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To Forgive or Not To Forgive?

What is Forgiveness?

The topic of forgiveness has cropping up frequently in many conversations this week: women’s workshops, individual or couple therapy sessions, and casual conversations. What is forgiveness anyway? At first, forgiveness seems like a simple and straightforward concept. But on second thought, it is not easy to understand, and it’s even harder to practice. We are all in the same boat: we will all offend and be offended during this life and will struggle to seek and offer forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an evolving concept. As a child it meant that when a friend apologized and said, “sorry for taking your toy” that I should continue to play with them.  During adolescence, forgiveness meant being nice and pretending that I wasn’t resentful, angry, or hurt. At this point in my life I find the most helpful definition of forgiveness is to give up resentment or to cease to feel resentment (thank you Websters). I love this definition because it helps clarify 2 stages of the forgiveness process:

1) feeling resentment
2) ceasing to feel resentment

It’s tempting to try and skip the first step – “the feeling part” – and jump to the “cease to feel” step.  A lot of the forgiveness work that I help clients with in therapy is allowing the FEELINGS to be experienced. You can’t give up something that you don’t have.

Common Questions on Forgiveness

Does forgiveness always involve forgetting?

No. I can’t think of one instance of deep hurt in my own life where I have forgotten the event. Forgiveness is about letting go of the emotional charge of the event, not the memory of it.

Does forgiving someone mean that you have to continue a relationship with the person you have forgiven?

No. It is possible to cease to feel resentment toward another and still choose to not have a relationship with him or her for various reasons ranging from personal preference to protecting self or family from serious harm.

Does forgiving a person eliminate the impact of their offense?

No. In the case of childhood abuse, I have often heard families throughout my years of therapy practice use the concept of forgiveness to silence the abused family member and prevent them from expressing the negative emotions about the impact of their abuse.  “He’s been forgiven. Why do you have to keep bringing it up? It was so long ago. Forgiveness does not eliminate the long term consequences of abuse for the victim.

Forgiveness is a Personal Process

My own experiences with forgiveness has taught me that to forgive is usually a process rather than an event, that it is a process of working through hurt and pain, and that it is ultimately a gift to ourselves. It is the gift of emotional and spiritual freedom by no longer allowing someone’s behavior, words, or attitudes to smother our growth. I’ve heard it said that lack of forgiveness and holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.

The following lyrics were born out of my wrestle with the forgiveness process

Out of Jail (lyrics by Julie de Azevedo)

It’s time I let you out of jail
In my mind in my mind
It’s time I let you out of jail
You may not know it
But you’ve done time
You’ve done time

I’m tired of leaning against this door
And screaming all the things that you’re in for
I’m tired of holding shut the gate
My hands are worn and I can’t escape

It’s time I let you out of jail
In my chest in my chest
Bound in angry iron chains
It’s high time I took a breath
And got some rest

I’m tired of seeing the world through bars
I’m tired of being a prison guard
Wearing armor and wielding swords
I’m calling truce on this one way war

It’s time I let you out of jail
So I speak so I speak
Forgive me

It’s time I let you out of jail
In my mind in my mind
It’s time I let you out of jail
You may not know it
But we’ve done time

Download “Out Of Jail” in iTunes

I’d love to hear your thoughts about forgiveness. Feel free to leave your comments in the comment box below (your email address will NOT be posted with your comment).

About Dr. Julie Hanks, LCSW:
Dynamic self & relationship expert Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW loves to make a difference for women. She owns Wasatch Family Therapy and regularly contributes to TV Shows and her advice has been featured nationally including Wall Street Journal, Parenting, Fox News, and others. Connect on Instagram, Facebook & Twitter. Her books The Burnout Cure and The Assertiveness Guide are now available. Dr. Hanks is currently accepting coaching clients.


Denine Driggs

Boy, how true it is a process and not an event. Time is still the best healer


with forgiveeness i have had many people think it is very automatic…but the one thing i continue to learn is FORGIVENESS IS A PROCESS not a product of something times forgivenesss may take a very long time depending ho deep the wound went. yet until we ready to forgive or let forgiveness happen it wont we have to be willing to allow it to happen until then it is stuck.

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