I Released My Anger, But I Don’t Forgive You

This one is going to land weird for those of you (of us) who had an evangelical upbringing. I’m going to ask you to stick with me, anyway. It’s important.

I was raised with teachings about forgiveness that were blissfully unburdened by nuance. Meaning, the teaching was purely black and white: you forgive people.

That’s what good, God-fearing Christians do.

No need for them to apologize, or if they do apologize, for it to be thorough and sincere. No need for there to be changed behavior.

No. All that matters, as it pertains to your eternal soul, is that you forgive.

And forgive, you must.

As I got older, I began learning about concepts of forgiveness that pushed against what I learned in my youth. They said that forgiveness is for me, not for the other person. Forgiveness is what releases me from the hurt, the anger, the resentment. It’s like that old saying goes, “stop drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

They even pointed out scripture to support this idea: that forgiveness isn’t necessarily for the other person, but rather for our own peace, harmony, and connection to God. They showed how scripture supports the idea that forgiveness—when it is given to the other person—is contingent on their behavior. That is: you don’t have to tell someone else you forgive them if they haven’t given a sincere apology and demonstrated their remorse through changed behavior and making things right.

Through therapy and a lot of unpacking of my Christian upbringing, I’ve arrived at my own stance on the whole forgiveness thing. Maybe it’s just a difference in semantics, but it’s helped me to meaningfully understand how I relate to anger and forgiveness. It goes like this:

Releasing anger is for me. I will allow myself to feel my anger, but when I am ready, I will release it. I release anger for myself so that I do not continue to burn with it—so that I can move on in peace and inner harmony.

Forgiveness can also be for me. I can choose to forgive someone whenever it feels right, even in the absence of an apology. I can decide to look closely at their lives and circumstances and realize that I understand why they did what they did to me, even if it hurt. I can see that they were being manipulated, or were in their own state of trauma, or had things going on internally that I couldn’t have understood at the time. In those cases, I can choose to forgive them in my own heart, having realized that we all fuck up—we all act in ways we wish we hadn’t, and I can see enough humanity in them to forgive even without them offering an apology or making amends. They don’t have to do anything for me to forgive them in my own heart.

But forgiveness for them comes with conditions. When it comes to extending forgiveness to someone when they ask for it, I have a pretty high bar. Too often, people show up offering apologies when they realize their actions are about to have consequences, or when they need something. So, I have a few things I need to know before I extend forgiveness to them. They are:

Have they shown me that this apology is about my feelings and not theirs?

Have they demonstrated that they understand the extent of the hurt they caused me, and offered a thorough apology for those things?

Have they given me a chance to share my feelings about what they did?

Is their apology as loud as their disrespect, and have they taken proper accountability? (Meaning, if the disrespect was in public, was the apology in public, too?)

Have they shown me with their actions (or with their plan of action) how they intend to make things right?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, they will not receive an acknowledgement of forgiveness from me. Frankly, they don’t deserve it.

Learning the differences between letting go of anger, forgiving for myself, and forgiving others is helping me to better protect my peace and also protect my relationships. For far too long, I believed that I had to forgive everyone who harmed me, whether they acknowledged what they did or made it right. I believed that if I was a well of forgiveness and grace, I would earn some prize that—I’ve now learned—doesn’t exist. In so doing, I enabled harmful people. I taught them that they could behave however they wanted toward me with no consequences. I showed them that their behavior wasn’t actually that bad (something they always knew anyway, right?) and that forgiveness is as simple as giving an anemic ”sorry.”

Walking in a state of earnest grace, while also upholding our boundaries and self-respect, allows us to let people back in who genuinely deserve it—it holds the door open for those who are willing to do what it takes to walk back through it. It also shows us to whom we need to keep the door closed.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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