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.