Forgiveness: What it Is -- and Isn't

A reader of The Bliss Experiment sends this question.

Question from a reader:

I have a question about the section in your book on forgiveness. I really like, no love, that part but want to know how to apply it right. After we forgive someone, do we have to resume a relationship with that person again? Also, how do we know if we've really forgiven that person?

Sean's Answer:

Alas, there are no hard and fast rules about how one "ought" to proceed after forgiving another. It's highly situation dependent. Factors such as the nature of the offense, the type of your relationship, and you're inner state of mind are all critical factors.

For example: in the book, I tell the story of a woman who learned to forgive a childhood acquaintance who sexually assaulted her.

 By no means would it be appropriate for her to have any kind of relationship with her attacker. The forgiveness was an inward act for herself, not for him, so that she could stop reliving the trauma which was making her miserable and move forward in her life. Her attacker needs to stay at a distance--forever. There would be no reason to seek him out and invite him back into her life. On the other hand, one could imagine a situation where something similar happened with a close family member. Would some kind of continued contact be acceptable, even preferable, after forgiveness? Possibly. But also possibly not. That's not something for which there's a one size fits all rule. 

Forgiveness does not mean that we allow ourselves to be hurt or re-victimized. Remember, just because you've forgiven them doesn't mean they've changed! They might remain unrepentant. Don't let that prevent you from forgiving them, just do it from a distance! 

The most important criterion to make the decision is your own heart and mind. Will being around the person you've forgiven harm you or pull you down in any way? Is the person who committed the transgression likely to do it again (and again and again)? If you believe it won't happen again and feel that you can -- or even want -- to now be around this person again without it having a negative effect on you, then by all means, give it a try. But proceed slowly and carefully until you're absolutely certain that post-forgiveness contact is a net positive for you. 

This segues into answering your second question: one way (but not the only) we can know if we've truly forgiven another is to be around them again and then observe our thoughts and feelings. If we honestly -- no faking -- feel at least calmly neutral, possibly even happy, when around them, that's a positive sign that our forgiveness is for real. On the other hand, if being in their presence immediately touches off an uncontrollable downward spiral of negative thoughts and feelings, that's a sign we might have more forgiving to do.

There are at least four clear signs that we've forgiven another. The first two are the simplest and easiest to discern:

1) We don't find ourselves ceaselessly thinking about what they did/said to us. That is, we are no longer replaying it in our mind or dwelling upon it. We've mostly stopped thinking about it/them and are instead focused on other aspects of our lives.

2) When we are reminded of that person -- we see them face to face, someone brings them up in conversation, or we see their photo or some place or object that reminds us of them -- we don't have a severe negative reaction. We can handle it without relapsing into our previous pattern of dwelling upon them in an emotionally and psychically harmful manner.

There's a third sign which might be the best indicator of all: when we can bring ourselves to feel genuine compassion and love for those who harmed us. Realize that whatever they did, it's because they are ignorant, confused, and suffering. The worse their behavior, the worse their suffering. This doesn't mean we should confuse their behavior, but understand it and want it to change for their sake. Compassion starts when we realize just how much psychological and spiritual pain they must be in to have behaved in that way towards us. Genuinely want them to feel and think better. If they can heal whatever drove them to those actions, not only will their lives turn around but they'll stop inflicting misery on others (you can bet that you aren't the only person they've hurt, though not necessarily all in the same way). As well: the more compassion we can muster, the less likely we are to fall into the negative thoughts and feelings which caused that individual to lash out. Presumably, we don't want to be very much like the person who behaved badly towards us. The ability to feel authentic compassion for them inoculates us from that fate.

Finally, the best possible indicator that we've truly forgiven another comes back to the very reason why forgiveness is so vitally important. We should feel lighter, happier, and free inside. Forgiveness is essential to both our happiness and capacity to move forward with our lives. If you now feel like a weight or burden has been lifted from your soul, that's not only a great sign but the very essence of the practice.