The Monster Who Hurt You – How to Start Forgiving Them

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When we’re ready to forgive someone for some past affliction, we need to start by seeing them for who they really are and not the individual living in our minds.  More than likely you’ve created a larger than life version of this individual and given them powers they never had.  We do this because the offending party is still impacting our relationships, our self-esteem, and the places we go.   Even if we cut them out of our lives, they control us.  The person who hurt you is no longer a person at all in your mind.   They’re an incarnate source of misery, fear, anger, depression, and numerous other negative experiences plaguing you because of the hurt they inflicted on you.

Besides making up your mind about how powerful a monster this individual is, you’ve also decided you know why they hurt you.  Our psychological mechanisms need to make meaning out of tragedy and the pain we’re feeling.  We do whatever it takes to find some meaning for our suffering.  In psychology, we often talk about making “attributions” which are simply characteristics we ascribe to other people to explain behaviors they exhibit.  When someone behaves in a negative way, we believe we know why.  A psychological concept known as the “fundamental attribution error” plagues our ability to accurately determine why someone behaved one way over another.  We often believe a person’s negative behaviors are due to the fact they’re bad people yet if we perform the same behaviors, we decide we’ve done so for good and righteous reasons.  If someone is speeding, we immediately say they’re a destructive, dangerous, irresponsible person.  However, if we’re speeding its most likely because we need to help someone, take care of important business, or perform some righteous task superseding the speed limit making us a better person than all the other people speeding that day.  We always believe other people are behaving badly because they are bad people and when we perform the same behavior it’s because of some higher good.

When we review two of the most popular and well researched psychological theories about forgiveness, we find both believe an important step in the process is reframing our view of the offending party.  Robert Enright believes we need to see the offender from a different perspective.  In the “working phase” of his forgiveness process, Enright prompts his clients to see how the individual who hurt them may be impacted by his or her childhood, the stress in their lives, and the numerous factors that lead people to be hurtful to others.  He isn’t asking you to make excuses for their behavior nor is he attempting to justify what was done, he simply wants you to see the individual you’ve given so much power to as just another broken human being.  Enright believes starting to develop empathy for the offender takes some of the imagined power you’ve given them away.  Likewise, Everett Worthington’s model proposes it’s important to develop empathy for the offender as a means of understanding why they may have hurt you.

I want to be clear about this step in the forgiveness process.  No one is saying the individual who hurt you was right to do so.  This step is most important because it allows you to see that the person who hurt you is just another person.  They really aren’t some powerful force you cannot overcome, they’re merely broken people perpetuating that brokenness on others.  If you can empathize with the person who hurt you, then the power they have over you will disappear.  Forgiveness starts with recognizing the offender is just another person and they really have no control over your life.

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it’s a very important part of your ability to heal.  Most people hurt other people because they’re carrying around a significant amount of hurt and pain themselves.  In his book, The Science of Evil Simon Baron-Cohen describes how excessive abuse of a child can cause them to become sociopaths of the most wicked kind because that abuse destroys the neurological empathy path in the brain.  The most vicious serial killers are broken people and for some that brokenness is caused by the brokenness and hurt in other people.

So, I leave you with this: Can you transform your understanding of the person who hurt you to be less of a powerful monster and more like the broken person they are?  If you can get to that place, you are on the path to forgiving them and reclaiming your life and the parts their hurt has taken from you.

The Choice to Experience Anger – Step 1 of the Forgiveness Process

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If you’ve decided you want to be more forgiving you need to be patient with yourself.  forgiveness is a process and one that requires several steps, stages, and tasks to complete.  It’s important to remember forgiveness does not come naturally, it’s something we grow into.  We struggle to be forgiving because of that deep sense of justice I described in my previous post.  However, like other virtues, you can practice numerous behaviors and thought processes that help you become more forgiving.  Forgiveness is like love, it’s not just a feeling we have, it’s a decision we make.  Love is a choice and sometimes we choose to love difficult people.  Forgiveness is a choice and sometimes we choose to forgive someone who seems unforgivable for treating us in an unforgivable way.

If you look at the numerous studies and theories published on forgiveness in psychology journals you find most identify three primary components as part of the process.  These components are 1) changing your perspective of the offending party to be more balanced and realistic, 2) decreasing the negative feelings toward the offending party and attempting to increase some level of empathy/compassion for them, and 3) letting go of the idea the person who hurt you should pay you back for what was done or receive the justice they deserve.  I’m going to address all three of these components at some point, but in this post, I want to start with the fact you need to decide if you’re ready to exercise forgiveness in the first place.  I’ve said forgiveness is a choice, and you need to really ask yourself if you’re ready to make that choice.  One way to come to that conclusion is by assessing how not being a forgiving person is impacting your life.  Simply put, how is your unwillingness to forgive a particular hurt and pain you experienced keeping you from being the loving person you could be?

The basic consequence of not forgiving someone who hurt you is living with anger.  Anger is a natural response to being treated unjustly and when someone hurts you anger emerges as a response to that unjust act.  Maybe you were treated as if you didn’t matter, you were never listened to in your family, or you were treated as the family servant and everyone walked all over you.  These actions are unjust and when you realize how you’ve been treated, you get angry.  However, recognizing anger in ourselves is often a very painful experience.  So, instead of acknowledging we’re angry because we’re hurt (Some people don’t like to do this because they believe it makes them weak or a “bad” person) we find other ways to express that anger.  No one likes pain.  Emotional pain, like physical pain, is something we will do almost anything to avoid.  Robert Enright writes in his book, “Forgiveness is a Choice” the following regarding acknowledging anger:

“Realizing that you are angry can be very painful, but forgiveness is not about pretending that nothing happened or hiding from the pain.  You have suffered and need to be honest with yourself about that suffering.”

So, before you go through any of those three previously mentioned components in the forgiving process, ask yourself if you’re ready to acknowledge your anger and experience the pain it has produced in its most raw form.  Instead of shoving it deep down inside, ignoring it, transferring it to other people, and letting it destroy your relationships, ask yourself if you’re brave enough to acknowledge how avoiding anger has negatively impacted your life?  If you are ready, ask yourself these questions to assess how much anger has spread into the physical, emotional, mental, relational, and transcendent aspects of your life.  Enright lists these questions as tools to explore your anger:

  • How have you avoided dealing with anger?
  • Have you faced your anger?
  • Are you afraid to expose your shame or guilt about a situation?
  • Has your anger affected your health?
  • Have you been obsessed about the injury or with thoughts about the person who hurt you?
  • Do you compare your situation with that of the offender?
  • Has the injury caused a permanent change in your life?
  • Has the injury changed how you view the world?

This is where I want you to start.  Take a week or so and think about these questions, journal about them, meditate on them, and ponder them.  Do whatever works for you but assess as best as you can how anger, caused by your unwillingness to forgive a past hurt in your life, has spread through your world like cancer and negatively impacted your potential to live well.  Once you do that, you may feel more motivated to start the forgiveness process.