In a recent post at Science of Relationships, Sarah Stanton, a graduate student who is studying psychology, writes how, in general, forgiveness improves our health and well-being: reducing blood pressure and increasing life satisfaction and mood. But there’s a caveat. Forgiveness only seems to work if you’re forgiving someone who has made amends and tried to change. According to the research she cites, when we attempt to forgive a partner who hasn’t made amends, it erodes our self-respect.
Makes sense, right? Totally intuitive. How can you forgive someone who doesn’t admit to being wrong!?!
Except it’s not true, at least not for me. Recently, during a meditation course called How to Forgive, I found myself with my eyes closed and my attention single-pointedly focused on someone who used to be in my life that I will now call Eva. A few years back, Eva was in a bad place. The gal just couldn’t catch a break. No matter how hard she worked or tried to cut costs, bills continually piled up, resulting in problems that resulted in more bills resulting in more problems.
It was as if she were caught up in a poverty-inducing whirlpool, and it appeared as if she were about to be completely sucked under.
It happened to be a robust flush period for me freelance wise, so I gave her a lot of money.
Well, that gift had a strange effect on our relationship. Suddenly she started playing the role of the victim, which seemed to force me to reluctantly play the role of rescuer. Soon whenever anything went wrong in her life, she called me. This was especially true if she needed money. It seemed every conversation was filled with hints about how more cash would be so helpful.
What did I do? I did what any normal (aka doormat) would do when faced with a sticky relationship. I found reasons to not call, not visit, not email and not engage.
But that made her even more persistent. One day I found several messages on every phone, plus emails, plus direct messages in Facebook. They all suggested I get in touch immediately.
I did not.
She showed up at my house. I opened the door. She begged for money.
This time, I was in the middle of a very slow period work-wise. Unlike times in the past, I did not have money to lend and, even if I had extra cash, I wouldn’t have wanted to give it to her.
But I wrote a check anyway. As I did so, I regretted every stroke of the pen. With a tight face, I held the check out. She took it and left.
And then I emotionally severed her from my life.
That is, until the meditation class. At the class, as I meditated, I saw Eva before me, and I understood that she was just a human being who was struggling through life just as I was. I also saw myself through new eyes. Thanks to all the meditating I now do, I am emotionally stronger than I was back then. I am no longer a doormat. Nor am I as easily manipulated into doing the bidding of others. If Eva came to my door today and begged for cash, I wouldn’t feel beholden. I’d simply make a decision about the best use of the money I happened to have on hand. Maybe I’d lend it. Maybe I wouldn’t. The choice would be mine to make.
And realizing that — that I am stronger now — is what allowed me to have the courage to forgive.
Forgiveness can be spoken out loud as an “I forgive you,” but it doesn’t have to. It’s something that happens in the private space of our hearts, and it’s something that we do for ourselves. Holding a grudge? It’s painful. Forgiving? It’s freeing.
So even though research shows that people feel like doormats when they forgive unapologetic people, what I think is really going on is this: those people are not truly forgiving. They are forcing themselves to say that they’ve forgiven, and they are doing that out of fear, neediness, or some other inner weakness.
When you truly forgive, everything releases. You relax into a state of calm. You know that there is only one person who can ever take away your power of choice: you.
Read more of Alisa’s writing at ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com.