Following a compassionate impulse, forgiveness unfolds: “I can see your pain; it reminds me of mine.”
I have always felt that forgiveness is difficult. Sometimes, I needed years to be able to forgive someone fully. Not because I am someone who holds grudges, and nor for lack of trying. Many times, I thought I had forgiven someone only to consequently be blindsided by the dismaying realization that there were still, within me, traces of unforgiveness.
A few years ago, when I was still a practicing counselor and an expressive arts therapist, I took part in an intensive couples’ therapy training. The chosen location for the training was a beautiful retreat center, home to an intentional community, set on 19 acres of native bush. A stream rolled gently through a bed of rocks, among the old trees, from one side of the retreat land to the other. The holistic village was tucked in amongst endemic vegetation. I had visited this sanctuary on a few different occasions before and had fallen in love with its pristine beauty and the vision it set for both its live-in members and for the larger community.
A common learning tool in therapeutic training is practicing with peers in dyads or triads. That basically means trying on the new theories and methods of working with colleagues. The format is one where one person is the therapist, one is the client and the third one is a witness-observer. The trainees are encouraged that, when being the client, it is best to bring a personal issue in to the therapeutic conversation, so that the learning is genuine and of value.
Along my various participations in previous trainings over the years, we were usually made aware of the importance of remaining sensitive to the fact that the person taking the role of the client was placing him or herself in a vulnerable position. The instruction was to remain considerate of that fact throughout our peer practices. In my experience, when in such an intensive training where these dyad or triad exercises are many and repeated, the feelings of all involved are being stirred and a lot of unconscious material is brought to the surface. Emotions run high.
On this particular day, I was paired with two female colleagues to practice a new therapeutic intervention. I was the therapist in our triad and, to be honest, I didn’t feel confident to do what was asked of us. The material was so new, after all, but I felt reassured by the fact that everyone was in the same boat as me. The colleague enacting the client was a tall woman, whom I shall call Olivia. Olivia was an experienced counselor, who came across as a confident and outspoken person. She emanated physical strength and vigor.
Triggered In Public
I was fumbling through the questions and instructions on the worksheet in front of me, and I don’t remember what I said, but I vividly remember Olivia’s reaction. Her words pierced through my wraps of concentration:
“What the f___ did I just say? I just said that, didn’t I…?”
Both the words and what I perceived as the emotion accompanying her reaction sent me into a freeze state. My initial response was truly one of shock. My eyes started to fill up with tears, which I managed to hide. But what I wasn’t able to hide was the ensuing shaking of my body. Our colleague acting as the witness-observer remained silent.
I am aware that in a different context (another day, another person), I might have been able to shrug off those words or feel less upset. Not in that particular moment, though. A few seconds later, I got up and walked away, without being able to utter a single word. I realized I was very angry and in full fight or flight response. I furiously stepped away as far away from her and the situation as I could.
I left the venue and marched through the retreat grounds until I found a place where I felt safe to stop. Close to the river, near a bridge and a statue of Buddha, I sat down on a little wooden bench. The tears came now, and uninhibitedly drenched my face. I was quite aware in those moments that my colleague’s words had triggered something very sensitive in my being. Sitting there, on that little bench, I felt like a child — like a child who was trying her best to be a diligent student, but is not allowed, and is even harshly admonished or punished for making mistakes. Painful memories from a long time ago were lurking just beneath my conscious awareness.
Grieving In Secret
I attempted to find some soothing in the sight of the Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the trees around me, but their slight dance in the gentle wind did not do anything for me in those moments. Neither did the warm caress of the sun on my face. I then made an effort to bring some adult rationality into my hugely emotional state. All I managed to do was to shield with anger and indignation: “How unprofessional of her. How dare she talk to me that way?”
I avoided Olivia for the reminder of the training.
To this day, I regret not addressing this transgression, particularly as I could have done so in the safety of the next morning’s self-reflective circle. As Fred Luskin noted, “what you’re grieving can’t be a secret.”1 A vast body of research shows that it is of paramount importance that our difficult emotions need to be shared with a few trusted people in our entourage. This becomes a catalyst for remedy.
I am of the opinion that forgiveness does not automatically imply reconciliation. For reconciliation to happen, both or all individuals involved need to choose to restore together the broken bridge between them. And, sometimes, not even that is a guarantee for success, nor is it a must. Repairing damaged emotional bonds and rebuilding trust back into the relationship can be Sisyphean work. When reconciliation is not possible or desired, forgiveness is important for the restoration of our own emotional integrity.
Forgiveness Without Receiving An Apology
The “how” and “what” of Olivia’s words to me were a transgression that I was not able to shake off for a long while. If I were to be completely honest, I still haven’t entirely forgiven her to this day. This begs the following observation: forgiveness is more difficult in the absence of acknowledgement from the perpetrator of the wrongdoing or abuse. This absence can look like the person doing the harm is denying their responsibility, justifying his or her actions, deflecting blame, making excuses, etc. An apology from Olivia would have gone a long way for me.
If neither the person who has wronged us, nor those who have silently witnessed the injustice say anything on the matter, it is important that we do the acknowledgment ourselves. And that’s just the first step of many.
Although I did acknowledge to myself how Olivia spoke to me that day was not right, I carried on being angry for a long time. I could recognize my anger as part of the forgiving process, but I seemed to have gotten stuck there. I became angry with myself for not speaking up when or after it happened. I even projected my own sense of helplessness underlying the fury onto the colleague who witnessed the interaction and didn’t say anything.
Despite the fact that I could rationally understand my own process around what this event had triggered for me, and I could even hazard some informed assumptions around what had happened for Olivia in those moments, emotionally I had a different experience. Rationalizing only got me to a certain point and it wasn’t enough to shift me into a different emotion.
As a result, for a period of time after that, I slid into rumination and brooding in which I had intrusive, recurring thoughts of the event and resentful fantasies of a different outcome of our interaction. All these are, of course, indicative of unprocessed grief.
According to many scholars writing extensively on this topic, forgiveness is a process which begins with processing one’s grief around the injurious event. The emotions one may need to process before one can forgive are manifold: anger, sadness, bitterness, despair, grief, resentment, fear, helplessness. In fact, I would say that the ideal forgiveness is achieved through a process of openness and exploration between both the injured person and the wrongdoer. In the absence of that ideal, I believe we can still cultivate forgiveness ourselves. Jack Kornfield2puts it beautifully: “Forgiveness is not just about the other. It’s really for the beauty of your soul.”
Conscious Forgiving Is A Choice
To that, I would add that forgiveness is also a conscious and ongoing practice. It is not a one-time lesson, mastered for the rest of one’s life. Conscious forgiving is a choice and, one we need to make over and over again, for as long as it takes. This repeated conscious choosing is a non-sentimental pledge to the act of forgiving. As novices in this practice, in this way we can hope to transform it into a living art.
There were times in my life when I have been more successful in forgiving. There are times when I manage to get further in this process. Usually, these are aided by the person who has wronged me acknowledging their actions.
I have learned to get it right sometimes. True forgiveness can begin to creep in when, slowly and very gradually, I feel and see the other as absolutely human and flawed, just as I am. When I see the other just as overwhelmed by life’s many burdens as I am, struggling as much as I do, equally trying to cope with and make sense of life, relationships, and his or her emotions, then I wonder if their emotions do what mine do: show up uninvited like unannounced, famished guests who leave us with an empty pantry.
Forgiveness is calling out our own ability to get out of ourselves and feel the other’s humanity and vulnerability, as well as their weakness and lack. It’s asking us to gently hold these in the palms of our hands, just as we do with our own vulnerabilities. This kind of empathy is possible only if we are first compassionate towards our own pain.
This is where it gets tricky: it is also true that we learn self-compassion only after we experience others being compassionate and kind towards us. I began to see how interconnected we truly are, like links in a multidirectional chain. We reach our hands out to one another, only to see that we are very much alike when it comes to our most significant wounding. Following a compassionate impulse, forgiveness sprouts: “I can see your pain, it reminds me of mine.”
In this timid touch, a profound understanding emerges, which is: you hurt me to tell me someone had hurt you. You are showing me exactly how you have been hurt and what it felt like for you at the time. This is your way of surviving, of asking to be seen in your pain. As Thich Nhat Hanh3 said: “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment: he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.”
Forgiveness is a road on which we see that this is everyone else’s fate and pain. It is a very personal experience, but a universal one at the same time.
- Fred Luskin: “What is Forgiveness”, in Greater Good Magazine, 2010, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_is_forgiveness
- Jack Kornfield: “The Ancient Heart of Forgiveness”, in Greater Good Magazine, 2010
- Susan Steinbrecher: “The Monk who challenged the way we think: Thich Nhat Hanh on living mindfully”, in Inc. Magazine, 2019
Aniela Clitan writes prose, poetry and essays with great pleasure in both English and Romanian, her native language. Her professional background is in psychotherapy and expressive therapies, having practiced in New Zealand, where she lived for 16 years.