Forgiving and Forgetting. How It Helps and Hinders Conflict Resolution

It’s a sad, sorry and bitter place to dwell in. That no-man’s land of pain, humiliation, anger, sadness and loss that follows an act that caused you suffering. You can linger there for years, going over what was done to you, asking why they did this to you, imagining making them suffer as you have.

We all experience this sometimes during or after conflict. It doesn’t matter how large or small the act is, it’s the pain that comes from it that creates an intense void within us.

Unresolved conflict can have a devastating effect on our mental well-being, including anxiety, depression and stress. I recently watched The Virtues, a television drama about a struggling alcoholic, Joseph, who returns to Ireland to confront his forgotten past. Fragments of his memories re-surface when he encounters a fellow care home resident and he realises that the sexual abuse he had suffered there as a child, led to the pain that coloured his lifestyle. He decides to confront his abuser and wants to kill him. He comes face to face with him, a terminally ill man, unrepentant and nasty. When his abuser tells Joseph that he had violated him because he had also suffered years of the same abuse, he chooses not to kill him but instead to forgive him. He realises that he must do this to move on and live life fully.

What Is Forgiveness

The Forgiveness Project has collected several stories of people who have forgiven themselves and others. From them, several themes capture the essence of forgiveness. These include:

Feeling anger, pain shame, disgust, outrage. The list of negative emotions that arise from a wrongful act are numerous. What was done to you was not right, it was probably unfair and acknowledging what you feel as normal is the first step. Some even use the anger they feel for something positive, like starting a charity or taking action to prevent the same act happening again. These emotions don’t necessarily stop after you forgive but they no longer affect your mental and emotional well-being every time you think of the event. The Rwandan reconciliation villages are a good example of how hatred can be transformed following years of genocide.

Forgiving yourself. Some people feel guilty for acts done to them. If you felt that you could have prevented the act from happening to you then you might spend a lot of time blaming yourself for something that was done to you. Some people use meditative techniques to help with this, perform rituals such as letter-writing and burning those letters together with items associated with the perpetrator or the act.

Seeking understanding of the act and the offender. This means accepting that the person who committed the act is a human being with needs, emotions and potentially a painful past. It also means accepting that they may not feel remorse or do not have an explanation for their motives. This is incredibly hard to do and we often feel the most resistance to forgiving when we humanise the person who has hurt us.

Empathy. This underlies forgiveness. It’s about connecting to the perpetrator’s emotions and putting yourself in their shoes. This must be hard if the act was a heinous crime and it requires courage to listen to them talk about their own pain. Real transformation starts when we see our enemies as human beings and not as monsters, devoid of feeling.

Turning away from revenge. Once you have gone through the process of forgiveness, people often feel no need to take revenge because the pain that motivates it is gone.

Photo by JONAS FERLIN on

Forgiveness does not mean that your relationship is automatically restored. You may forgive the person but you do not wish them to be part of your life. In that sense, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. It means only that you are no longer stuck in emotional turmoil and so you can see the options for your future with clarity.

When you forgive, you may even be able to see some benefit that your suffering gave you. The director of The Virtues, Shane Meadows, talks about the energy he channeled into his film making and the empathy he gained from understanding the abuse he went through.

You may wish to commemorate the act and it’s effect on your life. This could involve creating a ritual or marker for the event in some positive way. This can help the healing process of moving on.

Conflict Resolution

One way of resolving or de-escalating conflict is to offer or receive a sincere apology. It helps to resolve conflict because it is an expression of regret, an acknowledgment of the harm done to you and its consequences. It is also a signal that the same act will never happen again and because of this, a new future without this threat can begin. You may see this as a crucial element of your road to forgiveness. Some do not need to hear the words “I am sorry” to forgive and move on.

If you want to continue a relationship with somebody who has harmed you, an apology might help to build trust and set the tone for your future relations.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

When Forgiveness Doesn’t Resolve Conflict

Insincere apologies can make conflict worse because they may make the receiver feel diminished, unacknowledged or unimportant. That’s why it is vitally important not to force somebody to apologise if they don’t mean it. If the offender cannot guarantee unconditionally that they will not repeat their behaviour, then forgiveness is unhelpful in resolving conflict. This doesn’t mean that you can’t forgive somebody if they won’t stop the offending behaviour but the hurt will simply continue.

It’s also unhelpful when you are not ready to forgive. In my own experience of forgiveness, a family member told a lie about me that caused a huge family rift. The consequences of that lie were catastrophic. This, from a relative who I loved and trusted with all my heart. It came out of nowhere and it was intended to hurt me and my immediate family, especially my father. It took about seven years to finally forgive her. Many of my relatives wanted me to forgive and forget and encouraged me to do so, but this infuriated me. They couldn’t accept the betrayal and anguish I felt which needed to be acknowledged and explained.

I didn’t even know I had forgiven her until my grandfather passed away and I saw her crying at his coffin. I couldn’t even speak, I just embraced her. We reconciled but the relationship had changed. Now, the occasional text message will suffice.  The important thing for me is the emotions I felt no longer gnaw away at me before I go to sleep at night.

I recognise the terrible childhood she had. I realise that growing up in my father’s shadow must have been hard, especially in their circumstances. I see her need to be better than everyone else as a wound inflicted unintentionally by generations of people who came before her.

Forgiveness has taught me that acceptance isn’t resignation. It’s active. It’s a choice. It’s a way to find peace and to grow out of the dark depths of conflict and to transform it, like a lotus flower, into something tender yet resilient. Its power develops over time. It’s not linear and in some ways, it is inexplicable.

I’d love, as always, to read your comments and thoughts! Please feel free to tell me your stories of forgiveness!

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