is part of our ability to protect ourselves; it gives us the strength and courage to stand up for ourselves. If we forgive someone who might very well hurt us again, we are giving up that protective resource.

But hanging on to anger to stay safe is exhausting. How do we stay safe (emotionally as well as physically) without having to hold on to feelings that are harmful for us? There are ways to do this.

And this brings us back to what happens when the other party won’t own their actions. That definitely makes forgiveness more complicated!

So stay tuned for the next installment—Part II: Forgiveness When They Won’t Apologize.

Also, there will be more in future posts on what true forgiveness feels like, and on why it isn’t about the other person.

Your thoughts? What makes forgiveness more complicated for you?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, and the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida. Plus she has started a new police procedural series, also set in Florida—The C.o.P. on the Scene mysteries. And she writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.

Misterio press produces an array of quality crime fiction. We post here twice a month, usually on Tuesdays, to alert you to new releases, to entertain, and to inform.

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  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    March 22, 2022 at 1:33 pm

    I should note that this is written from the psychological perspective, not any particular religious or spiritual perspective.

  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    March 22, 2022 at 3:24 pm

    Great post, Kass! I’ve been coming around to the idea that forgiveness is more for the injured party than for the one doing the injury. Though I’m sure it can be helpful to both!

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    March 22, 2022 at 7:14 pm

    Both parties clearing the air is always preferable. But yes, getting those feelings out of the injured one’s own system is so important for mental health.

  • Reply
    Vicki Batman
    March 23, 2022 at 11:00 am

    A woman said hurtful things to me and I couldn’t let go. My friend says every time you think about this, play your favorite song. Eventually, all will go away. She was right.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 23, 2022 at 2:32 pm

      That’s a good technique, Vicki, for countering the ruminating that we can get caught up in when we’re feeling hurt and angry. The tendency to go over the offending situation in our heads is natural but not usually all that helpful.

      I’m thinking I should add something about that tendency in a future installment.

  • Reply
    March 23, 2022 at 5:30 pm

    I love the part about not rushing the process. Giving yourself the grace to feel your feelings and to realize that it’s human to grapple with them. Also, realizing that forgiveness does not mean condoning–I can forgive someone without condoning or accepting their actions… Great topic!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      March 23, 2022 at 11:27 pm

      Amen to all of that, Lori. “Giving yourself the grace to feel your feelings…” I love the way you phrased that!

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