What to Do If You Can’t Forgive
By Candice Thomas
“Your heart knows the way. Run in that direction.” ~Rumi
“I know I should forgive but I can’t.” I squirmed in my seat as I said this to my teacher.
I said this immediately after I explained all that I’d experienced during our meditation exercise. In the meditation I’d had a vivid recollection of the constant verbal and emotional abuse I’d received from my dad.
It had been ten years since I’d lived at home, but I was still angry, still carrying all of those emotions from years ago. Instead of telling me all the virtues of why it’s important to forgive, my teacher asked me one question.
“Are you ready to forgive?”
“No,” I said.
When he said that I burst into tears of relief.
At that time in my life so many people had been telling me about the virtues of forgiveness, suggesting different methods. When they’d see my resistance to forgiveness, they’d just tell me the same platitudes over and over again:
Forgiveness isn’t about excusing the other person’s behavior.
Forgiveness is for you not the other person.
Forgiveness frees you.
I intellectually understood what they meant. But I still couldn’t do it. I didn’t know why I couldn’t. I had started to feel guilty and shameful that I wasn’t able to do this one thing that so many people agreed I should do.
My teacher giving me space to not forgive gave me the permission to observe myself and my pain without judgment. This meant I could explore the subtle feelings and beliefs that I didn’t even know I had. I uncovered my resistance by asking myself:
How was not-forgiving keeping me safe?
At the time I was a perfectionist and was excelling in my career. I had risen quickly through the ranks of my organization because I pushed myself hard and did a great job.
At the same time there would be moments where I would go into extreme procrastination. I had learned that I procrastinated because I felt like what I should be doing was going to harm me. I stopped and went into avoidance mode whenever I was afraid that I was going to experience burnout or if I thought I would fail and be rejected.
I looked at my reaction to not forgiving my dad in the same way. I was avoiding forgiveness because something about the idea of it made me feel unsafe.
I sat down and wrote about why not forgiving my dad was keeping me safe. In my journaling I was surprised to see that I felt safe with the power I had in not forgiving.
Through a family member who had told my dad I wasn’t willing to forgive him I’d heard that he was upset that I didn’t. That knowledge, that small thing that I had control of when I hadn’t felt in control of anything regarding my dad, felt like vindication.
I wrote deeper:
Why was it so important for me to hold that power?
I realized that inside of me was still a teenaged girl living in the experience—she hadn’t graduated high school and moved out. She was still in that pain right now. In this moment. And that feeling of power was the only thing keeping her together.
It was shocking that I could feel her so strongly in my body. Mostly in my chest and in my stomach. The feeling was heavy and like sand I couldn’t leave that girl feeling powerless while she was still actively in the moment of pain. I had to give her something to hold onto so she could survive.
I didn’t try to correct my perception or be more positive. I just listened to me. I finally connected with the depth of pain I had been feeling all along and how often it was there without me even noticing. I wasn’t used to connecting with my body I wasn’t used to listening to myself without judging.
My teacher asked me if it was okay if instead of forgiving my dad if we released the energy that I was feeling from my body. I said yes, so he led me through a guided meditation.
In it I took several deep breaths and visualized that I was sending all of my dad’s energy and the energy of situation through the sun and back to my dad. By moving the light through the sun my dad would only receive pure light back, not any of the pain he’d projected.
I then took back my own energy, my authentic power, whatever I felt had been taken from me or whatever power I felt I’d given away. I visualized that energy moving through the sun and being cleansed so that all I received was my own pure light.
Then I visualized all the other people who had heard my story or actually witnessed what went on with my dad letting go of all their judgments and attachments, like streams of light rising into the sky.
After the meditation was done my body felt good. I felt lighter. I didn’t feel a part of me was caught in the past.
Suddenly I had a strong urge to forgive my father. And I did.
Over time I found that I still had more forgiving to do, but it was easier. I didn’t have to be convinced to forgive, I naturally wanted to.
What helped me the most when I couldn’t forgive was finally recognizing that forgiveness is more than making a mental choice and saying words. Forgiveness is a decision that’s made with the body and the soul. It comes naturally when it is ready.
If you just can’t forgive, I invite you to explore what worked for me:
1. Accept that you aren’t ready to forgive and trust your decision.
2. Ask yourself how not-forgiving is keeping you safe and listen to your truth without minimizing or correcting your beliefs.
3. Be present and feel where those beliefs are still active in your body,
4. When you are ready (and only when you’re ready) releasing the energy that does not belong to you and reclaim what does using the process I wrote above.
When we are willing to stop forcing ourselves to do what we ‘should’ do and actually listen to our truth in the moment, we expand our capacity for healing in ways we can’t even imagine. Including forgiving the impossible.