How do we forgive people who’ve hurt us deeply?
We know we’re “supposed” to forgive, we may even WANT to do so, but when we try, the best we can seem to muster is temporary forgetting, a partial apathy that is instantly erased when we see them again.
This post isn’t about forgiving the minor slip-up, the tiny lapse in judgment, the accidental hurt. Those kinds of wrongs don’t take a Mother Theresa-esque spirit of tolerance. This post is dedicated to a bigger challenge than giving our boyfriend a pass on forgetting a birthday or anniversary: it’s about forgiving the worst in others, the inexcusable behavior that wounded us deeply, it’s about breaking the chains of bondage between us and those who’ve hurt us in such a way that we are set FREE.
Today we are talking the question of:
How Do We Forgive The Inexcusable?
Maybe it’s best we begin with our OWN understanding of forgiveness.
Every alcoholic and addict is familiar with the bleary, morning-after apology. We spend the better part of a lifetime begging loved ones to forgive us. Sure, we commit the same atrocity within weeks or days or (in a few interesting cases) minutes… And then we found ourselves apologizing once again. For people like us, men and women dragging through those last heart-dead days and months and years, saying “I’m sorry” was a way of life.
It is therefore unsurprising that when we come into the rooms of AA and NA, our ideas about what it means to forgive are wildly, terrifically skewed. Based on our own experience, we conceive forgiveness as something like this:
Forgiveness is a request, a quasi-sincere appeal to a loved one or close friend to overlook a mistake. Forgiveness means we are allowed back into the good graces of family and friends as if nothing happened. Forgiveness means whatever we’ve done in the past was “all good.”
For alcoholics and addicts, forgiveness is something we want others — our family, friends, romantic partners, employers, landlords — to GIVE us.
Then we come to AA and NA. We start working steps. We encounter (often for the first time) the strange and uncomfortable realization that we hold great angers and resentments towards others— towards ideas, people institutions, countries, politicians, literary styles, neighborhoods, movie stars, ethnic groups, music genres… We are suddenly faced with something never before considered: we addicts and alcoholics need to do some forgiving ourselves.
Sick Like Me
My introduction to forgiveness began when I wrote out my fourth step moral inventory.
It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness…. But with the alcoholic, whose hope is the maintenance and growth of a spiritual experience, this business of resentment is in finitely grave. We found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die.
If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcohol ics these things are poison…. We began to see that the world and its people really dominated us. In that state, the wrong-doing of others, fancied or real, had power to actually kill. How could we escape? We saw that these resentments must be mastered, but how? We could not wish them away any more than alcohol.
This was our course: We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick. Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too. We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity, and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend. When a person offended we said to ourselves, “This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done.’’ (BB; 68)
I found this tiny alteration of perspective – considering the people who harmed me as “spiritually sick” – was a good beginning.
Following the Big Book’s advice didn’t necessarily ease the hurt or fix the broken relationships, but it did lead me to a far better state of affairs than I’d carried with me all my life: an everyday, sharp-edged hatred, a poisonous distrust and dislike. However, even though my THINKING had changed, my FEELINGS were exactly the same: I still felt hurt, abandoned, and betrayed. Worse, I thought all this talk of “tolerance, pity, and patience (that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend)” distasteful and mildly repugnant.
“Aren’t I just making excuses for their bad behavior?” I asked my sponsor.
“No.” My sponsor said in a bored voice. “You’re not.”
“We’ll work a few more steps and talk about this later on,” he said, talking over me.
And when I got to Step 8, we did.
Obstacles To Forgiveness
The first [obstacle to making honest amends], and one of the most difficult, has to do with forgiveness. The moment we ponder a twisted or broken relationship with another person, our emotions go on the defensive. To escape looking at the wrongs we have done another, we resentfully focus on the wrong he has done us. This is especially true if he has, in fact, behaved badly at all. Triumphantly we seize upon his misbehavior as the perfect excuse for minimizing or forgetting our own.
Let’s remember that alcoholics are not the only ones bedeviled by sick emotions. Moreover, it is usually a fact that our behavior when drinking has aggravated the defects of others. We’ve repeatedly strained the patience of our best friends to a snapping point, and have brought out the very worst in those who didn’t think much of us to begin with. In many instances we are really dealing with fellow sufferers, people whose woes we have increased. If we are now about to ask forgiveness for ourselves, why shouldn’t we start out by forgiving them, one and all? (12&12; 78)
As I progressed through the steps, I discovered that merely recognizing I’ve been hurt wasn’t enough. Simply understanding that the people in my life were “perhaps sick and suffering” wasn’t enough. I had to realize that MY history of epic bad behavior almost always made THEIR behavior worse. I had to realize the things I had done out of an overabundance of character defects “increased their woes” and “brought out the very worst in those who didn’t think much of me.”
It was uncomfortable to learn that to a certain extent – and in some situations – MY behavior resulted in THEIR behavior.
But there were still some people I just couldn’t seem to forgive. I knew I had contributed to their wrong, I knew they were sick like I was, I’d pushed through the “defense response of my twisted emotions” and still hadn’t gotten to the other side.
I couldn’t forgive them.
My very patient sponsor explained that I needed to FIRST understand my resentments against these specific people on a deeper level than feeling pissed off – or, as he put it, “experience a vital shift in perspective.”
Resentments Are Baseline Objections to Reality
On my SECOND pass through the steps, after my sponsor and I spent an appreciable amount of time talking about my irritations with life — my hurts, my disappointments — one thing became painfully apparent that I hadn’t noticed before: all my resentments came from me not getting something important I wanted; I got “no.”
- I wanted my boyfriend to be kind and dependable; we argued and the bills were never paid. I got “no.”
- I wanted my best friend to tell the truth; she lied and spread untruths about me. I got “no.”
- I wanted a particular sponsee to recover. I wanted them to work the steps, go to meetings, do the deal. I believed that their successful recovery would bear witness to the world (and to me ) that I was working a “good” program; they ignored suggestions, relapsed, left me for other sponsors. They died. I got “no.”
- I wanted my dad to love me as a child, I wanted to have the father I deserved; I wasn‘t loved in a way I felt good about. I wasn’t loved at all. I got “no.”
Almost every resentment I still carried – even after working all the steps – had to do with hearing “no” when I wanted to hear “yes.” From this it follows that the kind of forgiveness that enables long-term recovery is — in essence — making peace with the word “no.”
Making Peace With the Word “No”
This is quite a different understanding of forgiveness than most of us learned from reading through the Big Book of AA the first time, from pop culture, from various Sunday School lessons, from talks with friends and opinionated, spiritual-sounding advice. We tend to believe forgiving someone means:
- Excusing the other person’s actions, treating an offense as if it were an accident
- Having no feelings about the situation at all; not remembering the offense; behaving as if the harm never occurred
- Forgetting the incident happened completely
- Including the person in our lives on the same terms and at the same level of vulnerability, as if nothing had changed
Forgiveness as incorporated into a twelve step-manner of living has NOTHING to do with any of these.
The essence of forgiveness as old-timers in AA and NA practice it is this:
Forgiveness means being resilient when things don’t go the way we want, being at peace with “no,” being at peace with what is, being at peace with the vulnerability and fallibility inherent in human life. Forgiveness as recovering alcoholics and addicts practice it doesn’t say “the hurt didn’t matter.” Of course it matters! Twelve Step forgiveness is focused on my future well-being, giving each recovering member the chance to move forward and live a free life.
Forgiveness is Unprejudiced
We humans have a curious tendency: we treat today’s friends as if they are guilty of our past friends’ bad behavior.
- When we are hurt by a sponsee spreading gossip about us, we decide we should stop sponsoring, saying: “It isn’t worth it; I can’t trust any of the people in AA; Sponsorship isn’t for me.”
- When we are disappointed by a lost job opportunity we stop applying for future positions. “After all,” we assume. “Nobody will hire me; big companies always suck. I’m never going to get the job I REALLY want.”
- When we are hurt by an unfaithful partner, we accuse every future love-interest of cheating. We snoop through their text messages. We carefully watch their eyes for lingering when at the mall. We accuse. We malign. We infect the poison of a dead relationship into a current one until all that remains is bitterness and mistrust. We kill our present with an unforgiven past.
Forgiveness as AA and NA practice it REFUSES to take the hurt suffered yesterday and pay it forward today. We REFUSE to be trapped into the cycling inaction of fear. We REFUSE to live in a perpetual state of pessimistic apathy as a result of past injuries.
With an open heart, we move forward and accept what is, without prejudice.
At the same time, we avoid “accepting” yesterday’s hurt with a fatalistic attitude. We avoid saying: “life sucks and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Instead, we make peace with a life that doesn’t always look the way we want IN SUCH A WAY that we are willing to give the next person, the next opportunity, the next moment a chance.
Forgiveness is a Resolution of Grief
In order to gain this kind of freedom — before we can get down to the actual task of forgiveness — we have to grieve hearing those painful “no’s.”
At the most basic level, forgiveness is on a continuum with grief. Why? I experience many of my problem as loss—whether I’ve lost the affection or a human being or a dreamed future—and when we human-types lose something, we enter a natural healing process, a reintegration of emotion and thinking and spirit called grieving.
As I understand such things today, forgiveness is the last stage of the game; the resolution of grief.
There are two challenges we have with this kind of grief: some people slam their souls deep in the sand of intentional ignorance, never grieving, never admitting their hurt; some people grieve too long, making what should have been a short-term process a lifelong experience.
Refusing to grieve
Whenever I experience hurt or resentment and refuse to acknowledging it, I don’t gain the benefit of growth or healing. I avoid entering the grieving process by insisting “it shouldn’t matter” or “I don’t care.” Far too often, we prefer to pretend the thing never occurred. We don’t talk about the harm caused by the thing in a positive and healthy way (ie a fourth step inventory, asking God to remove underlying defects, checking for my part and harms committed, listing amends owed another, working with a suffering newcomer). Instead we bury the resentment, ignore it, or gossip about it.
Grieving too long
Sometimes I have a hard time letting go of a resentment, unconsciously feeding it, nurturing the grievance in the back of my mind, letting it fester, allowing the thing to shape my personality, oftentimes using the memory of the thing as a weapon, beating the people who love me, keeping them at arm’s distance.
When we grieve too long, we are clinging to the negative, painful part of the experience (usually so we can have something or someone to blame for our future failures). We luxuriate in our hurt. We savor feeling terrible. Why should we treat the person who wronged us as a “sick and suffering alcoholic?” Why think of others as being “like us, men and women suffering the pains of growing up? Wouldn’t it be nicer to hate them forever?”
It wouldn’t be nicer.
And for the alcoholic and addict, this business of refusing to grieve the past is infinitely grave. We have found that it is fatal.
How I Learned to Address Resentment, Grieve the Loss, Forgive, and Heal
When it became apparent that my relationship of five years wasn’t going to work — that even though I was sober and working a decent program, my partner wasn’t going to grow up any time soon, that we would never stop fighting, that our history of hurts and irritations and middle-of-the-night screaming matches were too deep, too harsh, that I would always be rescuing him from one financial crisis or another — I had to end the relationship.
That was extremely difficult.
Afterwards, even though I was single and “happy,” I was (privately) bitter as hell.
My ex entered the rooms of recovery, worked on himself, got sober, transformed his life… And I wasn’t happy for him, though I pretended to be so in public. I was mad. I was furious.
“How dare he get better NOW?” I asked my sponsor.
“All these people think he’s so great, but I KNOW THE TRUTH,” I told my friends.
My sponsor told me to work a fourth step.
He told me I needed to address my part in the conflict, to make amends, to take corrective action.
Then he told me I needed to forgive him, to release the chains of bondage locking me into the aching, miserable past. That was too much. I couldn’t do it. I just COULDN”T.
I was stuck because I hadn’t grieved the lost relationship. I hadn’t experienced the feelings of hurt and loss I’d camouflaged under anger and apathy. I didn’t know how to move on because I couldn’t find a road out of the quicksand of my screwed-up emotions.
When I finally told my sponsor the absolute, unbridled truth, he didn’t tell me to “get over it” or “let it go” or “move on.”
He said none of those things. Instead he told me this: “Until you are willing to make peace with the pain, you won’t be able to forgive — either him (for what he did) or yourself (for allowing it to happen). You will suffer. And if you let it go on too long, you will probably relapse or kill yourself.” Then he stood up, stuck his cigarettes in his back pocket, and said: “Hey! Wanna get some Starbucks?”
What I learned – very, very, VERY slowly – was that I couldn’t forgive another until I had grieved the loss, until I made peace with hearing “no” to my normal request for a happy and fulfilling relationship.
When Grief Fades; Forgiveness Begins
Forgiveness is the last stage, the final seal, the moment we move from victim to survivor to victor.
“Sounds nice,” you say. “But how (in the name of all that is wise and good) am I supposed to do this magic act of forgiveness? How can I forgive when I’ve been so deeply injured? I WISH I could do this forgivie-thing, I WANT to be free! I’ve tried and found it impossible. I’ve tried and tried to forgive, but found the task beyond my ability. I just CAN’T.”
The Art of Forgiveness
I thought the same way. But there is a method to this seemingly impossible task, a process by which we can DO what has always felt too hard for us, a step-by-step guide to forgiving those who have injured us. It comes from a book that greatly influenced the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Emmet Fox’s best-selling The Sermon on the Mount.
I discovered this little gem of a technique while listening to Scott R’s It Works If You Work It! Seminar. It would not be an exaggeration to say this method of prayerful forgiveness has changed my life.
The prose is a little dense, but the application of prayerful forgiveness as Fox explains it is simple, straightforward, and powerful as hell.
The technique of forgiveness is simple enough, and not very difficult to manage when you understand how. The only thing that is essential is willingness to forgive. Provided you desire to forgive the offender, the greater part of the work is already done. People have always made such a bogey of forgiveness because they have been under the erroneous impression that to forgive a person means that you have to compel yourself to like him. Happily this is by no means the case–we are not called upon to like anyone whom we do not find ourselves liking spontaneously, and, indeed it is quite impossible to like people to order.
You can no more like to order than you can hold the winds in your fist, and if you endeavor to coerce yourself into doing so, you will finish by disliking or hating the offender more than ever. People used to think that when someone had hurt them very much, it was their duty, as good Christians, to pump up, as it were, a feeling of liking for him; and since such a thing is utterly impossible, they suffered a great deal of distress, and ended, necessarily, with failure, and a resulting sense of sinfulness. We are not obliged to like anyone; but we are under a binding obligation to love everyone, love, or charity as the Bible calls it, meaning a vivid sense of impersonal good will. This has nothing directly to do with the feelings, though it is always followed, sooner or later, by a wonderful feeling of peace and happiness.
The method of forgiving is this: Get by yourself and become quiet. Repeat any prayer or treatment that appeals to you, or read a chapter of the Bible. Then quietly say, “I fully and freely forgive X (mentioning the name of the offender); I loose him and let him go. I completely forgive the whole business in question. As far as I am concerned, it is finished forever. I cast the burden of resentment upon the Christ within me. He is free now, and I am free too. I wish him well in every phase of his life. That incident is finished. The Christ Truth has set us both free. I thank God.” Then get up and go about your business. On no account repeat this act of forgiveness, because you have done it once and for all, and to do it a second time would be tacitly to repudiate your own work.
Afterward, whenever the memory of the offender or the offense happens to come into your mind, bless the delinquent briefly and dismiss the thought. Do this, however many times the thought may come back. After a few days it will return less and less often, until you forget it altogether. Then, perhaps after an interval, shorter or longer, the old trouble may come back to memory once more, but you will find that now all bitterness and resentment have disappeared, and you are both free with the perfect freedom of the children of God. Your forgiveness is complete. You will experience a wonderful joy in the realization of the demonstration.
Everybody should practice general forgiveness every day as a matter of course. When you say your daily prayers, issue a general amnesty, forgiving everyone who may have injured you in any way, and on no account particularize. Simply say: “I freely forgive everyone.” Then in the course of the day, should the thought of grievance or resentment come up, bless the offender briefly and dismiss the thought.
The result of this policy will be that very soon you will find yourself cleared of all resentment and condemnation, and the effect upon your happiness, your bodily health, and your general life will be nothing less than revolutionary.
Much of today’s post was inspired by Dr. Fred Luskin work on forgiveness. Dr Luskin directs the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, teaching and researching what he terms “the science and practice of forgiveness.” He’s also a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University, a professor at the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, and an affiliate faculty member at the Greater Good Science Center.
I recommend his work for anyone struggling with forgiveness.