Have you ever known somebody who said something like, “If you really forgive me, you’ll give me another chance”? It’s such a powerful challenge. It simultaneously manipulates us while evoking guilt and self-doubt. For nearly my entire life, I was led to believe forgiveness meant giving second chances – and third, fourth, then infinite chances. I believed if I wrote somebody out of my life or burned bridges, it wasn’t because the other person was toxic, but because I was faulty. Have you ever felt like you were a bad person simply because you wanted to protect your self-worth from a bad relationship?
Lately, I’ve come to understand the difference between forgiveness and second chances. I’ve also learned failing to understand the difference often leads us to make decisions which not only have a lifelong impact, but can worsen or even cause chronic depression and anxiety. In short, the difference is this:
Forgiveness is about us. Second chances are about the other person.
Time may heal all wounds, but forgiveness keeps them from festering. Have you ever heard the saying depression is anger turned inward? We forgive others and ourselves because it frees US. It allows us to remember whatever took place as an event and not a reflection of ourselves. In other words, we don’t have to allow a mistake or another person’s behavior to define who we are. Instead, we can learn from it, and even appreciate it as a valuable life lesson, then move on.
The movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman teaches some powerful lessons about forgiveness, but I especially loved this idea (paraphrased): You know you’ve forgiven somebody when the opportunity to hurt them in some way becomes available … but you don’t take it. Be careful here. If you are experiencing depression and anxiety because somebody else is continuing with a behavior which you have told them is hurtful to you, you may not actually be forgiving them, but rather feeling guilt about your anger towards them. We can unwittingly end up in a cycle of you said you were sorry, I said I forgive you, then you went and did the same thing again, unsure of how to get off the roller-coaster.
In reality, allowing somebody to hurt us again and again, whether it is a partner who cheats on us, or a boss who constantly belittles us, is not forgiveness and it’s not second chances — it is low self-worth. When we don’t learn to love and respect ourselves, we frequently find ourselves in relationships with others who also do not love or respect us. Some people just have a knack for tapping into our already-damaged self-image, and our brain’s filter translates the message for us:
This person said horrible things to me, so I must be a horrible person, which means I deserve for people to say horrible things to me.
Somehow our brain manages to completely disregard the fact the other person has lied to us, or humiliated us, or made us feel “less than”. Because of faulty filtering, we stay in relationships with people who berate or bully us. We stay in jobs with bosses who make us feel worthless. The danger is not only in believing how others make us feel about ourselves is true, but in believing we have to let it continue because we have mistaken forgiveness for second chances.
Forgiving somebody doesn’t mean you have to allow them to keep hurting you, and only you can decide when “enough is enough”. When you do reach that point, try not to allow yourself to be guilt-tripped into basically rewarding bad behavior. I know … It is never as easy as just walking away. We may be in a committed relationship, unable to change jobs, or have especially difficult parents. In these types of situations, we have to accept we cannot change other people, but we CAN strengthen the part of our brain which absorbs those negative thoughts and feelings, and teach it to filter those messages out as garbage. This takes time and practice, but IT CAN BE DONE!
Give this a try next time somebody hurts you. Get your notebook or journal and make two columns. In one column, list the negative thoughts and feelings you are having about yourself. In the second column, challenge each of these thoughts. When our anxiety or depression is bad, it can be very difficult to find something good to say about ourselves, but keep trying. Your challenging statements don’t have to be anything grand. They can be as simple as, “I’m not stupid. I might have made a mistake when typing up that report, but now I know what to look for next time.” Over time, your self-worth will strengthen to a point where those incoming hurtful messages can be processed realistically, allowing you to make changes where necessary, but also allowing you to avoid owning those faulty accusations.