Updated: Sep 16
Forgive and forget. Yeah, right!
Trauma changes us. That’s a fact. We can’t change, nor do we usually choose, the trauma, but we CAN choose how we respond to it.
Let’s use a pretty common and universal trauma – a relationship break up. It’s the worst thing in the world, having your heart broken, your dreams and aspirations shattered, leaving you feeling like part of you has been severed…
It doesn’t even really matter whether you were the dumper or the dumpee… If it was good while it lasted, it’ll hurt when it ends. If it wasn’t good while it lasted – and need I remind you, loyal blog readers, that’ll be true for 1 in 4 women, 1 in 6 men and (altogether now) ALL THEIR CHILDREN – then getting out should feel amazing, right?!
It doesn’t. It still feels crappy because it IS crappy. And you’ll be surrounded by people suggesting that you should be grateful for what you have and telling you that you’re better off out of it… People trying to help you keep your pecker up and make you feel better….
Then, after a while, the F word appears… (Not that one, I don’t expect that one to ever have gone away!)
“You should forgive and forget”
“Forgive them and move on with your life”
“You’re dwelling and the only remedy for that is forgiveness”
And my personal favourite…
“Forgive them… Be the better person”
F No! (See! I told you that one hadn’t gone anywhere!)
Now, I don’t mean “No” on principle; the principle of forgiveness is truly a good one, BUT the notion of what forgiveness is or what it’s for, is, in my humble opinion, usually quite wrong!
Forgiveness is a word not an action.
Recovering is an action.
This is crucial because you can’t start to heal and recover until you’ve begun to understand what ‘forgiveness’ really is.
Forgiveness isn’t about excusing someone’s actions, it’s about not allowing their actions to hurt you any more.
Forgiveness isn’t a magic wand and trauma isn’t a disappearing bunny – we don’t wave the wand of forgiveness and Poof!
Just like that the trauma never happened – we can’t un-ring the bell or turn back time; recovery is learning to live WITH your past, not IN it. Recovery is the journey, acceptance is the destination and a huge part of acceptance is ‘forgiveness’. Not because it removes the seriousness of the trauma, but because it allows space in the mind for recovery. We categorically can’t recover from something we’re still grieving over.
The Emotional Rollercoaster of the grieving process is a ride over which we have very little control – we’re passengers without driving controls — there’s no accelerator, brake, or even steering wheel, once you’re in the car, you’re in for the ride; for the duration…
All losses must be grieved, and grieving is messy. That’s a fact. There are five stages in the grieving process (can you guess what next week’s G blog will be about?!) and if you’re still dealing with any of the first four, you haven’t yet reached the fifth…. Acceptance.
Acceptance does exactly what it says on the tin, so ‘forgiveness’ is part of the package. We accept that things are whatever they are and that whilst we can’t change the start of the story, we can start to change the end.
We go from being (rightly) hurt and angry about whatever happened, to being able to accept that if the thing hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t be the person we are today – we are what we are because of where we came from, warts and all.
All our experiences, good and bad, shape our character, and our ability to ‘forgive’ (or accept) is a huge part of how most of us judge other people’s characters. We prefer to be around people who don’t wallow or seem bitter or resentful because their energy is very different. Misery loves company and is MUCH more infectious than happiness – somehow as humans, we’re conditioned to understand that the bad stuff is easier to believe…
Think about a time when you woke up in a great mood, danced your way through breakfast, put on your jazziest, happiest outfit and emerged on the world like a Cheshire Cat on Class A drugs.
Now think about how fragile that mood really was – it only took one idiot to bump into you because they were busy texting and then look at you as though it were your fault for not having eyes in the back of your head; or one person to say something like, “Oh, I think you’re very brave to wear that!” And the doubts are creeping back in. We feel admonished for existing and superbly aware that we’ve made other people inconvenienced or uncomfortable with our cheeriness…
Now think of a time when you woke up in a foul mood…. The rest goes without saying, doesn’t it?! You KNOW that at least once today, your sleeve will get caught on a door handle… You just know it’ll be one of those days. You can forgive the door handle for ruining your jumper if you like, but that won’t repair your sleeve or keep your arm warm! Accepting that the jumper is ruined, however, may enable you to buy a new one and stay warm.
So, what if we reframe the idea of ‘forgiveness’ as acceptance?
Well, the impact is instant! We go from holding someone else responsible for our happiness to accepting that whatever happened, happened.
We go from being unable to move forward without edification, to being able to accept that edification isn’t likely; so, we go from impotent - because we’re waiting for someone else to apologise or fix something they did, to holding the reality that we can’t control what others do or don’t do, only ourselves.
We go from being angry, bitter and resentful to being serene, reflective and thoughtful.
We shift from thinking “Why did this happen to me?!” To thinking “Sh*t happens”.
We move from a position of blame to a position of responsibility – they may well be to blame for whatever they did to me, but I am responsible for how I let it affect me.
How do we do it?
By acknowledging and allowing the process we’re going through.
We reflect on our ability to influence others versus our ability to influence ourselves – we can’t fix or change anybody else, but we can fix or change ourselves.
We accept that if we’re going to move on from whatever it was, we’re going to have to go there again and change our position – as humans, we become ‘comfortable’ in our persona and change is scary, so this feels terrifying! It’s at this point though that we should ask ourselves a few simple questions:
Am I sick and tired of feeling sick and tired yet?
How exhausting is it to be angry and resentful all the time?
Do I want to be a victim or a survivor?
The word victim conjures up all sorts of thoughts and emotions, doesn’t it? The sort of responses we like, usually – sympathetic, compassionate and empathic; things that reinforce our view of the situation.
We become empowered by our new persona as a victim – it elicits all kinds of kindness that make us feel validated and heard. And we all know that if we want to heal someone, first we must hear them.
None of this is a bad thing – it requires external validation usually for us to accept that we are right to feel hard-done-by, so we can’t begin the journey to Survivordom until we’ve stopped in at Victimhood!
Here’s the thing though; whilst it’s accepted and oft opined that grief has no time scale and we should sit with our feelings and just be, the truth is that it gets very boring, very quickly, for those around us. They don’t want or need to hear our sorrows AGAIN! They want us to ‘get over it’, ‘move on now’, ‘be the better person…. FORGIVE AND FORGET’
Sometimes this is for good reason – grief is described as clinically ‘complex’ if it lasts for longer than six months and, if by this stage, you’re not starting to feel better AT ALL, you should seek some professional help.
Most behaviour though, is modified in cycles of six weeks – that’s why millions of people join the gym in January, never to set foot in there again after March. With any new ‘thing’, the first six weeks are the hardest as we test out the new behaviour – we’re having to actively remind ourselves to practice this new way of being. The next six weeks cement the behaviour as beneficial – we realise that this is alright, actually! And the next six weeks embed the behaviour as second nature – we start to do the new thing without thinking about it and we start to feel like we’d miss the new thing if the old thing came back. (In the case of grief by death, this implies that we’d miss feeling ‘better’ if the overwhelming grief returned).
The standard human attention span for someone else’s grief then, is about six weeks! Grief isn’t superficially beneficial to anybody and consequently, nobody wants to see it embedded as second nature!
If only grief had got the memo! Six weeks is no time at all to recover – recovery lasts a lifetime – but after those first six weeks, we become aware of the impact of our grief on those around us, so we drive it underground.
We ignore it, hoping it will go away or we reserve our emotions for times when we’re alone. We begin to feel conscious of our feelings and we measure ourselves against others’ expectation that we should be ‘over it by now’. We begin to realise that our victim persona is now not so welcomed…
Acceptance though, has a whole different ring to it. If we ask someone if they’re finding acceptance of their new ‘normal’ instead of asking whether they’ve ‘forgiven and forgotten’, we change the inflection of the whole interaction. We go from expecting something based on OUR beliefs, to supporting someone to own THEIR beliefs.
We go from appearing to set the checkpoints and expecting them to be met on our schedule, to joining someone on their journey to find their own checkpoints, in their own time.
We go from appearing to be judgemental to actively being supportive…
So, next time you hear someone say that they think forgiving and forgetting is the right way forward, try to remember that this is likely to be a reflection of THEIR position, not yours. They’re probably using the word ‘forgive’ to try and expedite your grief in order to relieve their own discomfort.
Forgiveness isn’t about excusing something someone else did, it’s about finding peace for yourself
Reframing forgiveness as acceptance makes the process seem less pressured – you’re accepting for your own benefit rather than forgiving for someone else’s
Recovery is learning to live WITH your past, not IN it. You can’t do that without acceptance
If you wake up in a bad mood, wear short sleeves
Acceptance is liberating!
JLTS provides loss, attachment and trauma advice to families through our free family support services. As ever, if you have any comments or to see how we can help you please get in touch!