If I can’t trust you… If you give too much advice when I need you to listen… If you use statements like, “It could be worse”…
I immediately write you off.
I have a habit of picking my “safe” people. I do it to avoid being hurt, I know that. It seems healthy and rational in my mind. Relationships are valuable, full of joy, and create a sense of belonging—but they also come with people who tend to make a mess and hurt others. This has led me to give everyone a chance, but when you “show me who you are” and it hurts me, I will avoid you forevermore. And it’s slowly killing me.
Has someone ever done something to you where you have every legitimate reason to not trust them anymore or just checkout of the relationship? A slight or disrespect that you just can’t handle because you feel belittled, talked down to, or disregarded? One of those hurts that gets replayed in your mind over and over?
This happens to me more than I would like to admit. Lately, I kept feeling disrespected, unheard, and undervalued. One was a comment that I am “stone-faced” in my morning workout class, which I heard as, “You don’t play well with others, and we don’t like you.”
Another was feedback that I could be “softer,” which I heard as, “You’re a woman; play into the gender role I’m comfortable with and stop being difficult.”
The third was a situation of telling a friend about a personal struggle. She replied, “Well, at least…” which I heard as, “I don’t really care about your situation—or you—because it could be worse.”
All of these come with a “what someone said” versus a “what I heard.” I know big chunks of this are my issues, but whether that’s what they meant or not, the slight was felt. I immediately no longer wanted to be in any of the places where these people were: class, work, or calling my friend. Classic avoidance? Yes, but I felt stuck because every time I had an interaction with them, the feeling of dread, anger, and bitterness would become a bigger stone in the pit of my stomach.
The tricky part is that I have a relationship with Jesus. If you’ve ever been around a church, you’ve probably heard forgiveness is kind of a big deal. Which sucks, because whenever I processed with some of my church friends, I got advice around forgiveness. It felt like they were writing off my feelings which felt super annoying and totally unhelpful.
The advice from my non-church friends wasn’t much better. They would advise me to give the person feedback on why they were wrong and to stand up and prove my point.
I would roll my eyes at my Christian friends who would say, “Just forgive and be more like Jesus” (that’s what I tacked on to the back of it). One: I am not Jesus. Two: They just don’t understand. I am hurting and frustrated, and forgiving will not make these feelings go away. Also, forcing myself to forgive didn’t seem authentic. I didn’t want to forgive, and these people didn’t deserve my forgiveness. So I took the advice of my second set of friends and told these people the error of their ways.
Have you ever had an anger daydream? You know, the ones where you imagine that perfectly witty comeback that leaves the other person speechless? Turns out, after using a few of these in actual situations, I was left feeling even worse than when the situation started. I felt guilty and would avoid them until we absolutely had to meet or talk. Even then I would avoid eye contact and keep the interactions as short as possible.
I was the one left with heaviness, anger, and disappointment at being mistreated and being misunderstood. Not them.
These may sound like quick stories, but each went round and round in circles of “get angry, try to prove my point, get the other person to see my feelings, try to forgive, give up, repeat.” I sometimes spent months being angry and frustrated every time I stepped into these circular situations.
Then I read a book called “Rethinking Forgiveness” by Michael O’Shields. It explained how I could forgive in a way that acknowledged my hurt and gave me hope: “If someone offended you, it happened, even if an imaginary offense causes a wound, to forget the offense is to deny the wound and denial will not bring healing.”
I wanted healing.
I started wrestling with it.
Does forgiving mean I forget the hurt or the damage? Does it give the other person a pass for their actions? Does it mean I have to trust them?
Even by secular definition, to forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake. Spiritually, it meant to release it. The choice was mine. I didn’t need an apology from them (and I was never going to get one). We would still need to fix our relationship, but I wanted healing. Supposedly, that would come from both acknowledging the hurt (real or perceived) and speaking forgiveness about that person anyway.
Not avoiding the hurt, which is what I wanted to do (because who actually wants to dig into feelings?) Real forgiveness means giving the pain the weight it deserved. I needed to face it and choose to change my heart by not holding on to it anymore. Releasing it doesn’t pretend they aren’t guilty. It acknowledges the wrong but takes the weight off of the offender. Suddenly that definition sounded familiar.
It made sense why my Christian friends kept defaulting to forgiveness (though it might have been delivered poorly). It’s the basis of my faith—Jesus acknowledges where I fall short. But He takes the weight of those mistakes off me and instead, he takes it himself. I had already tried ignoring the pain, asking for help, and confronting the person, none of which helped—I was feeling this pain anyway. I could keep pretending that my cold shoulder or resentment towards them made them pay it off in any helpful or “just” way, but it was only hurting me. I was out of options. The forgiveness route supposedly promised peace on the other side, so I decided to give it a shot.
There’s a theme in the Bible about how our words have power, and this book said breakthrough came from speaking forgiveness out loud. So, when I was alone with God, I choked out the words, “I forgive (insert name here) for making me feel insignificant, not getting to know me, speaking falsely about my identity, for disrespecting me, and for making me feel worthless.”
I didn’t feel too different. I was proud of myself for being the “bigger person,” but that was about it. But the next part is what turned everything upside down.
The book then told me to bless them: “Forgiving and blessing enables us to remember our past without pain.” This sounds really religious and super holy, but once again, the dictionary came through. “Bless” means to look favorably on; I translated that to “wish well of.” I thought I choked on the forgiving part, but when I started trying to wish good things for them, everything in me resisted. But I didn’t have anything to lose. I had already lost a year, most of my sanity, and was about to quit my job.
So I chose to speak good things over their life:
- I speak favor over them, that they will be listened to and empathized with by others
- I speak favor over them in their identity, that they will be able to flourish in their strengths
- I speak favor over them receiving continual and unexpected praise and recognition
- I speak favor over them, that they can know they are made in the image of God
Have you ever read a story or watched a movie that stopped right in the middle? Me either, but that is what this is. Is my situation resolved or closed? No. Do I know there will be a happy ending where I love everything about it in the end and know it worked out for my good? Nope. Am I able to trust these people again? Not all of them.
What I do know is that I have had a change of heart. When I think about these people, the nagging feelings of control, bitterness, being the victim, and sadness are fading.
When the feelings come back, I bless these people again, even though it isn’t my first instinct. My default is still to defend myself, continue to lament about how terrible this person is, or cop a negative attitude and muscle through the day. I replay these negative moments at the end of the day and think, “Dang it, I failed, and I must not have really forgiven this person if I continued to let them drag me down.” But we are human, and this happens. I just forgive myself, speak favorably about them again, and the anger continues to fade.
Here are some simple ways to “speak favorably” about others. Use them until you can say them without a grimace:
- Say something that specifically reflects the opposite of how they offended you.
- Bless them with something that is needed or missing for you.
- Say something that provides favor in their future.
For example, if they broke up with you, bless them with a healthy marriage.
This isn’t just about doing the “right” thing or randomly spewing good vibes into the universe. It’s about partnering with God on the freedom he wants to bring to me and whoever I’m in conflict with.
Forgiveness is a central key because it helps us. It’s a path to freedom. It is one of the only ways to not stuff feelings down or simply try harder to be the bigger person, neither which has ever worked for me. We can’t force it. But we can surrender (lower our guards) and receive (experience a different way than our hurt instincts naturally lead us) and find a healthier place.
There’s a whole other critical conversation and skills to learn about boundaries and healthy relationships moving forward that we can’t cover here. Forgiveness doesn’t mean continuing to put yourself in harm’s way. But it’s a powerful first step that contrary to popular belief is primarily for us. It provides a sense of peace. It breaks the hold offenders have on us and enables us to move forward. Try it as just an experiment—even if you’re gritting your teeth and forcing the words out. Even if you want to throw up. Words have power, and the potential is your freedom. It’s worth a try.