November 30, 2013 8:28 AM   Subscribe

How do you know when you've truly forgiven someone? How do you let go of old pain when you've long ago forgiven the person who caused it? Is it possible to truly forgive someone but still not want them in your life?

This is mostly about my family : a negative, abusive lot whom I cut out of my life over a decade ago. However, there are also old friends and romantic partners who I had to cut out of my life for various reasons (most of them valid).

I feel like I've forgiven the people who wronged me. I mean, I don't blame my problems on them; I take full responsibility for all of my actions. I don't want anything bad to happen to them; if anything, I hope they evolve, because nearly all of them are stuck in some kind of awful arrested development, and none of them live happy lives. I can even sympathize with them a bit, in that I have a pretty good idea what made them so messed up to begin with.

But here's the thing : I still find myself thinking about these people! It's like the twitch of a phantom limb. Why am I still thinking about these people whom I haven't seen in ages? These people could not possibly have less of an influence on my day-to-day life. Why are they still in my head? Does this mean that I haven't truly forgiven them? What more can I do?

Of course these memories are accompanied by a deep shame, because even though I recognize that it wasn't my fault these people were cruel to me, there's still some part of me that is still deeply embarrassed.

I'd like to let go of the pain already. It's been long enough. For a long time, I refused to forgive these people because I was afraid it would weaken my resolve and they could gain power over me again. But I've since gotten over all that. Thing is, even though I don't hate these people, they're all very negative people who will not ever contribute to my happiness. (you'll just have to trust me on that one) Is it possible to truly forgive someone, yet recognize they're dangerous and keep them out of your life? Some people really are that negative.

To clarify : it's not that I spend my whole day thinking about them. In fact, they occupy very little of my thoughts. But I still think about them, and worse, dream about them. I've mostly moved on from the pain; I've built myself a successful life and have reached a level of emotional maturity that I never thought possible. Maybe there's no clean way to get these people out of my head. Maybe it'll just take time.
posted by evil otto to Human Relations (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Why are they still in my head? Does this mean that I haven't truly forgiven them? What more can I do?

Because these people and what they did were important parts of your life. That's why you continue to think about them. Forgiving someone doesn't mean forgetting what they did. (In fact, I'd argue that forgiving means not forgetting.) It sounds like you've forgiven them to me.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:36 AM on November 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

Forgiving and forgetting aren't the same thing, and one doesn't necessarily include the other.
posted by slkinsey at 8:37 AM on November 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Maybe the next step for you is about acceptance. For better or worse, these people shaped your life. They were the hand you were dealt, and you can't change that. You've already done so much good work in getting yourself to a better place, but you can't erase the past. The longer you live, though, the less importance early events will have.
posted by emjaybee at 8:37 AM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

To add :

I guess it doesn't help that I'm still in the process of figuring out why things were so fucked up in my early life. It's like, every couple months or so I'll figure out what was really going on during a particularly painful experience. Or, like, talking to people who have happy families, and realizing that something awful about my childhood was not in fact universal, but specific to a certain kind of really unhappy home.

Also, I realize to some extent that being embarrassed about something a younger, less knowledgeable me did is a sign that I grew up. I guess I would just like to change my internal reaction from "oh my god I can't believe I did that!" to "oh my god, I'm so glad I don't do things like that anymore!"
posted by evil otto at 8:37 AM on November 30, 2013

Forgiving and healing are not the same thing. I think you need to forgive in order to heal but healing is a separate process. Therapy for the shame/recurring thoughts because they're affecting your life today. Not having those people in your life anymore is totally fine and has nothing to do with forgiveness, everything to do with healing.
posted by headnsouth at 8:39 AM on November 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

But here's the thing : I still find myself thinking about these people!...Does this mean that I haven't truly forgiven them?

No, it doesn't mean that. Forgiveness is not forgetting. In fact, many people make the opposite mistake. They think that forgetting is forgiving, but as soon as those memories come back, their resentment is there just as strong (if not stronger).

If you no longer bear resentment, grudge, or ill will, you have forgiven someone. If you do not feel these things when you have thoughts of these people, I think it is safe to say you have forgiven them in truth. There is a healing to forgiveness, though. It heals yourself and the damaged relationship.

And yes, it is possible to forgive a person but still recognize that they would be dangerous to keep in your life. The difference is that you aren't staying away because you hate them, but because you know it would be bad for you (or perhaps even then) if you have contact.

These excerpts from my religious tradition are surely more eloquent that what I have just written. Some of them are secular if that is your inclination, and I particularly note the excerpt about Yevgeny Yevtushenko's trip to Moscow. Please read or disregard them as you may be inclined.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:40 AM on November 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Of course. I know this may sound intellectually or culturally beneath the snobbish likes of Metafilter, but on The Hills, the main character told her one time best friend who made up an ugly sex tape rumor about her,"I want to forgive you, and forget you."

I've felt that feeling myself. But you have feelings for a reason and the main thing you need to do over being forgiving is to not stew. Let the person go, limit contact, and don't stir thoughts up in your mind about it. You don't have to be completely perfectly, angelically, virtuously pure. You just have to keep yourself in check and do what makes you feel calm and strong and able to manage your emotions.
posted by discopolo at 8:57 AM on November 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

You might find some CBT exercises (there are workbooks I've seen recommended on askme) helpful in derailing the thought patterns that are bugging you now.

And nthing that forgiving and forgetting are unrelated.
posted by rtha at 9:01 AM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sometimes there is a sense of loss, if you used to value those people and your relationship with them. You may realize there is no viable relationship any more but still miss aspects of it and of them. You may miss the person you were when you trusted those people. If it was (as your question hints at) a person who was in a position of responsibility when you were young, you may feel a kind of grief that you were let down so badly. Or you may be second-guessing yourself and feeling, even all evidence to the contrary, that you could have made things turn out differently. These things can be intractable because situations don't usually go that badly wrong for only one reason; you can usually not identify a single cause that would allow you to put it to bed, mentally.

I will say that if you ever experience real forgiveness in your direction it may inspire you to forgive more. A couple of experiences with mutual forgiveness have really opened my eyes to how much this can mean. But it has to be worth it for you.
posted by BibiRose at 9:30 AM on November 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

"These people could not possibly have less of an influence on my day-to-day life. Why are they still in my head?"

Because you are still processing what happened, understandably -- as you say in your follow-up comment, you are still getting new information to this day, and are still "figuring out what was really going on." All of which informs how you reflect on your past, and all of which must also be processed.

IMHO, you've forgiven them, and it sounds like you have done a lot of personal work and have enviable, healthy boundaries. Good for you. That they are still in your head is not necessarily a bad thing. Your best self wants to protect you from being hurt by these kinds of people and behaviors again, so of course they'll pop up in your head from time to time. Rest assured though that in time, perhaps years from now, when you stop receiving new information, when you are settled into middle age, the sense of loss you feel should be less acute - but I would not count on ever forgetting.

My DH had an abusive childhood, and by age 30 was sure he'd made peace with it, forgave, got the toxic people out of his life. But once he became a father himself it was like you said - he started "figuring out what was really going on." Seeing the world through a father's eyes gave him a newfound appreciation for the wrongness of his parents' abuse. He had to process it all over again. But with therapy, personal work, continued boundary work, and time, he's once again in a good place with regard to his past - which he has bravely continued to confront and process when it comes up. Hugs to you.
posted by hush at 9:43 AM on November 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Forgiving" has a special meaning in your world view. You would like to check the "forgive" box because of this but this formulation is actually getting in your way.

I would like to tell you to forget about forgiving, but I'm afraid you won't listen to me. Forgiving isn't an achievement. You get no credit for it. It is not a remedy. It doesn't make the past go away.

If there's any forgiving to be done, it is you you must forgive. You need to forgive yourself for feeling ashamed and embarrassed when you think of the past. You need to not be impatient with yourself for not being over it.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:15 AM on November 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

I can relate a lot to what you're saying. Not sure how old you are, but I'm 44. I moved far away from and mostly cut ties to my toxic family of origin at 17. I closed the door entirely at 28. Like you, I've accepted the facts of my upbringing and realize that the players were all doing their best with the hands they were dealt.

I still feel how those early experiences shape me and I think I always will. They are not immutable or indelible but they happened and they shaped me. It's the fact, the starting point.

That's true for you, too. That's true for ALL people. I think that as you get older and grow you will always find that you touch upon your upbringing. Sometimes to grieve it, sometimes to consider things in a new light, sometimes to do the conscious work of learning to do things differently and better, which can require examining early learnings in detail.

I think it's ok and necessary, though if you find that you're really stuck and can't put your focus on the present and the future, it's a good sign that you're wrestling with an issue that would benefit from help by a helpful, impartial observer like a counselor or therapist.

Growing is hard for everyone and especially so for those of us who were dealt a really crappy hand to start. Be kind to yourself and keep fighting the good fight. Best of luck.
posted by Sublimity at 10:50 AM on November 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Forgiving them will not make them safe people. Nothing you do will make them safe people. Wisdom lies in knowing when people are unsafe and cutting them out of your life to whatever extent you need. if that is 100%, so be it. You forgive them foe your own health and well being, and build the life you want as best you can.

Now, the shame is a different issue. That is not something I would like you to keep carrying... Can you forgive yourself? That might be part of it.
posted by Jacen at 11:50 AM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, if you really want to be free, instead of right, you could consider the following. All of them were/are just doing the best they can given what they have to work with in any given moment. We would not have to forgive people if we did not judge them in the first place. We think that by judging people we somehow protect ourselves from them, but judging turns out to be a hot coal that burns the bearer. Just because you do not judge them does not mean that you have to engage with them in any way going forward. We really have no way of knowing whether people are doing the best they can in any moment, no matter how unskillful their behavior is. Also, we might do the same as them, or worse, if we were in their shoes. So, we can just use discernment to avoid the stain of their unconsciousness. (That is, if we can not help them)

It is an unusual approach, I admit. However, it can free you instantly from the endless loop of judging/forgiving.

kind regards
posted by jcworth at 12:32 PM on November 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sometimes you have to forgive yourself too -- that might be where the shame comes from
posted by spunweb at 12:54 PM on November 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

As others say, 'forgiving' does NOT equal 'forgetting' --- and forgiving someone isn't equal to totally trusting them, either.

Just because you have forgiven someone doesn't mean you should ignore the past: you may have forgiven their past action(s), but they'll have to EARN back your trust by BEING trustworthy; remembering their action doesn't mean you haven't honestly forgiven them, it means you aren't naive enough to leave yourself open to letting them hurt you again.
posted by easily confused at 1:19 PM on November 30, 2013

But I still think about them, and worse, dream about them.

Forgiving has not absolved you of the healing work that remains to be done with respect to the damage imparted to your sense of self by the cruel actions of these people. That is what your psyche is communicating to you via these dreams. Forgiving ≠ letting go of pain, not when it's anchored in your bodily experiences and psyche. You have to actually face the experiences/memories that implanted these feelings in order for them to release.

IMO, you're really glossing over what happened to you by focussing on the fact of forgiveness. Even if you don't blame them, that doesn't change the fact that how you were treated by these people deeply wounded your sense of self (which is evidenced by the recurring feelings of shame... the shame still trickles inside because the well is not empty). Even if it's technically not their fault because they were already damaged and doing the best they could (etc), that does not change the fact that you were damaged at the core of your being by their inadequacies as caregivers. So consider doing some more healing work around these wounds, either with a therapist or support group.

Also bear in mind, acknowledging your true suffering and doing healing work does not have to mean that you no longer forgive them.
posted by human ecologist at 3:47 PM on November 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

Absolutely true that you can have forgiven them but still be working through the effects they've had on your life. You may never stop working through those effects because, as others have said, sometimes people have that much of an impact on you. It isn't necessarily a bad thing. I am much less likely to get involved with someone who behaves a certain way due to my experience with an abusive ex, for example.

And yes, just because you forgive them doesn't mean they need to be part of your life ever again. Recognising that they are harmful to you doesn't mean you don't forgive them - it's just practical. You might not blame a dog for biting you, but at the same time you wouldn't repeat the behaviour that resulted in it biting you (eg taking a bone away from it or something).

The hardest part, I have found, is in forgiving myself. I can forgive others much more easily than I can forgive myself. Every time I think I have managed it, something else happens and I realise I haven't actually forgiven myself yet. I don't know if that's what's going on for you, but it sounds like it might be. I can't tell you how to do it, but I'm right there with you.
posted by Athanassiel at 4:23 PM on November 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Forgiving is overrated. I don't bother to forgive people unless they ask for forgiveness and are truly sorry.

Forgetting the upsetting episodes in my life is different and takes some effort. What works for me is setting a time limit to thoughts full of sorrows and regrets. I allow myself 5 minutes of self-indulgence. After the time is up I push the thoughts out of my mind. If more stray thoughts try to get my attention, I put them off until they get their own 5 minutes the next day. I have become adept at not dwelling on sad thoughts.

You can't control dreams, but maybe some counseling could be of help to you in dealing with the episodes.
posted by francesca too at 4:24 PM on November 30, 2013

Is it possible to truly forgive someone but still not want them in your life?

I've forgiven someone very close to me for their years of failures and mistreatment of me, but I do not seem often nor do I wish to. They know this, and they think it means I haven't forgiven them. But that's not the case at all. I simply do not like them and no societal pressure is going to force me to feel obligated to spend time with them. Not forgiving someone only hurts you, I had to learn that the hard way. So letting go of the pain is for you and you only. Don't feel obligated to spend time with someone you simply dislike, doesn't matter who they are.
posted by OneHermit at 4:26 PM on November 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thank you all. Some very, very good advice here. Yes, I realize it's more about forgiving myself than forgiving the ones who hurt me. I kind of realized that while I was typing the question, but I decided to post it anyway, and I'm glad that I did. The difficult part is that I'm dealing with the "irrational" part of my mind here. I mean, rationally, I realize that none of what they did was my fault ... but this isn't really the kind of thought process you can out-logic.

I guess I can just be glad I'm in a good place in my life, and am in a loving relationship with someone who treats me well. Trusting someone who proves worthy of your trust is a wonderful experience, and something I had never previously experienced on that level.

Perhaps the recurring thoughts of troublesome people from my past should be dealt with the same way I deal with other unpleasant, recurring thoughts : acknowledge them, and then go on with my day. Occasionally my mind will produce an insightful thought or dream about these people, and I should take a moment and listen to that -- and then go on with my day.
posted by evil otto at 1:56 PM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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