What does it mean to forgive?

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This month, we hosted dinners on the topic of forgiveness in 8 cities across the globe. From Seattle to San Juan, Chicago to Caracas, women are having challenging conversations, asking “what is forgiveness, anyways?” and “is it always the right thing to do?”

And now, our key takeaways…

Our relationship with forgiveness starts young

Many of us grew up within religious traditions with a strict forgiveness narrative — good people must forgive. Whether through the Catholic Church or in the synagogue halls on Yom Kippur, we internalize this message as a belief that if we want to be good people, there is no option but to forgive.

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Parallel to religious narratives, women around our tables grew up with two different types of forgiveness “role models.” On the one hand, some of our parents or caregivers were over-forgivers, perpetually forgiving others and were often taken advantage of or used. For these women, forgiveness was seen as a character flaw — a “weakness” that needed to be fixed. In response, these folks created impenetrable walls of protection to keep themselves “safe” and avoid being taken advantage of.

On the other hand, some grew up in never forgive households, with parents and caregivers who would rather hold a grudge for life than forgive and give away their power to anyone else. Growing up in these bitter homes yields to endless blame and avoidance.

Whether your role models were over-forgivers or never-forgivers, many of us are all left with a prevailing victim mentality that says -you will be hurt and disappointed by life.

Whatever we saw growing up, we all know what it feels like not to forgive

It’s visceral experience we can all relate to. We play the transgression over in our head on an endless loop, ruminating in a messy soup of bitterness, hatred and guilt. We can feel the hurt, anger, resentment festering inside. When we don’t forgive, we contract — there’s a tightness in our chests and stomach that makes it almost impossible to be present and comfortable in our own bodies.

Across our tables, we talked about three different types of forgiveness

1. Societal

a. When we live in cultures or societies in which our government or leadership is behaving in a way that we see as “unforgivable,” the hurt runs deep. This is particularly potent amongst our guests in Venezuela, where the political system has caused immense pain and suffering.

2. Interpersonal

a. First of all, not everything and everyone is forgivable — and that’s okay. But when we do choose to forgive, that choice requires justice. It is important to remember what happened and have that transgression seen and acknowledged in order to eventually let go and move on. But take it a step too far, and it’s easy to get caught up in the “I’m right/you are wrong” loop, which causes more pain and stagnancy. Once we feel justice has been appropriately “served” so to speak, then forgiveness allows us to reclaim our emotional narrative and stand in our own power.

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3. Self

a. It’s familiar territory — we have all been our own biggest critics, holding ourselves to impeccable standards and coming down hard when we don’t measure up. Lack of self-forgiveness creates so much tension and yet, is something we have so much control over. Ultimately, we’re able to forgive others far more readily when we’re already in the practice of forgiving ourselves. When we approach ourselves with compassion and trust, we offer ourselves the right to forgive and love.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a process of transformation

Similar to grief, forgiveness is not a linear path. It doesn’t happen overnight and is often a long and painful process (depending on the level of transgression) which involves the following elements:

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1. Embracing all of our emotions and letting them move through our bodies — We must fully feel our anger, shame, pain and resentment — releasing the constriction and letting the emotions flow through us as they come.

2. Expressing our feelings and frustrations — When we say what we need to say — rather than bury our hurt and anger inside — we can practice boundary and limit-setting with others in a way that aligns with our true needs. For example, imagine forgiving a friend for hurting you, while also putting new limits on that relationship and accepting that it will look different moving forward. How would that feel?

3. Finding Justice — In order to forgive, we need to know that in some way, justice has been served. Whether that’s feeling truly heard and seen in our hurt, or for another to actively acknowledge what they did, justice keeps us safe. We wonder, how do we find justice and forgive in particularly challenging situations, for instance struggles with addiction, abuse, or mental health issues (in ourselves or in our loved ones)? While we have more questions than answers, we wonder how you let go of anger while still staying true to your boundaries here?

4. Transformation — The process of forgiveness “culminates” when we transform or when we see others transform. Ultimately, forgiveness is about the creation of new boundaries, new commitments, and changing the relationship with oneself and others moving forward.

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  1. What are your forgiveness patterns? Do you tend to forgive easily (perhaps too easily?) or is it hard for you to forgive? Have an honest look at your patterns — what’s working for you and where can you grow?
  2. Think about someone or something you’d like to forgive in your life. What has truly stopped you from forgiving? What boundaries or changes need to take place in order to be able to forgive?

Written by

A global community shifting the way we communicate across difference so we can have hard conversations with confidence & compassion. www.dinnerconfidential.org

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