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  • Bonny O'Neill, LPC-MHSP

Forgiveness: Letting "It" Go

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Before you can forgive you have to know what it means.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people use vague, broad concepts (e.g. love, forgiveness, trust, etc.) to make a point when they clearly have never given definition to those words.

How can you know if you're loving someone or if they love you if you haven't first thought through what it means to love? How can you rebuild trust if you're not sure what broke in the first place? Abusers define love as violence, domination, and control. Many people define love as a feeling. Others as a commitment. Without true definition, we set ourselves and others up to fail.

Take the concept of forgiveness. We all have some notion of what it means. But when I ask people to tell me how they define it most sit there with a thoughtful, confused look before giving up. Some ramble a little around the idea of letting something go, but they don't know what it is that they're releasing. At the end of the day, I've met very few adults who really know what it means to forgive.

I'm going to give you the best definition of forgiveness that I've ever heard, and then I'm going to break it down because I don't want anyone who reads this to feel like they've traded one vague term for another. But before I give the definition, I think it's important to clear out the tried and un-true myths from our understanding.

Myth #1: To forgive is to forget.

Nope. Impossible. This is an unrealistic expectation as the actions and words that hurt us most are the hardest to forget. Not to mention the fact that we often don't have the ability to select what we remember... like my phone number from the house I lived in when I was 10. I can remember that but I couldn't tell you about the conversation I had last week with my best friend. Ugh. Forgiveness is not forgetting.

Myth #2: To forgive is saying "it's okay."

Another fallacy because when someone hurts us or we hurt them, it's definitely not okay. Stop saying those words when a person says they're sorry. It's not okay, but you can still forgive. An obstacle that many people face in forgiving others is that there's a misconception that forgiving means that you're "bending over and taking it." Forgiveness is healthy, but being a doormat is not. So this myth is now busted.

Myth #3: Forgiveness means you have to reconcile or reconnect.

If you believe this then I am concerned for your safety and mental well-being. If the individual you are forgiving is an abuser, in active addiction, or otherwise unsafe for you emotionally or physically, then you can forgive them without needing to ever be in contact again. You can also forgive someone who is dead, which I hope you understand means that you cannot reconnect with them... this brings me to...

Myth #4: Forgiveness is for the other person, not you.

When you forgive, it can certainly create an environment that is more pleasant and healing for the the object of your forgiveness but it's not for their healing. It's for yours. When you forgive the dead, it doesn't help them at all. It helps you. You can forgive another and they don't have to accept it. They can continue to beat themselves up in shame and guilt. In that case, your forgiveness did nothing for them.

So what does forgiveness mean?

While I would love to take credit for this definition, I must direct your attention to the words of Reverend Mike Glenn of Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. Please note that I'm not pushing religion here, just nodding to my source.

Dr. Glenn says that "forgiveness is releasing someone from the expectation that they can make up for what they've done." Read that again so it sinks in.

Allow me to unpack this for you. When someone hurts you, or you hurt them, two burdens are placed upon the injured party. The first burden is the burden of the pain itself. You are hurt, grieving, possibly angry... that's an emotional burden that weighs heavy on you as your days play out. The second burden, and, in my opinion, the heavier burden, is the burden of healing. No one can do your healing for you. They can make it easier or harder for you to heal... they can do better moving forward so they don't continue to hurt you... but what they have already broken is now yours to fix. This is why forgiveness is so hard. It's not fair. If someone hurts me then I want it to be their job to make it better. When I hurt someone I love, I desperately want to be the one to fix it because the burden of healing is incredibly heavy.

To forgive someone is to accept the burden of healing as being yours. I've encountered many a folk who believe that forgiveness is a process. It's not. Healing is a process. Getting to a point where you are no longer carrying the emotional burden of pain is a process... forgiveness is the act that jumpstarts the healing. As long you're waiting for the other person to make things better then you won't heal because, again, they can't do your healing for you.

Once you accept the burden of healing as being yours then you can start the process of healing. I recommend getting a therapist, spiritual mentor, and/or support group so healing doesn't feel so overwhelming. You can still be hurt after you've forgiven someone. You can still not trust the other person after you've forgiven them. Rebuilding trust is a topic for another post and one of my favorites so be on the lookout for that, if you're interested. Until then, remember that forgiveness is owning your healing, regardless of what the other person does or says.

If you are in the state of Tennessee and looking for a therapist as you heal wounds, learn to forgive, and/or rebuild trust, then reach out to me. I'd love to work with you. I will begin offering in-person sessions starting July 3rd in Nashville's Green Hills area, and I also offer telehealth sessions to anyone living in Tennessee. Check out the rest of my site for more info on me and my practice or reach out at or (615) 682-8674.

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