One question that we all struggle with at some point in our lives is what to do when we get hurt by another person. Whether it's a parent, spouse, child, or friend, we all need to find an answer to the question of what to do with the experience. Depending on your personality, you might respond more with anger or more with sadness, but the truth is, we all get hurt by others and need to find a way to deal with this. But what does that look like? What if the other is unapologetic, incapable, or no longer around? How do you best “move on”?
We’re all aware that holding on to anger and grudges only perpetuates our suffering, affecting our health and burdening future relationships. We ought to forgive and get over it, but even if you wholeheartedly embrace this value, it is a lot easier said than done. Furthermore, I would like to suggest as well that there is a wrong way to forgive, and suggest a healthier path.
Forgiving Too Easily
Many times, people simply try to ignore the hurt and “just move on.” They choose not to confront the offending person and continue the relationship as if nothing happened. In her book How Can I Forgive You? clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring calls this “cheap forgiveness.” The reason for avoiding the conflict is often connected to a fear that addressing the issue won’t do any good, and therefore they don’t see the point in letting the other person know how much they have been hurt. Or perhaps they have even tried bringing up the issue, didn’t get a response they wanted right away, and gave up. Some people simply don’t want to admit to or dwell on the pain the interaction has caused in the first place. Wanting to preserve the relationship at any cost, the injury gets swallowed.
The problem with the noble-sounding approach of “taking the high road” is that it doesn’t allow a person to legitimize and work through their authentic feelings. Even though you'd like to leave the issue in the past, it keeps coming back—sometimes years later—hidden in the disguise of feelings of low self-worth or depression, or as anger seemingly “out of nowhere.” On top of this, if you never speak up, the other person is likely to continue doing the same things that hurt you. You may also find yourself in a similar situation with another person.
So what would a healthy solution look like? You have a few options here. The first is reconciliation, but it takes two to Tango. Reconciliation requires that the other person is open to listen to your perspective and is willing to change their behavior, possibly leading to a full restoration of your relationship with them. It requires that both parties are willing to step out of their comfort zone and into the relationship zone again. For you, it means releasing the other from the weight of their offense against you. What makes this different from cheap forgiveness is that this process requires admitting to yourself, as well as to the other, that you have been hurt. It requires that the other asks for your forgiveness (or at the very least acknowledges the hurt they have caused) and takes sincere steps to prevent a repetition.
But what if the other party is not willing or able to admit any wrongdoing? What if they are completely out of the picture or no longer living? How do you forgive an unrepentant person? One way to deal with this is a process Dr. Spring calls “acceptance”. Like reconciliation this includes an acknowledgment of the full extent of what happened, but unlike it acceptance is something you can do without their cooperation. Acceptance requires that you validate what happened to yourself and the impact it has had on your life. This is a painful and often lengthy process. Revisiting an injury or loss is very unpleasant, but it is necessary in order to deal with the difficult feelings effectively so it doesn't spill over into other areas of your life. This involves looking at the painful event from every angle possible, including trying to imagine the other party's perspective. This may require taking an honest look at whether or not you have done anything to contribute to the situation, or viewing what the offender has done more in terms of their shortcomings rather than as their causing harm intentionally. Acceptance means developing empathy for both you and for the other, and to give up the “hope for a better past”, for what “could have been”.
None of this is easy. Cheap forgiveness or holding on to anger may seem like easier solutions to some, but you may pay for them later with your physical or mental health. Reconciliation might ultimately be the most satisfying solution, but you simply have no control over the other party's willingness to share your burden. The concept of acceptance allows one to independently process what happened and therefore to heal. It is kind of a reconciliation, too, one that does not depend on the offender, but is a peace-making with your past.