A Practical Guide to Forgiveness

resentmentMike asked a question that comes up frequently in my office: what the heck does forgiveness mean, and how does one do it? We’ve all heard flowery sentiments that work fine when someone cuts us off in traffic, but how do you move on after someone causes real damage?

Here’s Mike:

“Hey Doc, I made the horrible mistake of moving in with a woman who turned out to be crazy. She would start fights and then blame me. She would scream and throw things. I never raised a hand, but I’m the one who got arrested. She finally moved out and left me with a load of debt for things she took with her…. I’m pissed and it’s ruining my life. I used to like women. Now I don’t. I see her in every woman I meet. I’ve heard all the platitudes. They don’t help. I need to move on.”

I know your type, Mike. I am your type. A lot of us guys (and a fair number of women) were raised with a couple of strict rules regarding vulnerability. First, don’t admit that anyone has the power to hurt you. Second, rub some dirt on it.

That’s actually great advice sometimes, but it leaves a person ill-equipped at 2 AM when the mind is racing with thoughts about the one who painted your world a grim shade of ugly. It’s especially troubling when hurtful behavior comes from people who were supposed to be trustworthy. That’s when betrayal really leaves a mark.

As you aptly noted, a lot of advice on forgiveness is long on sentiment and short on specifics. You don’t have to look far to find this type of counsel:

Send love. The cosmos has a plan for you. Let it go and feel the flow.

Those are meaningful meditations for some people. I envy those people.

To me, those tender bromides are utterly useless during a 2 AM gloom-fest. In fact, they can intensify resentment by adding a thick layer of irritation on top of the pain and anger. The cosmos has a plan for me? Well maybe the cosmic plan for you is to shut yer pie-hole!

Wouldn’t it be great if resentment tormented the people who hurt us? Imagine your ex-girlfriend getting a foot cramp every time you indulged your anger. That would make her think twice before hurling objects at loved ones.

anger & forgiveness

Resentment is self-inflicted torment. That’s why forgiveness matters. Letting go won’t help your ex, but it will help you.

Resentment—which opposes forgiveness—is one of the mind’s blunt tools for ensuring safety. It’s like anxiety and fear, designed to keep us from being snake-bit a second time. I don’t like framing it as a problem of the soul. I find it more useful to think of resentment as a normal function of a protective mind.

It sounds like you were traumatized by this relationship, meaning your mind has adopted a grossly overgeneralized and inaccurate view of women. It makes perfect sense, from a risk-management point of view. Your mind is simply trying to keep you out of danger’s reach.

Resentment often presents itself in little, everyday behaviors. If you’re not careful, you will find yourself cracking cynical jokes about women and meeting friendly smiles with scowls that say, go away. Not interested.

With each small act of resentment you are buying into your mind’s unreasonable story about women. I can picture you queued up at a coffee shop, sourly dismissing the lovely stranger who could have become a friend.

The problem isn’t that a snake-bit mind wants to avoid snakes. The problem is the mind’s lack of subtlety, and the fact that there is more to life than risk management. In your case, Mike, it sounds like resentment could create loneliness by a thousand cuts.

Luckily for guys like us, there’s a solution that doesn’t involve touchy-feely platitudes. It involves disobeying our overprotective minds and squashing those small acts of resentment. That may sound like a tall order but it becomes fairly easy with practice.

For example, you can forego the cynical little comments and replace them with polite smiles and pleasant greetings—even if you don’t feel like it. And when your mind is tormenting you at 2 AM, you can pick up a book and redirect your attention to something more productive. If resentment breeds misery by a thousand tiny cuts, then maybe freedom comes from a thousand little choices to the contrary.

Most people notice a strange thing when they disobey the mind: its urges lose their power. Even if resentment remains, it becomes increasingly irrelevant. Here are three more tactics to help you move on.

1. Take responsibility for your suffering

Listen up, Mike: you chose to bring your ex-girlfriend into your life. You alone embraced her chaos and disorder. You created 50% of the relationship. I wonder… what would she say about your behavior?

I’m not trying to beat up on you. Really. More than any other tactic, self-accountability will help you understand why you welcomed this person into your world so you can be confident it won’t happen again.

2. Keep your dignity

You said you see your ex’s face in every woman you meet, suggesting you are less inviting than you otherwise would be. Again: it makes sense. Your mind is only trying to keep those heartless she-devils at bay.

But don’t let your anxious mind get away with scaredy-cat behavior. Maintain your dignity and your manners. Hold your head high around the opposite sex. Carry yourself like a proud warrior of good breeding. Fake it if you must.

This has two benefits. First, keeping a dignified bearing will help you prevent those little resentment-driven interactions. Second, it will open the door to positive experiences with women of good character. They generally dig a chivalrous dude who walks with confidence.

3. Don’t search for reasons to feel offended

The injured, resentful mind looks for new injustices like a pig roots for truffles. Did that woman just give me the stink-eye?… What did my boss mean with that tone of voice?… Of course that woman driver cut me off. They only care about themselves.

Scrounging for righteous indignation is exhausting, and it is rocket fuel for resentment and misery. Keep an eye on your mind. When you catch it inventing new injuries, remind yourself that it is only trying to protect you, but it is not to be trusted on the matter of female character. At least not for a while.

One of the tasks in overcoming traumatic experiences is to develop a realistic view of the world—or in your case, a realistic view of the opposite sex. Somewhere between naiveté and paranoia lies wisdom. Do the work every day and you’ll get your mind back on its feet one step at a time.