Can we talk about forgiveness? It’s a great theme or sub-theme for a memoir. But while you may get that letting go of anger, resentment, and vengeance is good, you may not be able to wrap your head around the notion that you have to or ‘should’ forgive someone who has done incredible harm to you.
Many well-meaning therapists still don’t understand complex trauma and forgiveness. And there are many books on how to forgive, but it can still seem like a big ask, especially when you are about to bare all in your memoir.
I am exploring forgiveness, so it feels like a good time to address it in an article and link it with writing a memoir.
Letting go of anger, resentment, and vengeance feels good to me, like an easing of intense emotion. These are the things that feel doable at the moment.
What I feel is (at the moment) that shoving “you have to forgive” down someone's throat, however nicely and reasonably it is done, is bullying.
I have people I do not wish to forgive, but because of some skilled work and support for trauma (sexual in nature), the anger I felt is practically gone. I have acceptance, and I am processing forgiving myself – that feels doable too. I also feel more compassion for myself.
I feel that ‘forcing’ forgiveness when someone is not ready pushes them into an unsafe place. There is no timetable for forgiveness, and we need to feel safe to process this in a time and way that works for us.
Does this make sense to you?
I think that feeling free from the crap is a process of undressing the layers of emotion. When we are finally naked or almost naked, we can feel the cool breeze of freedom brush our skin.
Exploring The Complexity Of Forgiveness
The concept of forgiveness has intrigued us mere mortals, philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual leaders for centuries, probably since the fateful day of the apple. It is said, as I previously alluded to, an act of releasing resentment, anger, bitterness and vengeance towards someone who has wronged us.
What Is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the choice and act of letting go of negative emotions associated with a past hurt or offence. Which all sounds rather easy.
Apparently, it involves granting pardon and absolving the wrongdoer, liberating oneself from the emotional burden often accompanied by holding grudges.
Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to go around anointing people and blessing them with our forgiveness? Many probably don’t even care if we do or don’t. And a pardon is something a judge would grant someone before releasing them from prison – hopefully for wrongful sentencing.
Emotionally that means releasing negative emotions such as anger, resentment and hurt. This means freeing yourself from the burden of carrying these emotions, which can harm your mental and physical well-being. By letting go of these feelings, you create space for more positive emotions like peace, empathy, and compassion to thrive.
Mental forgiveness is changing your perspective and mindset towards the person and situation. So move from wanting revenge to acceptance.
Spiritually forgiveness is seen as a pathway to inner peace. Letting go, in this sense, is connecting with your higher values of love, compassion and connectedness.
Why Forgiveness is Not a Panacea for Healing
Many perceive forgiveness as a panacea for healing wounds and achieving inner peace.
While forgiveness can be a transformative and empowering experience, it is essential to recognise that it is not a magical cure for all emotional wounds. Some traumas run too deep, making forgiveness a challenging task.
Forgiveness is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It may not be the right path for everyone. It certainly isn’t for me.
The idea that all you have to do is forgive, perhaps with a ritual or a spiritual practice like Ho'oponopono, could be a step too far for some. The Ho'oponopono prayer was traditionally a mantra of redemption for families separated by issues. It has gone on to great success in many other areas of life.
The problem, as I see it, is that deep-seated trauma needs more than forgiveness. Healing is a complex process that often requires a multi-layered approach.
It Is Okay to Not Forgive and Still Move On
Contrary to societal expectations, it is perfectly okay not to forgive. Some offences are so heinous that forgiving may seem impossible, and forcing yourself to do so could perpetuate feelings of shame, guilt, anger or inadequacy.
Instead, you can focus on other ways to lessen the pain while protecting yourself from further harm.
What is important is that the emotional toll of the trauma and hurt is diminished in a way that works for you over time. And, of course, you let go of the desire for revenge, no matter how attractive the movies make this seem.
Alternatives To Forgiveness
So, if you have decided, like me, that some things will not be forgiven, then what can you do?
One approach is acceptance. Acknowledging that an offence occurred and recognising its impact on your life can lead to self-empowerment and facilitate the process of letting go.
Another is working on your intense emotions and triggers. This requires great self-awareness and deciding to do something proactive when triggered.
Another alternative is setting boundaries. You can protect yourself and feel safe by establishing clear limits and distancing yourself from people with toxic behaviours.
Putting things in the past and drawing a line. This is something I have recently chosen to do. As Mary Oliver asks Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? By not putting things in the past, you may miss the magic of living a wild and precious life.
Why Forgiveness Is Not For Everyone
Forgiveness is a deeply personal decision; not everyone may find it appropriate or beneficial in their healing journey. We must respect others' beliefs and understanding of forgiveness and refrain from pressuring them into forgiving when they are not ready or willing to do so.
Giving Yourself Permission to Not Forgive
Not forgiving does not mean that someone will harbour hatred or hold on to grudges indefinitely. At some point, you will let these ideas go. Accepting this has happened, and vengeance is not what kind and compassionate people do, will take you to a place of inner peace.
I recall driving to Spain after discovering my husband's double life. I played fantasy revenge in my head for most of the journey. I wrote a piece of fiction, also in my head, called The Double Life Of Dickie Quick. It helped me manage the drive and lesson that hatred I felt for him. I spent so much time laughing at what I was going to write it helped to ease my pain.
Giving yourself permission to not forgive means acknowledging your emotions and granting yourself the freedom to heal in a way that feels authentic and sustainable. I think this can pave the way for genuine healing.
Kindness And Compassion
While forgiveness may not always be possible or appropriate, practising kindness and compassion towards yourself and others is good for the soul and your emotional well-being.
Being kind starts with being your best friend. When did you last do that? Or how do you feel when others reach out to you and show you kindness? Being kind to yourself and others can often take a back seat as the world rushes by in a fast-paced world. But by taking a few moments to witness what is happening around you and connecting to your values, you could make all the difference to someone else's life and yours.
Compassion is a powerful part of being human. To be able to feel love and empathy for another is a gift. It is also one of the most powerful practices that awaken the heart and connects us with others.
Being compassionate broadens your perspective of the world because now you see and feel how others are living. It calls to your heart to want to make a difference. It is this difference that gives you a deeper sense of purpose and meaning. Compassion for others also creates connection, and one of our greatest drivers is feeling connected.
When we can walk in another man's shoes and take action to help them, that is when compassion comes alive. Think of times when you have been able to empathise with another's suffering or feelings and been compelled to do something about it. Even though you feel empathy, you are called to action so that your compassion kicks in.
Often in times of adversity, people come together to support humanity and all beings. It is as though energetically, we can feel others' emotions and understand them from our perspective. Knowing how we would feel in a situation can tap into others' pain (empathy), which drives us to act (compassion).
Okay, I get that you may not feel compassion towards anyone who has wronged you yet, but you can learn to be compassionate and maybe over time, who knows?
So what about self-compassion? This is no different from having compassion for others. Consider what it feels like to feel compassion for others and then turn that inwards to yourself. I know easier said than done because often, we are so busy caring for others that we forget to walk in our own shoes.
Self-compassion is about being a good friend to yourself and behaving towards yourself as a good friend would.
Instead of ignoring your pain, stop, do not judge, embrace it and ask, ‘How can I show myself loving-kindness and compassion right now?’ Also, consider how you receive acts of compassion from others. You may feel that you are not worthy of this, yet you wouldn’t hesitate to act for others.
Having this awareness, noticing your resistance and choosing to accept from a place of grace is healing.
Ways to Move On and Let Go Mentally, Emotionally, and Spiritually
Get professional support for your healing and learn how to develop coping strategies
Write in a journal, create art, or engage in physical activities to release pent-up emotions
Be with people who understand, such as support groups where you can share your feelings and experiences
Embrace forgiveness when ready. If and when forgiveness feels right, embrace it with your heart and soul. But remember, it should be a choice rather than an obligation.
How to Write About Forgiveness in Your Memoir
This is interesting because it depends on when you are writing your memoir. At the planning stage, you may discover things that need addressing that could change your perspective.
Stop and explore. When writing, you may find yourself going off on a tangent that changes the tone of the book.
It will be a powerful and healing experience, no matter what happens.
Before writing, reflect on your experiences, emotions, and thoughts about forgiveness. Understand your motivations and reasons for seeking or withholding forgiveness. How will you express this to your readers, and what do you want them to take away from your story and perspective?
Be honest, authentic and vulnerable. Share your struggles and doubts about forgiveness. Remember what you write could inspire them to find a different approach to healing their trauma. Being honest will hopefully help them do the same.
Step away from being judgemental. Do not judge yourself or others for any choices. The way you write your story is about respecting your and others' choice. Yes, I get that people will have done some shitty things, but often judging people in writing shows bitterness, and that is not attractive or healing. Write it and burn it – that is so much more liberating.
Show in your writing the paths you have explored and why you have done this. This will give your reader permission to do the same.
Emphasise the personal growth and transformation that occurred as a result of your forgiveness journey. Memoirs are always about transformation, and no matter your choices, if you can demonstrate that you have grown, you show that what is possible for you is possible for them.
Plan your memoir, write the stories list and explore. These two things will help you to explore and know where you are before you start to write. And at all times, remember to be kind and compassionate with yourself and get support when you need it.
Good luck and much love.