Studies show that the practice of forgiveness can reduce depression, stress, anger and hurt. Forgiveness can generate a sense of peace, compassion, hope and self-confidence. It can put you on a path to healthier relationships and to a physically healthier you. Forgiveness influences us to open our hearts to beauty, kindness and love.
To practice forgiveness, we are assured that it does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person who hurt us. Nor does it mean condoning their action. We are also told that to practice forgiveness, we should shift our perspective, change our expectations, and put our energy elsewhere.
Admittedly, these are fine objectives. But, admittedly, it’s also harder than we think. Why is it so hard to let go of a grudge? Whether we’re in a bad marriage or relationship, or in a friendship that’s gone bad, forgiveness is both central and often elusive!
The process of letting go of a grudge and of forgiveness includes telling about the injury. Being heard and understood in our pain over a past hurt is a critical part of the process. But, how many times does it take to narrate a hurtful event to get to a sense of being understood? How often have we heard the same story over and over again? How often have we told the same story again and again?
It seems that we can be quite willing to recount a painful event. We’re just not satisfied that we’ve been fully understood. Or, if we feel understood in the moment, that feeling vanishes, leaving us with an ongoing quest to solicit more understanding. So we embark on another round of narration, recounting the painful history yet again. The wish for a lasting sense of being understood drives the repetition. It drives the delay in shifting our perspective, changing our expectations, and putting our energy elsewhere.
This is because there is a hidden second injury: the injury of not being recognized and understood. This is the hidden injury that links the present with the past, connecting the grudge to an historical experience of relational failure. The hidden injury—of not being recognized and understood by another—this is the mechanism driving the inability to forgive. If you have a history of relational failure, of being deprived of recognition when distressed, you’re going to struggle with forgiveness because you’re wondering: Now do you get it?
We can see that forgiveness rests, in part, on our belief that we’ve received compassionate, lasting understanding and recognition for our injury and distress. It rests on being able to sustain this belief, like a conviction, well into the future. Forgiveness rests on healing the hidden injury of relational failure.
Therapy is central in this process. Therapy offers the experience of being deeply understood. And, it provides safety to repeat the narrative until this experience can be internalized and relied upon to sustain itself.