Forgiveness gives us the freedom to stay and the freedom to walk away.
Just as the idea of Tough Love has helped clarify a healthy expression of love, the concept of Tough Forgiveness can help use clarify a healthy expressions of forgiveness. Tough forgiveness has a lot to do with whether or not we want reconciliation. Tough Forgiveness, in particular, has to do with whether we want to put conditions on any reconciliation such as negotiating limits on behaviour. It comes into play when we find ourselves in a repeating pattern with someone and find that we are having to try and forgive them for the same thing over and over again.
We want to forgive as that frees us and brings peace of mind. The act of forgiving also tends to cause a heart opening, or increased sense of compassion within us, where we find ourselves with a growing willingness to have a reconciliation. Yet, we also need to listen to any warning signs within ourselves so that we can choose the right path to reconciliation.
Sometimes our act of forgiveness may cause the other person to have an awakening and feel genuine remorse and the desire to make amends. However, sometimes the person is caught in a loop of offending (offending, then feeling guilty, then offending again, then feeling guilty again) which they not yet able to stop. With this type of behaviour their guilt seems to be part of the cycle and feeds the behaviour. The person does something compulsively harmful, feels guilty about it (“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”) and protests that they will never do it again. Yet not long afterwards they do actually do it again. It is as if they always feel guilty inside and have to keep doing bad things prove their guilt.
Whether it is possible to be reconciled with such a person depends partly on whether it is likely that they will genuinely change their behaviour or whether we are willing to put up with it. As the co-dependency movement has shown when we put up with things we are usually part of the problem. Putting up with something is not the same as forgiveness – it is false forgiveness. There is nothing transformative, freeing or life enhancing about ‘putting up’ with something; whereas forgiveness is freeing or life enhancing.
True forgiveness reconciles us with ourselves and reconciles us with our sense of values. This causes a shift in our attitudes and perceptions at a core level. Forgiveness may actually make us less willing to be part of the problem and may cause us to refuse to reconcile with the person till their behaviour has genuinely changed. However, such a refusal to reconcile will come from a sense of compassion for ourselves and for the other person not from an act of vengeance.
In a co-dependent situation there is very little forgiveness. In co-dependency the wounded party may give in to the demands of the other. They give in through fear of confrontation, from feeling so unworthy, and from being unable to create healthy boundaries (by not being able to say ‘no’). Giving up and giving in are not forgiveness. In forgiveness we either reconcile or we can walk away from someone without malice or ill will. Our sense of worth is not dependent on someone being dependent on us. We do not have to be a martyr to someone else’s drama to feel that our life is justified.
As part of Tough Forgiveness we may want to make sure that they really understand how we felt about whatever they did. This is not the time to go too easy on someone. After they show empathy we can have a chance to take the pressure off them, but if they are avoiding connecting with our honest feelings then that is a sign that they may not really willing to change their behaviour. They may be caught up inside themselves. When they are in a loop it is all about them; their wants, their guilt, their fear. Helping them connect with our feeling and our experience helps them break out the loop. They are then connecting with an experience external to themselves. When they get to the point of ‘Oh that must have been so painful for you when I did that…’, then we know they are out of the loop, at least for now. That it is a sign that a healthy reconciliation with them may be possible.
Reconciliation is a process. It is a process which may take time and may involve expressing a lot of honest feelings to the other person about how we felt. If we neglect that step we may have hidden resentment or feel like we sold ourselves short. We don’t really serve anyone my minimizing how we felt in reaction to something they did. They may not be responsible for our depth of feeling. There could be a whole history involved and they were just the trigger for a lot of deep feelings. Yet it is still important that our true feelings are out in the open if we are going to create a reconciliation.
With Tough Forgiveness we may decide to look for specific signs that the person we are working on forgiving has empathy for how we feel. We may look for signs that they are not so caught up in their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour. We owe it to people to really make sure they know how we feel. It helps them break out of themselves. One of the most enlightening moments of my life was when a normally kind and gentle girlfriend got so angry with me that she tried to kick me in the groin. That really brought me out of my habit of being introspective and self-absorbed! I understood in no uncertain terms that she was really angry and that I better connect with how she felt. While I am not recommending kicking as a best means of self expression, and certainly its probably not a good tactic with an aggressive person, it did act as a wake up call for me. If we express a bit of raw, honest anger and that is something we would not normally do it can really help the other person wake up to the strength of our feelings. If we can fully emote and express our feelings without blaming the other person, this can pull them out of themselves and help them develop empathy. I certainly had much more empathy for that girlfriend’s feelings after she tried to kick me. Also when she saw that I could empathize with her, it seemed to help calm things down.
We may decide that reconciliation is not possible. Jean tries to avoid her mother as much as she reasonably can. She finds her mother’s aggressively critical and judgmental attitude toward her hard to bear. Jean comments, “People say me I should tell my mother that I love her and then all will be well. Those who say that do not know my mother. She would just think I am weak and utterly despise me if I said that. “. Jean is a sensible and well-adjusted person so she probably knows what she is talking about. If there a serious breakdown in an important relationship, and we try to adapt but the other absolutely refuses to change, then the challenge for us it reconcile with ourselves about breaking off, or minimizing, contact. We may need to keep a distance with the occasional check-in from time to time to see if there has been any change. People have the right to stay stuck and we have the right to not stick with them. Sometimes people with important roles in our lives may not be willing play out their role – at least not in the ways which we need or expect. We can choose to find other ways to have our needs met rather than waiting for such people to change. If they are not intending to change we can be sure that they will not change.
If we are not ready to forgive someone, or ready to reconcile with them, then we need to forgive ourselves and accept that it is how we feel. We may just need time to recover, time to renew ourselves, time to restore our faith in life. Once we have a bit more practice with both forgiving and reconciliation with others we will be more able to forgive, and perhaps even reconcile, with the more challenging ones.
Try this Tough Forgiveness Exercise to get a handle on the basic idea of Tough Forgiveness.