I recently wrote an article titled “Stop Being So Nice.” It came on the tail end of a personal event where I felt I’d once more sacrificed my desires for someone else’s, and I was angry with myself for being so “nice.” The article is a letter to myself, calling me out on my “niceness,” and asking me instead to be fiercely compassionate, radical in my self-care, brave in my opinions.
It was a bit edgy, but something that helped me realign the direction in which I wanted to be oriented as I walk through the world. And truly, the version of “being nice” I described isn’t really “nice” at all. It’s a form of self-abuse, self-neglect, victimization. Somehow, in certain situations, the word “nice” has become a synonym for those things.
One woman commented related, sharing that she needed to stop being “nice” in her life, too. She went further, writing she always forgives people who don’t deserve to be forgiven, and as a consequence, she felt walked over, taken advantage of because of her “niceness.”
Upon reading her comment, I felt an empathetic connection to her plight. I, too, have told the story of over-forgiving people, of letting them walk over me. But as I sat at the computer, fingers poised to write a response, I realized my perspective of forgiveness has changed. Before, forgiveness was something I did as a “nice” person, a gesture for someone else that represented how good and caring I was. Now, I forgive for my own benefit, my own health, my own wellness, and I feel it’s a truer, more authentic kind of forgiveness.
What is Forgiveness?
We have a lot of hang-ups around forgiveness. Sometimes, we’re pissed about something and want revenge from the person who hurt us. Other times, we size the other person up, weighing whether or not they deserve forgiveness. And other times, we forgive because we think it’s the “right” thing to do, a way of smothering our pain and trying to move past it all.
Forgiveness is much simpler than all of that. It is something we do solely, exclusive, for our own benefit. Let me explain.
Recently, one of my more distant friends attacked one of my articles online. He insinuated I stole his ideas and turned them into what became a successful article, published on a relatively well-known platform.
As soon as I saw his comment, I flushed with a burning heat, my head spinning. I was struck with shock, anger, uncertainty, shame. Did I steal his ideas? Yes, we had talked about some of these topics, but aren’t they things everyone feels, and consequently, everyone writes about? After doing a Google search I saw I certainly wasn’t the only one writing about these topics. Was I still in the wrong?
No, I decided, I’m not. There are no original ideas, and I don’t claim mine are original. I merely share them from my perspective, as I’ve gone through things in life. I called him, thinking it wiser to discuss the matter over the phone rather than throwing our arguments around in the comments section.
He didn’t answer, so I left an earnest message, saying I’d like to talk and I wanted him to know his thoughts were valuable to me. He never called me back.
Such a small thing brought me so much inner turmoil and vitriol! His lack of communication felt like a slight, like our friendship was somehow over, without even giving us the opportunity to talk. I couldn’t move past it, this small encounter that somehow wilted the success of the article, making me wonder what kind of person he was, what kind of person I was.
This example is so minor compared to the other, more daunting pain we endure in life. And yet at their core, they’re the same: as humans, we’re susceptible to encountering – even promised to encounter – unpredictable traumas and pains. They sit heavy in our hearts, draining our energy and resources, closing us to the present moment and future encounters with more unpredictable people and events.
To forgive is to rid us of this black hole. Forgiving does not mean we condone someone’s behavior, it does not mean we belittle our pain, it does not mean we back down or roll over, it does not mean we even need to interact with someone ever again or tell them they’re forgiven. (1) We forgive to make our hearts lighter, to be at peace with ourselves. When we don’t forgive, it’s not the other person who suffers; it’s us. We forgive for our own benefit. (2)
By letting go of our ruminations on a particular situation or person, we rewrite our story so that we’re no longer victims of the situation. We’re heroes, because our hearts were big enough to fully love ourselves and forgive. Suddenly, we regain power over a situation instead of reacting to it.
We might decide someone doesn’t have the right to be in our lives anymore, or that different boundaries need to be set. If we deem it necessary, we don’t need to communicate with them anymore or have another interaction. Forgiveness is not “making amends” with that person, though that can be important if it’s helpful; it’s solely making amends within you. It’s a proven, powerful practice for our well-being.
Why Should We Forgive?
“People have accidents, make mistakes, behave selfishly and even intentionally try to hurt one another. We can’t escape it. Forgiveness is a vulnerable act that can feel like it opens us up to more pain. But we need to have a way to process and let go of the effects of injury, or we risk serious physical and emotional consequences.” – Ryan Howes, clinical psychologist
Science is proving the physical and emotional consequences of not forgiving, and the benefits of choosing to forgive. When we forgive, we reduce anger, stress, depression, hypertension, improve sleep, and improve overall markers for health. (3,4) We’re more optimistic, and overall, enjoy a better quality of life. (5, 6)
Another compelling reason to forgive is the influence not forgiving continues to have on our lives. We can’t just ignore painful situations, though we might try to bury them. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the pain continues to follow us, influencing how open we are as we engage with new people and new situations.
Have you ever met someone who seemed so callous towards life? Like they didn’t trust anyone? It was likely a product of being hurt along the way and never forgiving. Ultimately, not forgiving hardens us to the joys of life.
Like any other skill, forgiveness is trainable. We can prepare for unpredictable, painful events by honing our power of forgiveness so that we continue loving and opening ourselves to the world.
Contrary to the popular phrase “forgive and forget,” we don’t want to forget what’s happened. It’s part of the learning process, and will help us to better assess situations going forward. Remembering is part of the skill.
How to Forgive
As we discussed, forgiveness is a loaded experience. Many of our emotions flare when we think about forgiving someone who deeply wronged us. This is our ego, demanding retribution and trying to protect us from getting hurt again.
It’s not always easy to go against these instincts, but to live a healthy, whole life it’s necessary.
Step one: Be honest with how you feel
It’s not real forgiveness if we aren’t first honest with how a person or situation made us feel. There’s no need to judge our reactions. They happened because of a whole host of other things, but most importantly, they happened. (7)
If you need to chat with someone who will hear your experience with an open, loving heart, feel free to find that person and share what happened. Remember, this isn’t a bash session (“They’re so horrible!!!!”). It’s a way to explore your experience of what happened, as objectively as you can, so you can be freed from it. If we aren’t honest, we won’t be able to entirely let it go.
You can also write down your experience in a journal, or just take time to reflect on it.
Step two: See if you can empathize with the other person
We resist putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, especially when they’ve wronged us. We want to see the situation exclusively from our side, not allotting them any degree of empathy or compassion.
Employing empathy, like forgiveness, is not about excusing someone’s behavior. It’s a way to humanize them, which is important, because walking around ignoring the humanity in others is the beginning of discrimination and fear-based action. (8)
We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all hurt someone. We know it doesn’t come from a place of open love. It’s a behavior often fueled by fear, or a desire to have a particular need met, and we wrongly try and force it out of someone else.
We can’t always know why someone does something, but we can try and see what kind of pain might be behind his or her actions. Explore their point of view as best you can. Whether or not they admit what they did was wrong, see if you can find the humanity there, the fearful place, or the hurting place. It makes segueing into forgiveness that much easier, and that much more real.
Step three: Forgiving
Decide if you’d like to communicate your forgiveness to the person. It could be an important relationship you want to keep going, or it could be a relationship you know will be healthiest with distance.
If you’re choosing to share your forgiveness, try and find neutral ground to meet. Share with them how their behavior impacted you (step one) and offer your forgiveness. You can say, “I forgive you,” and leave it at that, or continue the conversation. It’s also powerful to ask for their forgiveness in case they, too, had a negative experience of your behavior.
If you’ve decided you won’t be sharing your forgiveness directly with them, imagine them in your mind standing before you. Say, “I forgive you,” out loud, and take a moment to feel the weight lift off your shoulders as you let them go.
If you’re feeling like you want more symbolism, you can write your forgiveness down on a piece of paper and light it on fire. Whatever you choose to do, remember this is about your freedom. You are no longer bound by that person, by that situation, and it will no longer drain your resources. Take a moment to really feel that release.
Step four: Reflect on what you learned
We won’t forget. That doesn’t mean we continue to bring the situation up, or use it as fuel for future arguments. To truly forgive is to let go entirely. However, we can reflect on what we learned.
Some of the most powerful lessons come from the most painful experiences. When I lost my brother to suicide, I endured a long process of forgiving. The pain was almost too much to bear, and I didn’t want to face it. Over time, the pain lessened, and now, from that experience, I’ve learned one of my most powerful lessons: Life is short. We don’t know when we’ll die, or when we’ll lose our loved ones, so it’s worth living every day, loving in every moment.
Do I forget my lesson? You bet! But I come back to it faster because it’s viscerally engrained in my body. Pain has a way of leaving marks, but we can turn those marks into wise lessons, if we choose.
Making reflection part of my daily routine has helped me do this since I became an Intention-Setter at Intention Inspired. Inspiring myself each morning and setting a daily intention has helped me forgive in ways I didn't think I could. This is especially true when I was taking the 30 Days of Brave course. I'd highly recommend you do yourself the favor of setting intentions with this course or another one we offer for at least 21 days. You'll be amazed at the progress you can make when you set your mind to doing just a little bit every day. Check out all the courses here. You can try the first few days of any of them absolutely free, then make a donation if you decide to continue.
Take some time to consider how forgiveness can become a powerful ally for you. How might this practice help you let go of the burdens you carry? How might it make your heart freer, more available for others, and most importantly, more available for you? I promise you, once you forgive, you’ll never go back to holding on.
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”