The holiday season is upon us! And with it come many opportunities to visit and spend time with friends, family members, colleagues, and strangers. Often, getting together with others is the best of what this season can bring: warmth, connection, a feeling of being at home. But perhaps just as often, interacting with people we haven’t seen in a while can bring back painful memories, resurface emotional wounds, or remind us of loss. If you’re anticipating a difficult conversation, or if you’re worried about seeing someone with whom you have a difficult history, it may be time to think carefully about forgiveness.
Most of us carry mistaken assumptions about what forgiveness is—what it means, who gives it, and what happens afterward. Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring—perhaps best known for her books After the Affair and How Can I Forgive You?—challenges those assumptions with powerful insight drawn from her clinical experience.
Before we get into that, let’s do some myth-busting:
Myth: There is no choice other than to forgive or not forgive.
Reality: Forgiveness should be conceptualized as a continuum of choices, each with risks and benefits.
Myth: Forgiveness is unconditional.
Reality: Approaching forgiveness as a transaction rather than a gift enables us to maintain a sense of integrity and self-worth.
Myth: Forgiveness comes easy and naturally if we just let it flow.
Reality: Our culture does little to teach us in explicit and concrete ways how to navigate the complicated waters of forgiveness—especially when the person who hurt us isn’t sorry.
If we know what forgiveness is not—a binary, unconditional choice that comes naturally—then we know what forgiveness is: an intimate dance with the person who hurt you that must be learned and is best when earned. Abrahms Spring’s forgiveness framework includes two types of dysfunctional and unhealthy forgiveness—“cheap forgiveness” and “refusing to forgive—” and two types of functional and healthy forgiveness—“acceptance” and “genuine forgiveness.” Here is a brief description of each type:
- Premature, superficial, unilateral
- There is no processing of emotion, and no coming to terms with the injury.
- “I’m fine. It’s okay. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just move on.”
Refusing to Forgive
- Rigid, punishing, retaliatory
- You’re stuck stewing in rage and nonnegotiable anger, clinging to indignation and contempt.
- “No matter what you say or do to repent, I will never stop making you pay for the hurt you have caused.”
- Empowering, life-affirming, personally healing
- You decide how to transcend the injury and make peace with what happened, without the help or involvement of the person who hurt you.
- “I’ve come to understand that you are incapable of acknowledging what you did to me. I don’t wish you harm, but I also choose a life without you in it. I am worthy of love, and I give it to myself. I have honored my pain, and I am free of it.”
- Interpersonal, contextual, extraordinary
- With heartfelt participation, the person who hurt you works hard to earn forgiveness through generous acts of repentance. At the same time, you work hard to let go of resentment to allow the violation to be healed.
- “I will bear witness to the pain I caused, and I will apologize genuinely and nondefensively. I will seek to understand my behavior, and I will earn your trust. I will forgive myself, as you work to forgive me, so that I make a sincere attempt toward atonement.” “I will help you understand the full sweep of my emotions without drowning in my pain. I will create opportunities for you to make good on your attempts to repent so that I can heal. I will reengage with life with you safely and on new terms.”
There is so much more to each type of forgiveness, especially the two healthy types, in Abrahms Spring’s books. Consider reading them on the train or plane when you’re traveling this holiday season. Better yet, talk about forgiveness with a licensed therapist.
May we all do the hard, transformative, and courageous work to process the injuries done to us so that we live our lives with vitality, freedom, and joy.
- Spring, J. A. (2012). After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, 2nd Ed. New York, NY: William Morrow.
- Spring, J. A. (2005). How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To. New York, NY: William Morrow.
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