Sassy Psychologist: You got burned. Bad. Can you forgive?

A friend of mine (let’s call her Margo) had a pretty significant argument with someone in her personal life (let’s call her Joan).  After having conflict, Joan unleashed all hell onto Margo with angry and horrible words - severely insulting Margo’s character and general person.  Joan later apologized.  The apology was lengthy, detailed, and covered many bases.  On the surface, Margo accepted the apology.  However, weeks later, while having lunch, Margo exclaimed to me, “You know what?  I’m not over it!  Can I forgive her?”  Let’s talk about this.

When someone hurts you -and hurts you real bad- but later apologizes, should you forgive them?  Can you forgive them? First, any of us interested in mindfulness and well-being understands that achieving forgiveness is the healthiest thing you can do for yourself.  I mean, I believe it was Buddha who said, “holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”  This quote is amazing and it makes a lot of sense, but how do you do it?  How do you reach within yourself to forgive someone who burned you, bad?  I had to think about this and remember some of my teachings before having an A-HA moment.  There is an answer.  Let me share it.

What I am about to explain is common practice in couples therapy.  When a couple wishes to work on their relationship, of course they must learn to listen, behave well, and uphold their end of the bargain.  But really successful therapy only happens when the couple digs deep.  What all of us need to learn is that our individual behaviors have a story. There is a psychological explanation and legitimacy behind all of our behaviors.  When we are triggered and we explode, we are likely being affected by an old wound.  For example, let’s say a couple often fights about hosting parties.  Let’s pretend they don’t see eye-to-eye and begin fighting about what foods to get and how much of it to put out.  Well, you can bet your money that the cause of this fight is not because someone is right and someone is wrong.  Both perspectives are often based on how they grew up.  The daughter of an Italian immigrant affected by scarcity and war might be trained to relentlessly provide an abundance of food that sometimes borders on gluttony.  Meanwhile, the son of parents who are health and portion conscious might furiously oppose her menu.  The only way this fight can be resolved is if compromise is obtained.  But superficial compromise is not enough.  I.e.: It’s not good enough for them to take turns creating the menu or to simply hug it out after the fight.  The best way to work through this is to explore their upbringings and to challenge what they have been taught.  The lady must acknowledge that sometimes there can be too much food and that she is not a victim of scarcity and war. The man must realize that he can, on occasion, let go of the reigns of healthiness and portion control.  It is only with a profound understanding of the other’s psychological triggers and family history that conflicts get resolved well!       

How does this relate to Margo and Joan?  Well, I’m suggesting that forgiveness can only happen if Joan’s psychological triggers are understood.  Her cruel behavior comes from a legitimate place and it’s only in understanding Joan’s psychology that Margo can begin thinking about forgiveness. Ideally, it would be great if Margo and Joan uncovered these things together but sometimes, the offender is not interested in exploring the origin of their flaws.  The good news is that Margo can attempt to do this research by herself.  Sometimes, you can deduce someone’s psychological motivations in the absence of their input.  It sucks and is not ideal, but it’s doable. 

Now, once you’ve started understanding someone’s psychological triggers, the last step is to decide whether or not you want this person in your life. You can always forgive someone, but forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean you need to keep them close.  For example, you can forgive someone who literally punched you in the face but you might not want them within range anymore.  After all, you do have personal boundaries and you are entitled to decide who you surround yourself with.  If this person no longer makes the cut, that’s ok - you will lovingly detach.  If you do keep them in your life, it is extremely important that you execute what we discussed above, otherwise you’re looking at years of internal anger, turmoil, and awkwardness.

Anna-Maria Tosco, or our Sassy Psychologist, has two masters degrees in the field of psychology and has studied and worked coast to coast. She has worked in both psychiatric and community settings in some of Montreal's most respected healthcare organizations and institutions, and has also given a variety of talks and workshops on neuroplasticity, meditation, and uncovering barriers to love.