A client recently asked me how it was possible to forgive someone who had hurt and betrayed her. Forgiving betrayal is going to be almost impossible if you skip the most crucial part of forgiveness, which is getting angry. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you don’t have permission to be angry, you won’t be able to forgive.
Forgiveness is understanding how it’s possible for people to act the way they do. It’s not about condoning or approving of someone’s behavior. It’s understanding how that person evolved to be able to commit unacceptable acts.
But before you can jump to Understanding, you must allow yourself to get mad. After all, you sustained an injury in the relationship that needs to be acknowledged. You need to claim ownership of that injury, and acknowledge the outrage and grief that the injury caused. For instance, how has your life changed because of the injuries you sustained as a child? Whether the people around you meant to hurt you or not, doesn’t matter. You probably missed out on some things because you were hurt. That’s the process of growing up, and it happens to all of us.
The problem is, we’re always encouraged to jump to forgiveness before we have a chance to grieve our loss or express the anger it caused. We’re taught that it’s not okay to be angry. We’re told that the mature thing to do is forget about it, let it go, and move on. This is not a recipe for forgiveness, it’s a recipe for more anger.
When we’re children, we receive the message that anger isn’t acceptable. Maybe you were told to go to your room, or someone said, “We don’t use that tone of voice in this house.” You may have learned to push down your anger and be nice. That suppressed anger will stop you from being able to move to understanding in the forgiveness process.
If you can get angry, you can be free. You don’t have to hold onto anger and blame, you just need to use anger to acknowledge how devastating someone’s actions were to you. Expressing anger (or any emotion) is a way of discharging that energy so you can move to a more peaceful place. Think about a child who falls down and immediately cries, whether it hurts or not. The crying comes to dispel the surprise of falling and the fear of being out of control for a few moments. The crying doesn’t last — it’s a vehicle for the child to move forward. The parent or adult present is usually quick to say, “You’re fine! You’re okay! There’s nothing to cry about.” This sends a message to the child that their innate reaction is wrong.
When a gazelle runs from a lion, if it escapes, it usually shakes violently after that encounter. What it’s doing is discharging the energy of fear and adrenaline that just surged through its body so it can continue grazing and living its life in the moment. But we are taught not to cry, not to yell, to “keep calm and carry on.” That is such utter nonsense! It should be, “Get mad and carry on!”
After the anger and grief has moved through you, you’ll be able to to move to understanding — which is really what forgiveness means. It’s having the ability to look at someone’s life, the abuses and challenges they’ve suffered — and see how those challenges molded that person into someone capable of mistreating you. Once you arrive at this place, you’re free — but you can’t get to Understanding unless you get Angry first.
Make a list of all the people you haven’t been able to forgive, remember what they did to you, get MAD, blame them for the injuries you received, and then and only then, can you move to Understanding (forgiveness). Be patient with yourself. Let the process last as long as it needs to. You won’t be angry forever. In fact, the anger phase of the forgiveness process is quite fleeting! You just can’t skip over it, swallow it, or talk yourself out of being angry. Anger isn’t bad. It’s a tool that can help you heal.