They hurt you. They’re not sorry. But what if your anger is harming you even more than they did?
A few years back, I was angry with everyone who didn’t accept me for being true to myself. Recognizing that it was costing myself my peace, I decided to speak to someone about it. My confidant said, “You have to forgive.”
Only after going home did I realize that I had no idea what it meant to forgive. I read up about it and asked people. Most sources said it was about letting go of resentment. This definition made sense and was exactly what I needed to hear.
But when I sat down to do it, I experienced a new dilemma: My anger was justified, for the people I was angry with had hurt me. So, how exactly was I supposed to let go?
As highly sensitive people (HSPs), our talents, interests, and dislikes are shaped by what our nervous systems can handle. We tend to avoid things that are overstimulating. And what we do enjoy might not be considered “good” by those around us.
So then we feel unaccepted, and some of us may be ridiculed and bullied for being ourselves. This deeply affects us, and we may internalize the rejection, along with people’s hurtful comments and actions. In response, we might feel angry or resentful.
However, as sensitive people, we want to be kind and understanding, and the anger makes us feel worse about ourselves. We might also notice that it occupies our thoughts, affects our relationships, and causes us stress and physical discomfort. In fact, much research has pointed to the harmful impact stress can have on us.
So… we may see the need to forgive those who hurt us. But forgiveness can feel like a big, abstract word that’s difficult to understand and even harder to translate into action. In this article, we’ll explore what forgiveness is — and how we can forgive as HSPs.
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What It Really Means to Forgive Someone
When I couldn’t figure out how to forgive on my own, I reached out to a friend. She suggested I try an exercise that helped her: “Write down all the things the person you want to forgive did to you. Then pray, commit to forgiving, say ‘I forgive’ and tear the paper into pieces.”
I tried this. It was rewarding listing all their faults and fun tearing up the paper. And once I had finished, I happily thought, “Yes! I’ve forgiven.”
A few weeks later, I saw one of the people who had hurt me and felt resentful once more. Had I really let go and forgiven them?
Years went by before I saw that person again. But this time, I was not angry. I knew I had truly forgiven and wondered just how I managed to get there. Apart from the time that had passed, and the distance between us, the only other major change in my life was that I had healed from the effects of their hurtful words and behavior. I had received counseling, processed my thoughts, and rebuilt my self-esteem. I had also learned to embrace my identity as an HSP. I made no other special effort to forgive during this time. For me, forgiveness was a delightful corollary to healing.
Forgiveness is letting go of anger, but it’s also so much more. It’s a journey through which we get to a state where we feel unperturbed even when we see (or remember) the people and circumstances that hurt us. We are no longer triggered by them, and encountering a similar scenario does not break our self-confidence or cause us to react disproportionately. We can only reach this state of forgiveness if we heal.
In the book Forgiveness is a Choice, Dr. Robert D. Enright says, “Anger is the symptom, but injustice is the cause. The forgiveness process takes care of the symptoms by addressing the cause.” In other words, the process by which we acknowledge, deal with, and recover from the cause of our pain is what I understand as healing.
So, after struggling with forgiveness for years, I now understand it as the state of peace that we come into when we heal from our pain.
Now, let’s look at specifics regarding what forgiveness is not.
5 Things Forgiveness Is Not:
1. Condoning bad behavior
After listening to a woman talk about how she recovered from trauma and rediscovered herself, I asked her what she thought about forgiveness. She shook her head as she answered, “Forgiveness is accepting their behavior as ‘okay’. And I will never do that!”
One of the most common misconstructions is that forgiving means excusing bad behavior. If that’s what forgiveness is, I’m not sure any of us would — or should — forgive. Thankfully, it’s not. We can forgive a person while still condemning their behavior as unacceptable.
You might have heard the common saying “Forgive and forget.” But do we have to forget to forgive?
As we forgive, we might find that we don’t think about the people who hurt us, or what they did, as much as we did before. However, we might not “forget” what happened, nor do we have to.
You see, our memories are there to guide us as we interact with the world. It’s helpful to retain old memories — including the negative ones — as they inform us about what to do when we meet similar scenarios in the future. Our experiences also help us empathize with others experiencing difficult situations. So we can forgive without forgetting.
3. Pretending it didn’t happen
Another suggestion is to “carry on like nothing happened.” This may not be healthy either.
When we are hurt, we experience the negative consequences of that encounter. We might feel confused and invalidate ourselves if we try to pretend as if it didn’t happen at all or that we were not affected by it.
Further, not addressing our hurt can lead to repressed emotions. This can then cause these emotions to come up when we don’t expect them to, Or, they can manifest as chronic stress, which causes physical and psychological disease. Hence, it’s better to acknowledge what happened and go through the process of healing and forgiving.
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4. Fixing the relationship
Forgiving people who hurt us doesn’t mean trying to reconcile with them. That may not always be safe. They might hurt us again.
While we don’t need to give up on them, it helps to acknowledge that it takes a lot of work to heal and change. And the people who hurt us may not have done the work. It’s best to forgive, while maintaining our boundaries and staying safe.
5. Being dependant upon an apology
Finally, forgiveness need not depend on an apology. (I know — it’s not fair!)
In sixth grade, one of my classmates complained to the teacher that someone teased her. After hearing both sides of the story, the teacher asked the child who had done the teasing to apologize. Grudgingly, she said, “I’m sorry.” The teacher then asked the child who complained to forgive her classmate. She went on to tell the whole class that it’s not okay to tease people, and how, if we do something hurtful, we should say “I’m sorry.” And that if our offenders apologize, we should forgive them.
While this is ideal, few people ever apologize. If forgiveness depended on apologies, most of us would never forgive others. We don’t have to wait for an apology, however. In fact, forgiveness could include letting go of the expectation that the person who hurt us will apologize.
So, How Do You Forgive Someone?
There are several processes that help people forgive. These include the REACH model — Recall the hurt; Empathize (with the person); Altruistic gift; Commit; and Hold onto forgiveness — as well as the Enright Process Model of Forgiveness. Here is the process that I went through as I healed — and, consequently, forgave.
1. Build intentional boundaries
It’s very difficult to forgive when the trauma is ongoing. It’s easier when there is distance between us and our offenders, and when we are in a safe place. For this, we might have to make hard choices and draw clear lines that others are not allowed to cross. In other words, we may need to leave toxic situations.
The boundaries we build might be physical. For instance, we might have to move away from a toxic environment. Boundaries may also take other forms, especially when the trauma is recurrent or chronic. For example, a topic of conversation that causes a lot of pain within a family can be off-limits when its members come together. Creating, and maintaining, boundaries while forgiving ensures that we are not hurt further.
2. Invest in your own healing
We have to heal from our emotional triggers and wounds before we can truly forgive the ones who caused them. Healing is often a long and arduous process, with many layers of hurt to deal with. We will have to be patient with ourselves, too, and invest time into the process.
Further, it may not always be possible to heal by ourselves. We can invest in our healing by reading about it, plugging into communities that are working on recovery, and reaching out to professionals. For instance, this is where working with a therapist can be important.
3. Rebuild yourself
As sensitive people, the things that people say and do can affect us considerably. We might even begin to believe the negative comments people make about us or doubt our worth because of how we’ve been treated.
Therefore, it helps to question the validity of the negative beliefs that we hold about ourselves. For me, understanding that I am highly sensitive and embracing my nature helped a lot. When we rediscover and reclaim who we are, the people and things that hurt us begin to fade into insignificance.
4. Acknowledge human limitations
It’s in an HSP’s nature to try to understand why people hurt us. Sometimes we find that they do so without meaning to. But what really bothers us are deliberate acts of not being nice. It’s hard to forgive people under these circumstances. We might also wonder why people who know they have hurt us don’t acknowledge what they have done or apologize.
It might help to remember that humans are imperfect. We do bad things sometimes. And we don’t always have the courage or self-confidence to right the wrong. Learning to accept that the people who hurt us are imperfect makes it easier to let go of the expectation that they will apologize. Acknowledging that they are humans allows us to be compassionate and forgiving.
5. Forgive yourself, too
Finally, when we are angry, the thoughts and intentions we have toward others might be negative and can shock us. As HSPs, we might feel bad for thinking like this. At this point, it helps to remember that our anger was not without cause — we were hurt and we had the right to be angry. It was in forgiving that we let go of our desire to extract vengeance.
It also helps to understand that we, too, are imperfect humans. Remembering that, we can have self-compassion and forgive ourselves for how we’ve acted, thought, and felt in our anger.
Why Do the Hard Work of Forgiving Others?
As highly sensitive people, we are often bullied, sensitive to passive-aggression, and told to be “less-sensitive.” Our anger may be justified, so we might wonder why we should do the hard work of forgiving.
From personal experience, I have learned that forgiveness can be life-changing. Further, research shows that, with forgiveness, comes happiness, peace, sound sleep, better relationships, reduced stress, and improved mental and physical health.
In essence, forgiveness helps us bring out the best in ourselves and to remember the best in others. Although it may take time, internal strength, and lots of compassion, it’s well worth the effort because, in the long run, it benefits us more than we may realize.
You might like:
- Why It’s So Hard for HSPs to Let Go
- Trauma Hits Differently When You’re a Highly Sensitive Person. Here’s Why (and What to Do About It)
- These 8 Things Bring Peace to Highly Sensitive People
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