Forgiveness, Ideally: the 7 steps

I discovered when studying Attachment Theory that forgiveness is one of the most important steps in a dance that occurs naturally in those with a secure relationship, and can be taught to others… giving them the hope of a relationship that is dependable. If well-choreographed, it could actually lead to enhanced trust, and the deepening of bonds. In this dance, both the person experiencing the hurt, and the person whose behavior or words elicited that pain, take turns leading.

The dance, ideally, goes something like this:

Step one, recognizing the rupture…

…the offending action or word or tone. The hurt could be intentional, born of the vicious or uncaring streak we all bear. More often it’s unintentional, a word or act born of no malicious streak but instead of clumsiness or ignorance. Here, the person experiencing the rupture identifies it. Perhaps, instead, it is the tuned-in “offender” who perceives a chill, a recoil, in the person they care about.

In a caring relationship, ideally, each honors their current emotional experience. Most people with unresolved trauma, however, learn to ignore their hurt, or minimize it. At the same time, we might become hyper responsible for the feelings of others around us, paradoxically making someone else’s hurt more about us…”I’m so sorry, I feel so bad”… than about them.

Step two, assessing the amount of hurt that actually belongs to the present.

The hurt one apportions the percentage that actually belongs to the present situation, and that which belongs to the past. In other words, I may wear red to a lunch with a friend, only to find her jaw dropping, because her abusive mother frequently wore that same shade. There is still a rupture, but I cannot be held responsible for wearing red…unless I wear it again the next time we meet. In contrast, when someone tells a joke about people of color, and the listener is (rightfully) offended, the percentage of responsibility is significantly higher. Racism, sexism, queerphobia, religious intolerance, and other forms of mockery or diminishment of another’s pain (including, my darlings, the fears held by rural Americans) are all expressions of current cruelty or ignorance.

Similarly, it is important to remember that we cannot hold others hostage to pain we have not dealt with (yet) concerning past abuse or neglect, holding them responsible for the abuse and neglect we suffered in a previous relationship. Even though I understand being triggered, we can’t weaponize it, and that doesn’t excuse us from working on what happened to us in the past. We want to be present in this relationship.

Step three is the expression of the rupture…

… the courage to say, this is what you said, what you did. Conflict is uncomfortable for most people. We don’t want to offend. We don’t want to risk the relationship. We don’t trust we’ll find the right words to communicate the offense without compounding the problem. Then we suck it up, remind ourselves we are imperfect creatures, and do the best we can.

What we do need to watch out for is turning the “offender” into a demon, to lose the underlying emotional bond, to close our hearts. This leads to an attack, rather than an expression designed to clear the air in the belief that the other desires to repair as much as we do. If they do, trust builds…and if they don’t, that’s useful information moving forward.

Step four, the offender listens.

It is predictable that a certain amount of defensiveness will creep in to hobble the completion of this step. Ideally, compassion presides, as we take in what we have done, or said. We take a moment to absorb this, examine it, feel into it. Any significant percentage, and we’re going to feel a little shitty. This is the healthy experience of shame (sorry, Brenee). Pain is a powerful teacher, and appropriate pain is going to drive us not to do or say whatever created the rupture again. Don’t compound the problem by now saying to yourself, now I’m hurt by what you brought to my attention. That’s a step back from this ideal dance.

Step five, repair. The apology cannot be lame.

Don’t say, “I’m sorry you feel that way. That you mistook my innocent act”. Please don’t. Instead, use “I” statements, and follow them up with, this is what I understand I did, said, and given this understanding, I get why you’d be hurt. Oh yes, and…I’ll never do it again.” Mean it. Follow through. This is not a cognitive step alone, this is a step that must be conducted with great feeling. It is the remorse that you radiate, as well as the underlying compassion, that your companion most needs. The words, though important, are secondary.

Step six, the hurt one receives the repair.

Can you let the words and the emotions in? Can you let them weave their sincere tendrils of kindness and concern for your pain into the very places that burn in you, that bind your heart? Do you have reason to trust this person, at this moment and in the future, will remember? If you can, Mandela smiles. Nelson Mandela, the great man who made extraordinary strides in repairing post-Apartheid South Africa, was once asked, how could you forgive them? You spoke out, and they punished you by giving you decades of forced-labor imprisonment? And he responded that he needed to forgive, again and again, every day. His life is a testament to the power of receiving repair: “It never hurts to think too highly of a person; often they become ennobled and act better because of it.”

Step seven, forgiveness.

There is another translation of what Christians call the Lord’s Prayer. The known passage goes something like, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. But another translation of the Aramaic instead encourages us to “untie the ropes of failure binding us, as we release the strands we hold of others’ faults.” The insidious nature of rupture is that it can create a link of poisonous resentment, unhealed hurt, and unaddressed flaws. Let enough of those links remain, and the bond becomes toxic and perhaps even more powerful, leading to a trauma bond. When instead we engage in what Lindsay Gibson, the author of Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents calls “disentangling,” we free ourselves.

And if the offender cannot do their part, your forgiveness of them does not free them from their toxicity. They are left with their karma, and they must answer for it…in this life or the next. This is the greatest fear in the hurt, the wounded, that somehow their forgiveness lets the offending party off the hook. I assure you, they will continue to hang. And you will promise yourself that, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, forgiveness does not mean forgetfulness. Whether you choose to remain in the relationship or not, you will adjust your behavior, and your expectations, accordingly

Adobe Stock

This is hard work, even in the idyllic dance I’ve described. And for the majority of us, the confidence required for this perfect dance eludes us. We did not see it growing up, and we certainly are not seeing it playing out on the grand stage in our society. Ginger Rogers comes to mind. In response to a condescending comment from a reporter on how it was to dance with the great Fred Astaire, she reminded them that she was doing the same thing, only backwards and in high heels. In this dance, when it comes your turn to lead, you’re most likely going to feel more like Ginger than Fred. And remember, if you have fantasies that your first fifty forays into forgiveness are going to be graceful, consider that Rogers and Astaire practiced for years before they got it right. And they were just waltzing.