I grew up believing that showing forgiveness was the ultimate sign of sainthood. Forgiveness for a long time to me was the crème de la crème of piety; the absolute epitome of everything that defines a “holy” person.
For most of my life, I’ve believed that forgiveness is about forgetting, it’s about wiping the slate clean and starting over again, it’s about miraculously blotting out any deed that has ever harmed us from memory.
Once upon a time, I understood forgiveness as being selfless; a quality that belonged to only the most enlightened people (a.k.a. Jesus), largely due to my heavily religious upbringing.
But I was wrong.
Forgiveness doesn’t equal sainthood, and it sure as hell doesn’t make you a godly person.
Overcoming the “Good Person Complex”
Everyone wants to be a “good person” and this vague life aspiration is almost always accompanied by the desire to be a forgiving person. Forgiving, to us, has become a prerequisite to becoming worthy and valuable human beings.
After all, only bad people refuse to forgive others, right? And we don’t want to be bad people. No.
Putting aside this 5-year-old logic was difficult for me to do growing up. As the first born child of my family, I was always trying to be the “good” and “responsible” person who obeyed what was “right” both in the eyes of my religious parents and God. Inevitably, a large part of being a “good person” was about forgiveness; was trying to forget the manipulative, hurtful and aggressive behaviors of others that spread around like poison.
Deep down I truly believed that forgiveness was like a magical wand that was waved to make everything better. Unconsciously you might believe the same thing.
How many times, for instance, have you thought, “If I forgive, I will feel better and everything painful will go away”? If you’re like most people, you’ve likely thought this more than once in your life.
And so, like me, you might have tried and tried to be forgiving. You might have thought “Yes! I’ve forgiven that person,” but found yourself secretly resenting them to their very core. You might have even thought that forgiving someone in your life would help them to heal, but later found them unchanged and just as miserable.
The truth is that we carry around such deep misunderstandings and twisted ideals of forgiveness that we never genuinely feel mended and we never authentically find closure.
We make forgiveness into a duty; a box on a checklist to be ticked. But the reality is that forgiveness is nothing like what we have been taught. And forgiveness really has nothing to do with being a good person.
5 Myths You’ve Been Taught About Forgiveness
It took me a long time to discover what forgiveness wasn’t and I thank my guide Sol and the shamanic journeying I’ve done for helping me to become more awakened to reality.
We all carry around serious core wounds that need the salve of forgiveness to heal. My personal core wound involves emotional and psychological abandonment due to the suffocating isolation I felt living in a fanatical, emotionally stunted family. A large part of my own journey has been about learning to forgive my parents and finding the genuine love and acceptance I was never given, inside of myself.
For you, your journey might be different. You might struggle with physical abuse issues, divorce problems, illnesses, tragedies, or any number of other traumas that may have stuck with you for a long time.
Whatever you are struggling with, know that forgiveness can truly set you free. But first you must challenge the many myths about forgiveness that have been ingrained into your personal belief system.
Myth 1: Forgiveness is a selfless act.
Reality: Forgiveness is a self-serving act.
It’s easy for us to get caught up in the romanticized notion that forgiveness means being a saint, but it doesn’t. True forgiveness is an act of self-liberation; it is about releasing yourself from the bitterness, shame and regret you’ve held onto for so long and finding true freedom. True freedom means that you no longer cling to your victimhood, your dark feelings or your angry thoughts, but you accept the reality of what happened, knowing that there is no point resisting something that occurred in the past.
Myth 2: Forgiveness is about forgetting.
Reality: Forgiveness is about using your pain to become wiser.
Forgetting the injustices and abuses committed against us is completely unrealistic. After all, forgiveness is not a magical fairy wand that causes amnesia! But forgiveness is about reflecting on what happened to you, and using the experience to navigate through life wisely and intelligently. What is the point of trying to forgive and forget what your partner did to you if you can use the experience to make a wiser choice in the future (preventing a potential repeat)? Many people pretend to forget what happened to them under the guise of “forgiveness” when in fact this is a classic, and toxic, form of avoidance. Don’t use pain to avoid or repress your reality: pain is there to teach you, so use it!
Myth 3: Forgiveness means letting bad people off the hook.
Reality: Forgiveness is about empathetically understanding those who have wronged you.
“Yep! She’s a bad person … but I’ll forgive her.” How often have you heard this kind of comment slipped into conversations, or dialogues within your mind? The truth is that sometimes forgiveness can be used as a form of self-righteous justification. “I’m a good person, so I forgive bad people.” In reality, people aren’t so black and white as we want to make them out to be. All wrongdoing is a product of pain. Remember that. Cheating spouses feel pain. Abusive fathers feel pain. Perverted rapists feel pain. Pain is what stimulates all the unkindness in the world, and everything bad that has happened to you is a result of other people trying to ease their pain in very misguided ways. Once we look beyond the outer shell of a person’s behavior and into the depths of why they do what they do, we can see their pain. We can learn to empathize with them, or at least, understand why they are the way they are. Only then can we truly forgive.
Myth 4: Forgiveness is about understanding what happened first.
Reality: Forgiveness is about understanding that pain drives people to behave illogically.
You might not always be able to understand why someone did what they did. But you don’t need to. You can spend your life thinking and thinking and reliving what happened, trying to piece together a fragmented puzzle, but the truth is simple. Pain drives people to behave illogically. Pain drives people to take dangerous risks, pain drives people to self-sabotage their lives, pain drives people to kill themselves. You don’t need to understand to forgive. Just understand that the nature of pain is unpredictable.
Myth 5: Forgiveness means curing people of their pain.
Reality: Forgiveness means forgiving what a person has done to you. It is not your place to give another person their peace – only they can find it.
You might have been asked throughout your life, “Do you forgive me?” perhaps by a friend, colleague, child, lover or family member. In response you might have said, “Yes, I forgive you” assuming that this would make everything better … until the situation repeated itself again, and again.
Forgiving ourselves is so hard because we are raised since childhood on a steady diet of self-loathing. We are taught that we’re sinners, we’re not smart enough, we have to be prettier, we must be more popular – and generally, we must find our self-worth and forgiveness outside of ourselves in the form of friends, authority figures, or a supreme being.
It’s no wonder that we’re constantly asking others – and other people are constantly asking us – for forgiveness. The truth is that you aren’t a saint, and forgiving someone won’t make their lives better. Only they can make their lives better and choose to forgive themselves. The same goes for you.
Forgiveness doesn’t christen you as a saint, but it does baptize you as a more awakened, evolved and loving being.
If you’re struggling to forgive like I have for most of my life, keep in mind the myths that muddy the pure waters of forgiveness and soon you will be able to wash yourself of the sins of others.
What have your experiences been with forgiveness? Do you find it hard to forgive? What have you learned?