Anchors of hope, Encouragement

Hurt Again? Helpful Steps During Emotional Pain

30 Seconds for Hope:

Has someone mistreated you? What now? Should you retaliate, hibernate, or maybe pursue? Whether intentional or clueless, disregard often feels horrible, so I searched for a path through that pain. Now I want to share a path I discovered that moved me toward respect, boundaries, empathy, and forgiveness—steps that benefited me as well as others. After learning more about forgiveness (often a process over time), I decided to develop a worksheet (below) that for the past twelve years has helped me whenever I’m wrestling with the costs and benefits of forgiveness. Take steps forward. Some hope for you.

And now the full story:

Chef’s salad and fresh rolls made a yummy lunch while I relaxed in the campus cafeteria with my favorite hobby—reading. Because I desired to go beyond university wisdom and gain life wisdom, I picked up my Bible and leafed through Proverbs, the proverbial book of wisdom. My eyes traveled quickly down the page, as usual, but they stopped abruptly when I saw…

“The father of godly children has cause for joy. What a pleasure to have children who are wise. So give your father and mother joy! May she who gave you birth be happy.”

May she who gave you birth be happy?

At that time, my mother (now deceased) usually was not a happy woman, and her unhappiness had often spilled onto me in words that cut. Now I was reading that I could give my mother joy. Really? Just by growing in wisdom? What did that even mean? I didn’t know, but I was pretty sure wisdom might involve me forgiving her for some pretty hard stuff.

Is that true for you, too? I’ve heard that most people have things to forgive their parents for. Beyond parents, everyone has someone to forgive. Forgiveness is a big deal for all of us, but so incredibly hard.

Even though I had been deeply hurt, I knew I wanted wisdom, so I prayed, “Lord, help me grow in wisdom to such a degree that it would bring my mother joy.”

Was that even possible?

After that lunchtime epiphany at college, I began looking for ways to respect my mother. Maybe kindness could bring her some joy? Since I was miles from home, I started writing to her more often. I initiated more phone calls and didn’t just wait for her to call. I also began to send my mom birthday cards on my birthday—to give words of respect and thanks. After all, the process of birthing me had been a big deal, or so I’d heard, so grateful words seemed appropriate. I didn’t need to let her problems derail me from kindness.

In the months ahead my new trajectory did bring joy to my mother at times, yet it didn’t change her. It changed me. New paradigms helped me learn to honor and forgive her, and ultimately others, too, who had hurt me. Sometimes my forgiveness even opened opportunities for reconciliation.

Since nuggets of wisdom helped me navigate life’s hurts, I thought you might find them helpful, too. Here are the major steps I discovered:

1. Treating people with respect does not depend on them earning it. Really? Yes—because respect is separate from trust. Trust has to be earned, but we can respect the personhood of everyone, regardless of past record. Though I couldn’t entrust my deepest feelings to my mother (because of her past abuses of my confidences), and I also couldn’t honor her inappropriate actions, yet I could honor her as a woman created by God and placed into my life by him. Her sporadic behavior did not diminish her created value. Also, I could honor her role of being my mother even when I couldn’t honor how she carried out that role. I could respect her simply because God had put her into my life, imperfect as she was. (Aren’t we all?)

On a side note, over the years I also came to see that though my mother had problems, she was not all-or-nothing bad. My own imperfections had made me focus on the bad, but that was not the whole picture. For example, my mother’s excellent skills in the kitchen routinely produced delicious chocolate pies and fried chicken for us. Laundry, groceries, medical needs—all were usually cared for. She planned great vacations to Disneyland and New York City. On my tenth birthday I became “Cinderella” when she changed our home into a fantasy land for the party. Not only could I honor her personhood, but I could also honor all those good things.

The people who have hurt you are various combinations of “good and bad,” but don’t forget to look for the good.

Treating my mother with respect was important, and it led me to a second lesson.

2. I’m not responsible for the other person’s happiness. “Wait,” you object. “Didn’t you just say that you wanted to make your mother happy?” Yes, I did say that, but I learned a bigger perspective. Just because I treat people nicely and give time and attention to them doesn’t mean that I can make them happy. They are responsible for how they interpret my efforts. Sometimes my mother misunderstood my attempts. Even if I could have been the perfect daughter (which no one can), I could never fix her life. Or anyone’s life. That was not my responsibility. I was merely responsible before the Lord to act nicely and be kind. Understanding the limits of my responsibilities helped me learn to set boundaries, and it helped diminish my own “people pleaser” tendencies.

In the process, I realized the next helpful insight.

3. The other person might be miserable, too, so attempt some compassion. My mother had experienced a deep trauma in her childhood. Her baby brother had died under her watch in a tragic boiling-water accident. In addition, her mother had endured chronic illness and her father had struggled to provide for the family during the Great Depression. Though my mother’s unhappiness often was directed at me, it really wasn’t completely about me. She’d experienced pain and trauma in the past, and since God had compassion for her, I could, too.

Those who have harmed me have their own pain. Remembering that their mistreatment might stem from their own sufferings has helped me. This knowledge doesn’t make my own pain go away, nor does it excuse them. They are still responsible to grow in wisdom for themselves and to learn to treat others kindly. But by remembering that they have challenges, too, I have been able to gain a bit of empathy for the situations of others.

While learning the above three lessons, I faced a fourth lesson. Because I didn’t want my kindness to be fake, I thought a lot about forgiveness. What does it mean to forgive? How can it happen? Over the years I gleaned multiple tips from many sources about forgiveness. These tips not only helped me with my mom but later helped with other relationships in my life.

4. Forgiveness. Though forgiveness is not a given (as in, you can refuse to forgive), you benefit a lot as you learn to forgive. The subject of forgiveness is very complex, and many books have been written to unpack all the facets. Therefore, the following tips and insights are only a starting point for you in your own pursuit of forgiveness:

  • Forgiveness is a good thing in and of itself, and it helps my own well-being.
  • Forgiveness is a transaction between me and God. Therefore, I don’t need to wait for an offender’s apology before I forgive.
  • Forgiveness remembers that I have been forgiven, too. When I remember this, I’m amazed again by God’s unconditional love for me. Even when I hadn’t realized that I had major problems, problems that had impacted others and myself, Jesus Christ had still loved me and given himself completely for me. Wow. (See here, and here.) I thank God for His forgiveness!
  • Forgiveness starts inwardly, inside of me, and says I’m willing to give up getting revenge or paying back the offender. Forgiveness is my decision not to retaliate but instead to bless them going forward. I will choose to be kind merely because God has given them the gift of being alive. If consequences are needed, I can let God do that. God is always the highest judge because, ultimately, God is the one who gives what is due. I don’t have to impose my own revenge. (But don’t confuse this point with a possible need for setting boundaries and limits in the relationship—as noted in a paragraph below—because forgiveness is separate from trust.)  
  • Forgiveness remembers that higher authorities can be involved. When needed, a higher authority, such as a parent or court, can require repayment or enact punishment.
  • Forgiveness might not be one quick prayer and then done for good. Often it is an ongoing process over months and years, depending on the wound. 
  • Forgiveness may need to be repeated when new events with the same person occur due to ongoing patterns of behavior.
  • Forgiveness does not equal reconciliation. It takes two to reconcile but just one to forgive. If I continue to experience an estranged relationship, that does not prove a lack of forgiveness on my part.
  • Forgiveness does not mean I should immediately trust the offending person. Limitations on the relationship may be needed for my protection (or theirs).
  • Forgiveness is a gift to give which benefits both me and the people around me.
  • Forgiveness can become an antidote to bitterness and resentment.
  • Forgiveness is a decision that doesn’t totally depend on my feelings (though feelings are involved).
  • Forgiveness doesn’t take away grief. Ongoing grief doesn’t mean I haven’t forgiven. Sadness just means that the losses and costs were (and still are) great.
  • Forgiveness often needs advice from a trusted mentor or counselor for help in recovering from emotional wounds. Find a wise person to help me. Ongoing confusion does not mean that I have not forgiven them. I may need time to unpack and process all that happened within me when I was hurt.
  • Forgiveness costs me something. Since there’s no free forgiveness, it helps to identify what it will cost me. (See the Cost/Benefit worksheet below.)
  • Forgiveness involves letting go of my demand that they repay. Often they can’t.
  • Forgiveness can include conversations with the offender (but not always). When appropriate, I can reveal my feelings to them about what happened, explain my own needs in the situation, and make my hopes and requests known without trying to control the outcome. 
  • Forgiveness seeks to bless the other person, even during boundary-setting. Blessings might include things such as: giving them gifts, meeting their needs, using kind and civil words when talking to them, praying for them, refusing to slander them, and many other positives.
  • Forgiveness imitates God and honors God. I do it to honor God, and he uses my forgiveness to bless me.

Over the years my commitments to honor and forgive my mother reaped some rewards, and my initiatives kept the door open for partial reconciliation. In time my mother and I developed a calmer relationship, though never picture perfect. She also started asking for my advice and gladly read books that I recommended, such as Charles Swindoll’s book, The Grace Awakening, which became a comfort to her. She expressed excitement about my visits. Though many problems remained, God used her as his tool in my life, and his work in my heart was good.

However, remember the statement about forgiveness not equaling trust? Even with progress, my mother’s failings still hurt, and that’s where learning boundaries came in. Just because you forgive someone doesn’t mean you open yourself to continual hurt. Boundaries may be needed for your protection or for theirs. Sometimes you will need to remove yourself completely from the relationship, such as in domestic assault or sexual abuse. In my case, I needed to limit how many days I could spend with my parents during vacations.  More days together always brought increased problems. Also, I didn’t grant every demand that my mother made, even if it upset her when I said no. I chose to express love based on my own heart of love rather than based on her emotional demands. I focused on my planned initiatives to show kindness and give gifts to her. Setting boundaries did not mean that I hadn’t forgiven.

The results? On my parents’ 40th anniversary my sister and I threw a party. We sent invitations, ordered flowers, and planned food and decorations. We solicited letters from family and friends to create a scrapbook of cards and messages, capturing an abundance of happy memories. On that day of celebration, and on many other days, my mother was so happy! My past years of growing in God’s wisdom had made it possible. “May she who gave you birth be happy.”

Have you been hurt—again? You can move forward, a bit at a time, by the wisdom of respecting personhood, understanding appropriate limits (when it’s unwise to trust), seeking compassion, and entering into the process of forgiveness while remembering that you have been forgiven, too. Take steps forward, not because others deserve it, but because those steps reflect God, who has offered you his unconditional forgiveness and blessings.

Several years ago I created a worksheet to summarize the process I go through after being mistreated. This worksheet helps me look at reality as I weigh the costs and benefits of different courses of action. I’ve attached it below as a PDF image that you can download and print.

And here’s a repeat thought: You don’t need an offender’s apology before you forgive. If you first forgive them in your own heart, then you’ll be ready to be gracious if they ever come to you with an apology. You’ll be ready to say, “I forgive you,” because you already have.

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Featured cover image via Eleatell at pixabay.com

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