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Unforgiveness | Five Steps To Reverse It Today!
by Wyatt Fisher, Psy.D. and Michelle Graham
What is unforgiveness?
Unforgiveness is holding hurt, anger, or animosity towards another person for something they have done to you intentionally or unintentionally.
Have you ever seen someone try to help an injured animal? It can be a nerve-wracking experience. It’s a well-known fact that hurt animals – even the most domesticated ones – can’t be trusted. They might bite, scratch, or kick the very person trying to help out. We humans can be just like those animals; when we’re in pain, we’re more likely to hurt people around us. That’s why unforgiveness in marriage and dating relationships is so dangerous.
Unforgiveness hinders prayers and true intimacy. Think about it. If we gather hurt upon hurt and never let any of it go, the walls we build don’t come down easily. The only way to connect with others is to be open and vulnerable. And being vulnerable means processing our pain and forgiving the people who hurt us. Yet, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Some hurts are so deep they feel like they will never go away.
Because of the way romantic relationships work, unforgiveness blocks blessings. Apologies left unsaid and pain left unhealed can totally destroy the fellowship we have often spent months or years developing. Soon we find ourselves running away from one another instead of confiding, hoping other people will provide that safe place we feel has been lost. If we want to preserve true intimacy and grow closer, we need to learn radical forgiveness and this article will show you five steps on how to do it today.
1 – Understand Their Past
Everyone has a story behind them. These stories can make us stronger, or they can make us feel weak. Sometimes events in our past feel so far away that they don’t have any pull on our current actions, but that’s not always true. As you embark on a mission of forgiveness, think about the kind of life the other person has had. Did they grow up with positive behavior models, or did they have to make up everything on their own? When parents and guardians are distant or abusive, it takes a toll. It’s difficult to grow up with one example of adulthood and try to develop a different one when we are of age. There’s a reason we say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree: many of us will become like our parents, whether we like it or not.
Our childhoods are the foundations of our adult lives. Whether we felt loved or not can leave us feeling unfulfilled or perfectly content. How did you grow into the person you are today? Did you feel satisfied by love given to you by your parents? Feeling unloved or uncared for as a child can create emotional baggage that’s hard to get rid of. Some children who grow up feeling unloved spend their whole lives convinced that they aren’t worthy of anyone’s love. Believing that lie can lead to them hurting others.
If the person who hurt you comes from a family that can’t handle conflict in a healthy way, then even a simple miscommunication can lead to a fiasco of hurt. In the beginning of a couple’s relationship, it feels like nothing can go wrong. We're on top of the world when the promise of love is in the air. But when someone says something that sounds cruel, how we react often depends on how our younger selves reacted to conflict in the home.
In a final step to develop empathy, which is essential to reverse unforgiveness, think of how they were treated by other people growing up. Was middle school a nightmare or a walk in the park? Did their siblings berate them for terrible fashion choices, or were their brothers and sisters the best of friends? Having positive communication with non-parent family members often leads to healthy communication as a significant other. Think, too, of how they were used to being treated. If life has taught them to expect to be teased or tormented, they may constantly be waiting for it no matter how safe they are. A person who is always on the defensive may not be able to see when others are just trying to help. On the other hand, someone who is accustomed to being well-liked and praised will be thrown for a loop if that treatment doesn’t continue.
2 – Understand Their Present
It’s amazing how a bad day at work can color everything else in our lives. If you’ve ever had a string of bad days, you know how easy it is to let them get you down. Sometimes it feels like nothing is ever going to get better. These are the times when we are the most likely to hurt other people. When life gets crazy and we are tired (or even just “hungry”), many of us might just be an inch away from losing it altogether. If you’ve been hurt recently and are trying to forgive someone for their actions against you, think about how their week or month has gone. Do they feel like the odds are stacked against them? Is their boss haranguing them for something that wasn’t even their fault? Lots of things can factor into how we treat the people around us.
Some people are lucky when it comes to being able to handle stress – they can just go work out and everything sweats off. Or, perhaps, they don’t seem to notice the stress at all! But others need hours of Netflix binging and ice cream consumption to feel normal after a rough day. What one person thinks is non-stressful could feel like trying to find a job in a recession for someone else. Conflict can arise when two significant others both handle stress differently. It’s important to remember that stress affects all of us in different ways, and sometimes it can turn us into monstrous versions of ourselves.
There could be a multitude of other issues that instigated hurtful behavior. Any number of challenges could create a butterfly effect. There may even be things happening that you are not aware of. Is a sibling causing problems and strife in their family? Or did a missed alarm set the entire day in a downward spiral? If you take a moment to think of things that could have sparked their lashing out, you may be able to find a quicker way into empathy. Try putting yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would have acted if you were living their life. Looking at the present situation from their perspective is a simple way to understand why they acted the way they did, and can be a crucial step to radical forgiveness.
3 – Understand Your Part
It's our nature to avoid blame. We’ve been passing the buck for centuries, and some of us are so good at it that we don’t even notice when we do it. It’s simply easier to admit that someone else has worse faults than we do. It can be a matter of pride – we don’t like being wrong. Never making a mistake gives us a sense of control and importance that’s difficult to let go. The problem is, if you apply this blame-passing to your whole life, something is bound to go wrong.
This is not to say that someone else’s actions were your fault, but you may have contributed in some way. Don’t shy away from a chance to admit you were wrong, too. Admitting you had a part might actually make forgiveness easier for both of you. Try to think of what you may have said that led to the moment you were hurt. Were you rehashing a common argument with your significant other, or complaining about something you know they can’t control? Your words are powerful and even a small phrase could have caused a chain reaction.
Think, too, of how you have become accustomed to dealing with issues together. Some of the people closest to us have been conditioned to react in certain ways to particular situations. Think of siblings who constantly fight because they don’t see eye-to-eye on most things. If one of them suddenly has a change of heart and tries to be kinder, the other may see it as a sneaky manipulation act. In the same way, the way you are with your significant other may have conditioned them to react negatively to things you do or say. Has your past behavior been building up to this moment? Leaving the blame solely with the other person is one of the easiest ways to destroy the relationship. If you both continue to live by not taking ownership for your part, nothing will ever change. Your significant other will continue to say and act as he or she does, and you will do the same. But if you can take a step –a tough step– toward admitting partial blame for your shared troubles, you may be able to reverse the cycle of negative interactions.
4 – Understand Your Past
After being in a terrible car accident, many people develop a fear of driving. Pets who hear the sound of their food dish being filled get excited for dinner. Just as we condition others to react to us in certain ways, we can be conditioned, too. This “norm” of behavior isn’t always the healthiest, but for many of us it’s the only way we know to act in some situations. The same thing can happen when we are one half of a couple – the regular responses we have for day-to-day occurrences might not be the best responses for each situation. Some of us have spent our lives conditioning ourselves to overreact or, conversely, to under-react with extreme calmness.
It’s hard to reconcile things in our past with the present issue of being hurt by someone. Big and small events alike can have an effect all the way from second grade to our second career. Conditioning can make some of us react to situations while having no idea why we did what we did. Wounds in your past might be making you behave negatively, which can only make a hurtful situation worse. If you think you might have made a bad situation go even further down the drain, take a step back and look at what you’ve said and done. Did you conduct yourself like someone whose past hurts are coloring the present situation?
Immediate reactions are often emotional and based on pre-existing fears and needs. Sometimes arguments blossom from a conversation simply because the other person accidentally said something to offend us. Many of us have these conditioned responses because they help us to cope with the fear of being hurt again. The only problem is, that person may have had absolutely no idea that their words would hurt. People who respond to the past can learn to spot those reactions before they make an appearance. Conditioning might make it so we don’t have to think too much about what to do or say in a difficult situation, but we should also learn to not always go with our gut reactions. Before you let all of the hurt from your present pile up and ruin a relationship, consider how your past might be influencing your state of mind and contributing to your unforgiveness. From there, it’s a matter of being aware of the pattern and learning to recognize and deal with it before it causes any more harm.
5 – Remember Your Brokenness
We are all human, and we all make mistakes. Maybe today someone close to you hurt you, but tomorrow those roles could be reversed. Instead of holding forgiveness back, think of our common brokenness and give forgiveness willingly. By offering forgiveness to another person, you set yourself up for the same blessing in the future. It’s very difficult to shift our focus away from how hurt we feel. When things hurt, especially emotionally, it can feel like being caught in a black hole. What your loved one did could have been devastating, but you are not alone. People all over the world are hurting.
We are each responsible for our own actions, and sadly, none of us seem to be able to get through life without hurting at least a few people. Remember that you are broken, too, and maybe even spend some time thinking of when you have hurt others in your life. It’s a tough thing to think about, but it can make a world of difference. Don’t get stuck on how the other person constantly messes up or how they just need to change. Have you said things in anger or used past grievances to manipulate your way? Sometimes we all need a little change for the better.
Our human nature wants to dwell on how hurt we feel and demand recompense – forgiveness is rarely the first thing we think of after a fight. That same human nature comes with weaknesses that make life difficult for those closest to us. This isn’t an excuse to shove the blame onto someone else, but it is a chance to recognize the things we do and say every day that need to change. We cannot always be enough for our significant other – it’s up to God to do that – but we can make sure that we aren’t a hindrance to a happy, contented life.
Take stock of the way you treat the people closest to you. Many of us hurt people with our words. We may have spent elementary school saying that words can never hurt us, but now that we’re grown-ups many of us find that we would prefer the sticks and stones. We also hurt one another by not trusting them or by treating the relationship as a kind of game to be won. We fail at being a good listener or have unrealistic expectations of how a relationship should be. All of these faults can come from our own fears and hurts. If we want to be able to apply radical forgiveness, it’s good to put our own frailty in perspective.
This list is in no way intended to make excuses for hurtful behavior. Whatever happened cannot and should not be ignored, but many of us have no idea how to start the process of forgiving. Instead of using this list to lay or claim blame, use it to investigate and explore the circumstances that most likely influenced it. When our partner hurts us we usually feel they are 100% to blame, which results in a harsh approach by attacking them with our words, encouraging them to get defensive in response. In contrast, meditating on the list above usually shifts our heart from feeling they are 100% to blame to more like 40-60% to blame, which softens our heart and allows us to have a gentler approach to the issue, helping them hear it and take ownership for the parts that are their fault. In addition, empathy is almost always needed before forgiveness can occur and the five steps above are some of the best ways to cultivate empathy towards your partner's hurtful behavior. For some of you, it may be helpful to receive marriage counseling to help you work through these steps. In sum, the next time you feel unforgiveness taking over your heart consider their upbringing, their current situation, your possible contribution, your past, and your own brokenness. Doing so will fill your heart with compassion and help pave the way towards forgiveness and reconciliation.
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What steps from the article can you implement in your life this week?