Is Forgiveness a Choice?

Many times my clients have come to me asking for help in forgiving others who have betrayed or hurt them in some way. They have heard that forgiveness is a choice, and they begin to doubt themselves and feel frustrated when they cannot forgive truly from their hearts.  I have found in my practice and in my own life that forgiveness is not a choice, but the change in perspective around the original story is.  Once my perspective changes, forgiveness naturally flows as if there was nothing to be forgiven in the first place. 

I have also seen that there are at least two different levels of forgiveness. One stems from the human story and the other from the soul’s story. For spiritual seekers both must be addressed before forgiveness can flow. Usually I see spiritual seekers wanting to bypass their human experience and get right into the soul’s perspective in an attempt to avoid pain. Or, sometimes spiritual seekers can fall completely unconscious and have no interest in the soul’s story, remaining angry victims. Lastly, some clients are confused between forgiveness, which requires no participant but the self, and reconciliation, which requires the other party.

As spiritual seekers we’re all familiar with the concept that how we deal with the circumstances in our lives is completely up to us. This does NOT mean that we are to blame for everything that happens to us. We take responsibility for our own actions, and for our reactions, and that is all. Spiritual seekers can get themselves into trouble by taking too much responsibility for others actions’ and responses to us. While it is recommended that we look at the patterns we might be enmeshed in so we are not open to a repeat, if someone has cheated on us, lied to us, or stepped on a toe, that is their action! It’s completely appropriate to say, “Hey, you stepped on my foot,” so we can make sure that person is aware of the mistake. Later we can look at how we tend to stick our feet out in high traffic areas. 

When we are hurt, it is important to acknowledge the hurt that we actually feel. Too many times I have seen spiritual seekers push their hurts away, thinking that it is unspiritual to have been hurt. After all, supposedly there are no victims. However, we are still all human. We do hurt. We feel pain. Yes, on the spiritual level there are no victims. But, we must deal with our humanity first. That means honoring our physical and emotional well being, including moving ourselves out of harm’s way. One sure way to know if we are in harm’s way is if we have been harmed. The fact is, to live here as spirit, we all must take care of our physical and emotional health, or we will not have the energy to do our life purpose. It is essential to create that safe space for ourselves.

Other common beliefs I have run into are that forgiveness should automatically be given for the people closest to us, and we should always be willing to work with them to come to a reconciliation. This belief all by itself can cause major pain and heart break to all parties involved. It is important to remember that Forgiveness at the human level is always a gift. When forgiveness is required, it is meaningless.  Spiritual seekers must remember that relationships are ultimately voluntary and temporary, whether we think they should be or not. Common false beliefs are: Family should stick together no matter what, Marriage is forever, and Close friendships are forever. And if we don’t make that happen in our lives, we have failed in some way.

In my own life I had a friend from a years long friendship lie to me repeatedly.  She had fallen into this habit out of a need to not disappoint others. Her false belief was that telling people “no” could mean they wouldn’t love her anymore.  So, instead of saying what she needed in the moment, she would lie.  Each time she did this with me, I would explain to her that her lying was hurtful to me and that I could deal with my disappointment when she said, “no.”  I would rather she tell me what she truly wanted and needed than try to make me happy.  However, even though she said she understood, she continued to lie. 

Finally I caught her lying to me over a trivial matter.  I realized she could not or would not change, and her lying was damaging my emotional equilibrium.  I decided to end my friendship with her, despite the belief we both had that friends are friends forever, and despite knowing her soul’s story.  While I had compassion for what had led her into lying in the first place, I needed to take care of myself. Because I had already repeatedly explained the problem to her, I didn’t bother explaining one last time.  Instead I moved on with my life without her. 

She eventually called me to ask what was wrong.  I told her that I had caught her lying to me yet again.  On her end, she was hurt that I had cut her off, and also wondering how I could be so mean to her when all she was doing was trying to smooth things over for herself and me by lying once in a while. And, we were friends, and friends should be willing to work things out.  It was a shock to her that I wasn’t going to operate by those rules anymore, and that her behavior had finally cost her our friendship. 

When she realized that I meant what I said, she saw that always telling the truth with me was a condition of our relationship, even if the telling was uncomfortable or would cause pain.  She told me that now she was truly willing to abide by that condition and, I believed her.  The strong boundary I had put in place was no longer necessary.  The anger and hurt dissipated.  Truly, there was nothing to forgive, and our relationship moved forward renewed and restored. 

We have continued to be friends until this day—a friendship that has lasted almost thirty years, with six years of not a lie told between us.  It is important to see that I broke off my relationship with her for my own sense of well being, NOT to get her to change her behavior.  I was willing to give up the friendship for my own sake, for my own emotional health.  I had no expectations of her changing her behavior in any way. Do not break off relationships thinking that by doing so you’ll cause the other to change.  Do it only for your own emotional or physical health.

Before my friend called me, I was angry with her.  Over the period of days when we did not speak, I considered calling her and resuming our friendship.  But, my anger would always come back.  In this case, anger was acting as a signal that something essential within me wouldn’t allow that reconciliation.  I could have interpreted this as being Unforgiving or stuck in a Victim stance, but instead I chose to honor my inner signals around what anger was telling me was right for me.  Honoring our personal boundaries by using anger as a signal can be frightening and challenging for many of us.

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