Feeling unforgiving towards others creates shame.
Why? The standard definition of love is “strong feelings of warmth and affection,” while culture also mandates that we “forgive and forget.” When we aren’t meeting the cultural standards of love and forgiveness, we feel like a failure. This creates another thing to beat ourselves up over, in addition to whatever relationship wasn’t working well in the first place.
We figure we must be terrible at love, or we wouldn’t be having all these negative feelings towards those we care about. Suddenly, in addition to forgiving ourselves and others for mistakes in the relationship, we also have to forgive ourselves for not doing love the right way.
A word on “forgetting.”
I have strong opinions on this subject. I’d like to permanently remove this word from any associations with forgiveness. If we forget, we lose the lesson. We become easily manipulated, naïve, and we cannot grow. Nothing good comes from forgetting. The only thing that is worth forgetting is the phrase “forgive and forget.”
The brain sometimes forgets trauma as a form of self-protection. But until we remember it, and can remain fully present while we process the experience, we will remain in a state of dysregulation. When we forget, we are staying stuck in our trauma.
Others cannot forget trauma, pain, and heartbreak. The memories haunt our dreams, and sometimes our waking in the form of flashbacks. In these instances, the phrase “forgive and forget” feels hopeless. Our trauma brain does not allow us to forget how the other person harmed us, much less forgive.
The shame cycle of unforgiveness.
When we can’t forgive, we get angry at ourselves for getting love wrong, which we take out on those around us, which makes them defensive, which causes them to feel unloved and unlovable. And thus we find ourselves in a shame cycle that continues to pass from person to person, and generation to generation, until it’s impossible to even discern what made us angry or hurt in the first place. Our anger and hurt shift from big feelings to be dealt with to our whole identity.
When we aren’t working on forgiving others, we are setting ourselves up for failure because we then keep creating more reasons to be angry and unforgiving with ourselves. When we aren’t working on self-forgiveness, we continue to feel like a failure at love.
So it’s crucial to work on both at the same time. This is where grace for ourselves and others comes in.
A new definition of love
Difficult relationships are hard enough, without dumping more shame on top of it because we aren’t able to meet the unrealistic standards of warm and fuzzy love. When we Redefine Love, we allow for the complicated, messy aspects of human relationship, which then allows us to set boundaries with accountability and grace.
Love is accepting ourselves and others where they are at, even if that isn’t a very healthy place. Love is assigning accountability for our own and other’s lives in it’s rightful place, and deciding what responsibilities are meant for you to carry, and what are meant for someone else.
It’s also important to know what love is not.
Love and trust are not the same thing. You can love someone, but not trust them. And if we don’t trust them, then we shouldn’t be giving them full access to our hearts, minds, and lives. It’s okay to say, “I love you, but I don’t trust you. And because I don’t trust you, I am going to limit your access to my life.”
Distinguishing that difference between love and trust is a huge factor in forgiveness. So when we Redefine Love to allow for the messy parts of life, we suddenly can give grace and love others – and also forgive others – without letting them take over our lives. Once we have that space from the other person, it’s easier to love them. Boundaries allow us distance to heal, because the toxic person isn’t always in our face, actively hurting us.
Once we have set boundaries with all those whom we do not trust, that is when we can start really working on self-forgiveness. Until then, we are just piling on the shame. It’s impossible to focus on working on ourselves until we have set some healthy boundaries in our relationships with others.
Boundaries are not “mean” or “selfish.”
These are words we hear a lot when we start shifting accountability back where it belongs. Especially from people who kind of liked when you were carrying the burden of their poor choices.
So let’s clarify – healthy boundaries are not mean or selfish. They are simply a way to assign responsibility where it belongs. Boundaries are how you hand burdens back to others when you shouldn’t have been carrying them in the first place.
And suddenly, the shame cycle is broken.
When you are carrying the burden of someone else’s poor choices, it builds resentment. This resentment makes it almost impossible to forgive. Once you learn how to assign responsibility back where it truly belongs, it becomes much easier to forgive others. And once you are able to forgive others, you have the headspace to begin working on forgiving yourself. When you are no longer piling on additional shame for all the ways you are failing at love, you have the margin to think clearly and appreciate all the ways you are unique and beautiful.
It may be uncomfortable for all involved during the first steps towards boundaries, accountability, and grace. But if you’re able to sit in that discomfort while the dust settles, you’ll find that life on the other side is nothing short of incredible.