Forgiveness is tricky. While it sounds lovely, it’s actually very difficult to do in a healthy way. You’ve probably heard the idea that forgiveness is really for you, and that it can be freeing. The words are beautiful, but forgiving people, especially those in our immediate family, is very difficult—especially so if what they’ve done has been done before and is likely to happen again. That’s when forgiveness becomes “forgiving the mess.”
Forgiving the mess is about accepting who someone is and the situation, but not the behavior that damages us. It’s about drawing and maintaining boundaries while accepting that a person probably isn’t going to change dramatically. Sounds like a mess, right? That’s why I call it forgiving the mess. Life is messy, and people are messy. Our job is to determine what is acceptable behavior and let go of what we can’t control, like the way someone is, so we can move through our lives in a peaceful way. Many people wouldn’t describe family relationships as peaceful. Even when family members are close and they love each other deeply, there isn’t always peace. Forgiving the mess can change that.
The conversation around forgiveness starts with letting down our guard with reality and accepting what is (see previous discussions about staying in your own business, and check out Byron Katie’s Loving What Is ). You’ll never get people to do what you want them to do. “Why won’t they just be nice to me or do this or do that?” Let that dream go! People will do what they’re going to do.
You get to decide what behaviors harm you. You can ask yourself about a recurring situation—what is it that this person does that hurts me? Not their difference in perspective, but the thing they do. Maybe it’s a remark about your house, your hair, the way you mow the lawn, or how you make a casserole. A recurring thing that your parent or sibling says that makes you feel like you’re less of a person. People usually don’t purposefully try to put people down, and they may not even realize they’re doing it.
In order to bring awareness to something that is harming you, sit down with the person one on one and, in a calm tone, explain what they’re doing that negatively affects you and how it impacts you. You can say, “I’m sure your intent is not for me to feel this way, but when you say this, this is how it makes me feel.” I truly believe that most people don’t intend to hurt others (if they do, that’s a different story, and one you should run screaming from as fast as you can). People don’t realize the impact of their words and actions because of the static in their own brains. You aren’t asking them to change who they are, but you can ask them to change their behavior around you because it hurts you.
It may take them time to process, but after they have that time, many people will say they didn’t realize the negative impact. Then you can have a conversation about how to move on.
You should be aware that you may also be doing something that hurts them, and you should be willing to talk about it. No one is perfect—we’re messy creatures doing the best we can. Once you’ve expressed how you feel and ask them to change their behavior, draw a boundary, and be ready to redraw the boundary no fewer than 100 times. The pattern that had been created will not be broken overnight. It will take time. But you’ve opened the door to have a conversation when it happens again. “Hey, I know we talked about this, so I’m going to ask you not to say or do that thing that makes me feel bad.” Boundaries are some of the hardest things we learn to do, but some of the most important. I’ll be going into boundaries in more depth in our next segment, so stay tuned.
After accepting people as they are and setting and maintaining boundaries, the next step is to forgive the mess to let it go. It’s really hard, but this step sets you free. You fully realize the mess that isn’t yours, and you take care of yourself in that context and then let go of everything else. You don’t allow yourself to hash and rehash past scenarios in your head, which will make you upset and pissed again. I call this “story fondling.” Tell yourself that this is the new pattern you’re working on, and that they’re trying to change their behavior while you’re staying in your own business. Breathe and move on. And if there are other past transgressions that you can’t get over, have another conversation about it or simply work to accept the reality.
Life and people are messy, but we can find calm by taking care of ourselves. We weren’t taught how to do this, so we must learn. It takes practice and patience with yourself and others, so embrace and forgive the mess. Then let it go! (cue Elsa)
Sandy Eichel is a happy ex-should-er.