I spent so much time fighting forgiveness rather than trying to just understand it and find a place for it in my life.
As a result, I spent many years clinging to anger as an identity and finding reasons to be unhappy.
I’ve learned a lot in the past couple of years, and I am happier than I have ever been, but I’m not here to present forgiveness as a must. I still don’t think it’s necessary for healing in every situation, and I think too often forgiveness is presented to the hurt person as a demand to abandon their pain in order to make someone else more comfortable.
I came into adulthood skilled in the art of being small and unseen. This is where I felt safe. I even managed to attribute this preference to being an introvert. How convenient that a term existed to describe how I showed up in the world! If being an introvert was just a cluster of traits inherent in who I actually am, then everything I did was actually normal and healthy and couldn’t be changed.
I know now that this version of me existed from “knowing” that I wasn’t worthy of attention, that my feelings weren’t valid, and voicing anything less than pleasant made me bad and unlovable.
I learned those things about myself after growing up with a mother who didn’t have the ability to show up well for herself, let alone me. I felt that anything that involved me remaining quiet and shut in my room rather than engaging in activities with others was what I should be doing. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking up about my feelings or being upset. Praise, encouragement, and reassurance weren’t things that happened in my household.
As an adult, I have minimal contact with my mother, and when confiding this to those I trusted, I maintained that I hated her and that she was a terrible mother. In my mind, she needed to accept responsibility for the ways she had wronged me and apologize. Since she wouldn’t, I clung to hate as a large part of my identity and blamed her for it. If she even crossed my mind or if I saw a picture with her in it, the anger would boil and ruin my day. For a long time, I just didn’t know that as an adult, I could take ownership of my feelings and create a world where I felt significant.
A couple of years ago, I hit one of the most miserable points in my life despite the great things I possessed and had accomplished. I wish I could just blame COVID-19 and the strain of isolation, but I can’t since I avoided many social situations anyway. Spending so much time at home without the distractions I made use of for years forced me to have to look at how unhappy I actually was.
I was tired of being miserable and not enjoying life and decided that potential happiness was worth trying to do things differently. I made the choice to be open to all possibilities that looked promising in being happy. This involved a deep dive into my own beliefs about myself and where they came from; however, forgiveness still was not on the agenda.
Instead, I continued to ignore it, convinced that it couldn’t be the answer because I had already accepted all of the perceived wrongs in my childhood and that was good enough. I maintained that anyone who claimed forgiveness to be the answer didn’t understand my situation. I know now that it was actually me who didn’t understand because I refused to hear any of it.
Several months ago, I finally felt good about myself and who I am. I opened up to the idea of forgiveness because despite feeling great, the hate I was holding so closely resulted in negative views resurfacing. Whenever I had a bad day, that anger took the opportunity to tell me that I was having a bad day because I had reached too far and happiness wasn’t a real thing. It reminded me of the “safety” of staying small and that new experiences and feelings were dangerous because the excitement just gave me farther to fall back down. It was always ready to welcome me back, but I didn’t want it anymore.
After all of my struggles with the idea of forgiveness, I finally learned something important: how to see my mother as a human being and not as someone who maliciously set out to hurt me. Her own experiences aren’t mine to share, but she is a person who had been so hurt in life that she didn’t have the ability to give me what I needed. She did the best she could with the tools that she had. I could finally recognize some of the ways that she showed love, like typing papers for me or letting me take a day off of school here and there just because I wanted to.
That doesn’t erase the hurt or the enormity of the work I’ve had to do to learn things that ideally would be learned while growing up. It just helps me to understand and move on.
I’ll probably never tell her that I forgive her. She doesn’t need to know, and telling her will cause more conflict. I already know that she isn’t in a place where she is able to take responsibility for her actions so telling her I forgive her will bring her no peace of mind. I’m okay with that because she has done the best that she was able to even though it certainly didn’t feel like it at many points.
Forgiveness in this situation, for me, means the power to accept a situation and let go of expectations of someone else doing something in order to bring closure. It also means being able to see someone who didn’t know any better and wasn’t trying to cause harm, as a person who made mistakes, which we are all allowed to do.
There is no guarantee on the person who did the hurting to validate the hurt person’s feelings, so the idea is to find a way to live life fully without recognition from another. I held onto anger and told myself I couldn’t be happy until she understood how the things she did hurt me and apologized. Once I understood and accepted that she did the best she could and that it wasn’t possible to get what I wanted, I was able to find forgiveness in empathy and reset my views on myself and on life.
In this learning experience, I’ve also had to forgive myself—for allowing terrible feelings for so long, hurting others when I didn’t intend to, living a life that was less than what I deserved, not showing up well for anyone, and also for not knowing any better. Because how could I know better? Like my mother, I also did the best I could with the tools I had and also fell short.
Now that I do know better, it is my responsibility to ensure I show up fully, both for myself and others.