Talk to me about forgiveness.
January 29, 2021 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I had a terrible breakup about 3.5 years ago. I still carry a lot of pain and anger about it, and I'd like to let those feelings go so that I can move on with my life. But how?

The breakup was a surprise to me, and was painful and difficult (think infidelity, although it's a bit more complicated than that). I've worked really hard in a lot of ways to 'get over' this and move on -- traditional therapy, MDMA therapy, and neurofeedback are a few examples -- but I feel stuck.

I still think about the ex and the situation almost every day. Random things will remind me of that time in my life and I still get angry and sad when I think about it. I'd like to be able to let these things go more easily. When the breakup first happened, people said it would take time... but it's been 3.5 years, and I expected to feel more neutral by now.

I am no-contact with the ex, they are blocked on all social media, but we still have mutual friends and sometimes I see evidence of their continuing friendship in photos they post. This is really difficult for me -- I hesitate to use the word 'triggering' but it's analogous. I need this situation to have less of an effect on my mental health.

I am in weekly therapy and my therapist and I do talk about this all the time.

I know that people have forgiven others who do truly awful things -- people whose loved ones have been murdered can sometimes forgive the murderers, for example. So I think I, whose former partner did nothing of the kind to me, should be able to forgive them, for the sake of my own health and happiness only. But I struggle to figure out how to do that.

I am struggling to date or feel interested in new relationships because my brain is convinced that the harm will only repeat, despite all the work I've done in therapy to figure out what went wrong and how I can protect myself in the future.

How do I forgive someone who hurt me, and truly move on from the situation? What helped you forgive someone who did you harm?
posted by woodvine to Human Relations (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
This sounds counterintuitive, but I let go in a similar situation by not thinking about forgiveness, because worrying that I should be forgiving them and why haven’t I forgiven them and what is wrong with me it’s been years - all of that added an extra burden.

Instead, I had to rewire my brain to stop thinking about them. I felt I had spent years working through the pain and the memories, and it was time to get away from the cycle. Whenever a thought popped up, I would think something like “no” or “that’s enough” and then immediately distract my brain with something else. Otherwise I would start a long train of thoughts that would ultimately end up with me reliving the pain over and over again.

It took a long time. But after a while, the memories stopped causing pain, and were just something I could examine now and again and put them away in my head and move on. With that came forgiveness and acceptance, after I had ceased looking for them.
posted by umwhat at 8:38 AM on January 29, 2021 [31 favorites]

Agreed that this sounds more about managing intrusive thoughts rather than about forgiveness (i.e. the problem isn't that you've failed to forgive, it's that your brain is endlessly ruminating on a) the breakup/relationship in general and b) the perception that there was some timescale you were supposed to have forgiven your ex in accordance with).

I should preface this by saying I suck at forgiveness, I have no idea how the underlying mechanisms are supposed to work, and that I'm still hurt and angry about a relationship that ended nine years ago, and about my entire childhood, which ended more than a decade ago. I'm not sure I'm ever going to forgive the people involved, but I do get to choose how much time I spend thinking about those events.

"Fuck you, not today" has been a helpful mantra for me, something I use to speak back directly (in my head) to intrusive or ruminative thoughts when they pop up, with mixed success. The "not today" part is aimed at keeping me anchored to the present day, rather than spiralling into the past or worrying about the future (the purpose of the "fuck you" part is hopefully pretty obvious).

Once I've said that mantra to the thoughts, I try to focus my attention on something else as consciously as possible - often on the very thing in front of me that I should be concentrating on, whether that's work or TV or whatever, that the intrusive thoughts are distracting me from.
posted by terretu at 8:54 AM on January 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Does your therapist have any experience in trauma-informed therapy? It doesn't sound like it. You're describing post-traumatic processing difficulties and it needs to be targeted with actual trauma-processing treatment. If talk-type therapy doesn't reduce the interference of The Event in your daily life after a few months, it's not going to without additional methodology.

Every symptom you describe is a function of unresolved trauma: perseveration, triggers, anticipation of re-harm, intrusive thoughts.

Forgiveness is a red herring, and kind of a vaporous concept, and it makes all this your fault because you can't do the magic spell. But "forgiveness" doesn't make the trauma reaction stop. Managing and processing the trauma makes the entire incident stop looming so incredibly large in your life so that you are able to literally put it in perspective.

When you experience trauma, it doesn't matter what kind it is and forgiveness isn't the treatment. It's not about how objectively "bad" the incident was, it matters if it was a high-stress experience that didn't naturally post-process to some kind of livable resolution within about six months. It doesn't matter if it was the death of a coworker or a hurricane or your kid nearly running out in front of a car or a betrayal and breakup - your brain has taken it and run with it and it's interfering with your life. Ask your therapist about doing some assessment exercises.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:56 AM on January 29, 2021 [22 favorites]

I have found it helpful to say to myself, "They were doing the best they could at that moment. However, their best was just terrible."
posted by Dolley at 9:04 AM on January 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I listened to a podcast today (ADHD for Smart-Ass Women) featuring Dr. Ned Hallowell talking about his new book, ADHD 2.0 and rumination, among many other things. Apparently the book discussed rumination, why it is so easy for those of us who have ADHD to fall into rumination, how hard it is to pull ourselves out of it, and how action of almost any sort is a good way to pull ourselves out of it.

Alas, I haven't been able to find an excerpt from his book but I did find this on his blog: I’d rather suck on the juicy fruit of life, not its barren rocks. So why does my mind drift incessantly toward these problems I’m not able to solve? Why, instead of picking one and committing myself to constructive action toward its resolution, do I stupidly, painfully suck on the rock, gnashing my mental teeth on crotchets and sand?

No more, I say to myself, no more! Rise up, take back control of your mind, set your sights on beauty, love, creative projects, and good food. Set your thoughts on wine, long walks, dear friends, and savory treats. Be done with rags and bones and take up fertile and supple things.

Take up new ideas and foods you’ve yet to try.
Take up people you miss and reconnect with them at last.
Take a stroll down memory lane and place a rose on someone’s door.

Two things: 1. I know nothing about your state of mind nor if you, like me, have ADHD. 2. I don't actually know how to follow Dr. Hollowell's advice. But I did get through an unhealthy obsession/fixation on an ex, eventually, by finally and belatedly ending contact and (most importantly) redirecting my brain whenever thoughts about this person popped up. That still happens, several years later, but I can be kind to both of us with self-talk that says something like, "Yes, they were wonderful and yes, the two of you were a bad fit. Think of something else now, sweetheart."

Usually, I can do that. It has taken lots of practice. And no wonder. We are conditioned to believe that what our brain tells us is important. But in my case, at least, my brain often sends me misinformation (with the best of intentions). I have learned to recognize much of it, label it as unhelpful, then redirect my attention.

This stuff is hard. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 9:14 AM on January 29, 2021 [17 favorites]

I agree with umwhat's approach. When you keep rehashing what happened so viscerally, it's still real and happening to your brain, and it can't focus on anything else. When something triggers a memory and the negative emotional feedback, you need to say, "ah, I guess I feel angry/sad/whatever about this today. That's all right. What's next?" and then put the thought out of your mind, so you're not re-treading those emotional pathways.

I've seen this described in meditation exercises as picturing your thought as a cloud, and allowing it to float away. I think of it like shelving a book. I've read this book before, too much actually, and reading it right now would be detrimental to my mental health, so it goes back on the shelf. I read it again whenever I want, but I rarely want to, really.

Eventually, you will find yourself picking up the book and having less of an emotional reaction to it before you can shelve it. You might have some days where you feel the matter is closed, and other days, after that, where you are actually still angry. That's fine. Someday that might amount to forgiveness, or it might not; and that's fine, too.

Forgiveness for someone who did you great harm is a lot to ask. Shakespeare noted that the quality of mercy is not strained -- which is to say you can't force yourself into forgiving. In my experience at least, you can't even ask (let alone force!) it of yourself; you have to consciously make room for how you feel, and direct your attention gently upon the thoughts and emotions you wish to cultivate, and someday, you may feel merciful when you stop to shelve that book.

It's a hard practice. Taming Your Gremlin was my introduction to this approach. I see Bella Donna, terretu, and umwhat, seem to have similar patterns of "acknowledge thought, time to transition." "Fuck you, not today" and "Think of something else now, sweetheart" are awesome, and reflect their relationship with their intrusive thoughts and themselves, just like "aha, that's how I feel. What's next?" does for me and my thoughts. You may want to take a little time and think of your own acknowledgement and transition - bearing in mind that there's no objective right or wrong. "Fuck you, not today" is as valid as the next thing, even if sounds less forgivey (remember, you're responding to the thought, not the events or the person. "Fuck you" is an EXCELLENT response to intrusive thoughts that you know upset you).

I am not good at this, and I'm still working at it. Pretty much everyone is. So while forgiveness stories in the media are beautiful, they are very rare. You have plenty of good company with those of us still working at it. We're not smelling the roses over here, but we can sit and have a cup of tea and do our best together.

If the floaty attention-focusing approach doesn't appeal to you, I agree that searching out trauma-informed therapy would be beneficial.
posted by snerson at 9:40 AM on January 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: When I was struggling with the breakdown of my marriage, one of the books I read was called “How Can I Forgive You” by Janis Abrams Spring. She posits that there are four responses to transgression—not forgiving, cheap forgiveness, acceptance, and genuine forgiveness. She breaks down the aspects of each; it’s a fascinating read.

I bring it up because thinking about things in her framework might help you get to a settled place more easily. Spring maintains that genuine forgiveness requires proactive engagement by the offender, who recognizes the problem and owns the responsibility to repair. That’s not applicable in this case. Acceptance, on the other hand, doesn’t require participation by the offender at all—you can get there all on your own.

So, perhaps come to terms that forgiveness is not an option and reframe to get to acceptance. This means that you don’t ever need to decide that how this person behaved was ok or that they’ve been redeemed in some way. You can just decide, they did this shitty thing, it hurt me, that’s in my past, done is done.
posted by Sublimity at 10:43 AM on January 29, 2021 [16 favorites]

Yeah, I'm liking acceptance. I was told for years by all and sundry including him that I should forgive my verybad father. I tried that for many miserable years. Then I tried to encourage him to be less of an abusive, destructive, tiresome ass. Neither worked. He's a born tool and I'm not ever going to be at peace with the many infuriating aspects of his personality, and nobody should be. Instead, I've learned to be at peace with not being at peace.

During the pandemic I've been shopping for both parents every week. Father texts me his list, I go buy the stuff, and I drop it off on his porch and wave jauntily as I hurtle off. We have a perfectly pleasant relationship, now, that is based on simple practicality, not on trying to achieve states of emotional maturity that are not feasible for people with our flawed personalities. The same relationship was absolutely intolerable when I was actively attempting to forgive him because it involved thinking about his insufferable ass all the time.

I think forgiveness is nonsense. Does it assist the forgive-ee? No; they don't know anything about it one way or the other. Does it assist the forgiver? Supposedly, but I wouldn't know, being incapable of it the same way I'm incapable of happily plunging my hand into boiling water. To hell with the whole notion.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:56 AM on January 29, 2021 [11 favorites]

Forgiveness, IMHO, is about letting go of "what could have been", and instead, focus on "what to do now".
posted by kschang at 11:41 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Forgiveness isn't a thing you do for that person (or persons). It's a thing you do for you.

So you don't have to bend your mind into thinking they've changed, or that they deserve your forgiveness. Likely they don't. But you're doing this for you, not them.

In my experience, a lot of that lingering anger is actually anger at myself for putting up with/enabling/spending time on that person or relationship. Anger and shame at the person I was then. Maybe some guilt too.

So maybe, if it helps: focus on forgiving yourself, and on letting him go.

Take back the piece of yourself you left there. Give him back the piece of him you were carrying.

(Mentally, emotionally, I mean. Don't actually contact him or give him stuff. But you knew that)
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:15 PM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Like orgasms, forgiveness won't happen if you pressure yourself to get there.

Okay, so that's the only part of forgiveness that's comparable to orgasms. :) But it's true. You can't chase after this. It's counterproductive.

The thing is, forgiveness as you are imagining it is real. The Janis Abrams Spring book mentioned above, "How Can I Forgive You?", is very good and I highly recommend it. But from personal experience, I've realized there is a place beyond the "Acceptance" described in the book, that you can reach even by yourself, where you feel generous goodwill towards whoever harmed you. It came as a surprise to me that it was possible for me to get there, to truly forgive my parents for abusing me even though they have refused to acknowledge what happened let alone apologized for it.

The process was simple and repetitive, just talking over and over and over again with a therapist about whatever was bugging me, giving up on trying to be the bigger person and allowing myself to frankly hate my parents when I wanted to hate them. I was using therapy to literally do the exact opposite of practicing forgiveness... instead of being selfless or serene or "above it", I gave in completely and felt all of my "wrong" "selfish" "petty" "self-involved" "hateful" feelings. Pressuring myself to forgive was always counterproductive. Forgiveness can only come freely from within, by its own will, in its own time.

Or maybe it won't. And that's okay too.

Forgiveness is not at all compulsory for your wellbeing. What IS compulsory thing is for you to be at peace with yourself and feel resolved (i.e. Acceptance). This peace and resolution is 100% possible even while deciding you will never forgive the other person because they are fucking awful, may they rot in hell. I feel this way about my ex husband who sexually assaulted me. He's unforgivable. I firmly judge him for what he did. And that's that, no more questions, no more rumination, no more energy wasted on that. Here again, the cure was talking about everything over and over again with a therapist and writing (essays, fiction, poetry, MeFi comments) about it over and over.

There is something about this type of telling and retelling of the story which brings relief at first, then understanding and insight about the big "why" which is the source of your rumination, and then peace, because you know how that chapter ends: it ends with you still alive, still whole, capable of waking up to your life's possibilities again. Whether or not the final gift of forgiveness comes to you, doesn't even matter. This is a joyful state of mind already.

Telling and retelling is magic. It's not just that time passes during the telling, and time alone helps you feel resolved. At best, time gives you distance and a fading memory of it, which helps, but isn't the whole deal. Being fully healed is absolutely possible if you're brave enough to face telling and retelling your story from every possible angle, verbalizing all the parts that bother you (and which bits bother you will change and repeat and change and repeat throughout your retellings), until one day you wake up and it doesn't bug you anymore.
posted by MiraK at 3:49 PM on January 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

This is one of the the things the Catholic faith I was raised in actually gets right IMHO: Confess your sins and they are forgiven. But the Gospel readings on forgiveness also remind you that part of the bargain is that you, in turn, forgive. Most of the advice here more or less what I'm trying to say, so think of this as perhaps just another piece of advice to add to your list of things to try, but I myself found it to be a path to empathy. TL;DR: Forgiveness has a long and solid provenance so just trust us and let it go for your own sake. Good luck.
posted by whuppy at 6:05 PM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

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