“We’re going to spend some time tonight talking about forgiveness,” I said to the clients at treatment group a few weeks ago. Eyes rolled—good-naturedly, I think—around the table. “Ugghh,” said one. “That’s what my therapist wants me to work on,” said another, as more heads nodded. The clients may not have been very excited about it, but at least I knew I’d hit on an important—and challenging—topic.
What is it about forgiveness that makes it so vital to recovery? I believe it’s so important because at its core, forgiveness is about freedom. It’s about the freedom that comes from not being bound by the harm that others have caused us. Disordered eating is in part a response to pain, an (ineffective) attempt to manage the hurt that we’ve experienced from the wrongs that others have done to us. As long as we hold onto those wrongs, we hold onto the pain as well. It isn’t until we let go of the wrongs that we can be let go of the pain and be free of the ineffective, harmful coping mechanisms we’ve used to try to deal with them.
All of us—whether we struggle with disordered eating or not—have been hurt by someone else. That’s because we’re human, and humans are imperfect, and imperfection causes hurt, whether intended or unintended. No matter who we are or what our life has been like, we have all experienced being wronged by someone else. And when we’ve been wronged, we very naturally want the wrong to be rectified, to be made right. We feel the need for the harm that has been done to us to be accounted for, to be punished or at the very least to be acknowledged and apologized for.
We’re not wrong to feel that way; after all, justice is about the setting right of wrongs, and justice is a good thing. Ideally, wrongs should be set right. But often they aren’t, or they can’t be. And in those situations, if we continue to hold onto the wrong that’s been done to us, then we are in a way bound by it. If we can instead name the wrong and then choose to let it go, we can step into healing and freedom.
At treatment group that evening, we discussed some of the steps of forgiveness:
- Name the wrong that has been done. Acknowledge your pain and anger. Allow yourself to feel disrespected.
- Be specific about your future expectations and limits. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you’re giving that person permission to behave badly toward you.
- Let go of your right to “get even,” but insist on being treated better in the future.
- Work to let go of blame, resentment, and negativity toward the person who wronged you.
- If it is safe and appropriate to do so, communicate your act of forgiveness to the other person.
- If it is safe and appropriate to do so, work toward reconciliation with that person.
What we emphasized in our conversation that evening is true for all of us: that forgiveness is a process—one that takes time, and that we can only begin from where we actually are. For some of us, that means we’re just learning to embrace Step 1; we’re just beginning to be able to assert that what was done to us was wrong and to allow ourselves to feel angry about it. Or maybe we’re learning about Step 2 and how to set healthy boundaries with the person who’s hurt us. Whatever step we’re on, we need to give ourselves the time and grace to fully experience and work through that step.
Forgiveness is not something that can be rushed. Nor is it something that can be required or demanded. Forgiveness is real only when it is a gift that is freely offered. But the beautiful thing is that ultimately, forgiveness is a gift that we give ourselves, as well—the gift of stepping into healing and freedom.