To Forgive – Divine!

Since my last post was about the art of the genuine apology, it seems fitting to spend some time on its counterpart: forgiveness.

In her book How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To, Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring describes 4 approaches to forgiveness, and notes that they are not created equal. The four are: Cheap Forgiveness, Refusing to Forgive, Acceptance, and Genuine Forgiveness.

Cheap forgiveness is what Dr. Spring calls “a quick and easy pardon.” It is premature, superficial and undeserved, and usually happens when the person who has been hurt has a hard time tolerating the distress that acknowledging the hurt would create (in themselves or in the relationship), and seeks instead to smooth things over as quickly as possible. Cheap forgivers are sometimes prone to conflict avoidance or have a self-sacrificing approach to relationships, and struggle to set healthy limits or speak up for themselves. The harm of cheap forgiveness is that paving over or denying a hurt doesn’t actually do much to heal it, and the fall-out from those unhealed hurts has a way of leaking out and poisoning a relationship.

At the oppoSpear_2278site end of the continuum, those who refuse to forgive resist letting the offender off the hook, even after a sincere apology has been made. They respond with distance and condescension, and use hoarded past offences to build a wall fortified with righteous indignation. If engaging in relationship is always a balance between connection and protection, non-forgivers plant their feet firmly in protection, and cost themselves the closeness and repair that forgiving a sincere apology could offer.

But what if no apology (sincere or otherwise) has been made? What if the offender refuses to acknowledge that their actions were hurtful, or worse is dismissive and devaluing of the feelings of the one they’ve hurt? Acceptance is a form of forgiveness whose purpose is to help the hurt party help themselves. It allows the hurt party to acknowledge and take control of their pain, work to heal from the harm they’ve experienced, and decide the level of relationship (if any) they want to have with the offender.

Dr. Spring’s book details the process of genuine forgiveness, calling it a “shared venture where two people exchange their care, compassion, understanding, and empathy with each other.” Accordingly, earning genuine forgiveness requires the offender to apologize (genuinely, non-defensively and responsibly), bear witness to the pain they caused (showing their partner they can empathize with how the transgression made their partner feel), and work to earn back trust.

So when genuine forgiveness has been earned, what does it look like to give it? Genuinely forgiving means allowing our relationship to move forward. It means acknowledging that we’ve heard the apology and believe its sincerity, giving our partner a chance to earn back trust, and committing to not bringing up the past hurt the next time we feel scared or angry.

(Cartoon by Kevin Spear, Creative Commons License)

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

What is it about apologies? What is it about the thought of saying “I’m sorry” that puts in motion that hardening, closing, resisting feeling in the pit of our stomachs, that corrals our minds and constricts our throats (or maybe that’s just me)?

Early on in the relationship with my husband my apologies used to sound something like this: “Am I sorry? Oh, I’m sorry. Sooo unbelievably sorry that you are too immature and too oblivious to even try and wrap your tiny little brain around what I was saying to you. I apologize.” Charming, no? Defensive apologies take the semblance of an apology, wrap it in an attack, and deliver it like a brick through a window. They are about as helpful at repairing a relational hurt as having a double espresso is helpful at calming your nerves. That’s not to say they don’t serve a purpose, it’s just a very different purpose than the one apologies are intended to serve. Defensive apologies soothe our own egos, let us stay in the protected (but disconnected) place of “I’m right and you’re wrong” and create distance in a relationship when closeness may feel too vulnerable to bear.

Shame based apologies on the other hand, look more like a genuine apology on the surface: “I did it again didn’t I? God I’m so sorry, I don’t know why you put up with me. I am such a piece of shit, I hate myself.” A shame based apology changes the conversation. Your partner is no longer talking about whatever it was they were upset about, they’re refuting (or agreeing with) your basis for self-loathing and end up either putting their own concerns aside in order to comfort you, or feeling like a monster for kicking you when you’re already kicking yourself.

So what does a genuine apology sound like? It starts with “I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry but” followed by excuses, rationalizations or explanations, not “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry if I did anything to hurt you.” In short, a genuine apology starts with genuinely feeling apologetic, honestly assessing your side of the interaction and taking ownership of your part in it. The second part of a genuine apology is talking about the experience in a way that shows your partner you can empathize with their point of view. For example, “I’m sorry. What I said was mean and hurtful and probably made you feel like you don’t really matter to me.” Your ego will not enjoy your genuine apology (alright, I’m talking about myself again), but your relationship definitely will.