“Say you’re sorry.”
Many parents instruct children to express regret for thoughtless actions to another using these words. Head down, face frowning, the child mumbles “Sorry.” In return, he may hear, “Sorry too” or “That’s alright.”
It’s really not alright. No one really feels much better, except perhaps the adult, who believes he has done his job in helping a child learn the importance of an apology or of accepting the apology of another.
This is pretty much the place many adults are stuck when it comes to their experience of asking for or offering forgiveness to another. They recall a shame-faced, command performance required by a parent or other significant adult when they were young. It only happened because someone bigger and more powerful than them was requiring it. In actuality, the thing for which they were likely sorriest was getting caught.
Ideally, by the time we reach adulthood, we should be able to reflect on the impact of our actions and at least try to take the perspective of someone other than ourselves. Empathy requires trying to understand how another might feel, even if we don’t share their experience. It’s an important tool to have in one’s toolbox when it comes to offering forgiveness.
There are benefits to letting go of our right to even the score with another. Most of us understand this. The harder part is to actually forgive. How does one do this, especially if the hurt is longstanding and particularly grievous. Here are some steps to consider:
1. Contrary to what you may have experienced as a child, forgiving someone does not mean saying, “That’s alright.” If it’s alright, it doesn’t require forgiveness. Only things that were not acceptable, that hurt or did damage to us or someone we love, require actual forgiveness.
2. Forgiving someone does mean giving up the right to get even. It means cleaning up the revenge scenarios in our head, chasing them out, and locking the door. If holding a grudge means allowing someone to live rent free in your head, then letting go of the grudge suggests sweeping them out of the house and chasing them down the road.
3. Forgiving someone may also mean telling yourself a different story. Perhaps you’ve identified yourself as a victim for a long time. Letting go of the anger and resentment means at least trying to understand what might have influenced another to act as he or she did without attaching a nasty label. It means eliminating ugly names and referring to them as a person with shortcomings and weaknesses.
4. Telling yourself a different story also means telling yourself what kind of person you want to be in the face of this wound or unkindness. How would you like to manage hurt and anger? What might you need to do to live above and beyond smoldering resentment? Many people find spiritual resources to be helpful at times like this. Is that something you could access?
5. Forgiveness may or may not mean reconciliation. It’s not safe or wise to reconcile with an unrepentant abuser. There are times when we must maintain strong boundaries with difficult people, limiting the amount of time we spend with them, particularly if they take no ownership for their troublesome or quarrelsome behavior. We can still forgive for our part, but true reconciliation requires both parties to admit their part in the problem and work toward rebuilding trust with each other.
Much more has been written about forgiveness. If it’s an area where you are struggling, speaking with a professional (clergy, therapist) or even a close friend can be helpful in letting go and moving on for your benefit and that of your child.
Dr. Jennifer Baker is the Founder and Director of Good Dads. She is the wife of one, mother of two and grandmother of eight. She may be reached for question or comment at email@example.com.