When people have hurts and struggles in relationships, they tend to work on resolving them by focusing on forgiveness. There’s nothing wrong with forgiveness, but sometimes it’s hard to get there.
Maybe we should be talking more about compassion instead. Let me explain.
We all know that we’re supposed to forgive people who hurt us, but we get hung up on what it means and how to do it. We struggle to make sense of the jumble of emotions we still feel, even after we’ve made that seemingly momentous decision to forgive. The focus of forgiveness is often on what amounts to quasi-legal/moral decision – to pardon someone, or “let them off the hook.” Then we often struggle to sort out what happens internally after we make that “decision to forgive.”
A Different Way
I want to suggest a different approach. If you’re struggling to let go of some hurt, forget about forgiveness for now, and instead just focus on compassion.
Webster’s defines compassion as: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is what happens when we focus (ie. maintain consciousness) on the suffering that someone else has experienced. This awareness then allows us to be more sympathetic towards them.
The great thing about compassion is that it doesn’t ask us to make a decision or judgment about someone, in the way that forgiveness does. All it does is help us to view other people in a new way. You might think of it as a pair of glasses, or lenses, that you put on as you view someone. The lens of compassion allows you to see other people from the vantage point of their own suffering, not just your disappointment or hurt.
Relationships Where we Need Compassion
When I work with people in recovery — whether one-on-one or in groups — we often unearth great pain from past relationships. Many people struggle to honestly face the ways in which they have been wounded by parents or siblings. It somehow feels wrong to acknowledge that. Other people have no trouble acknowledging that pain … in fact they struggle with just the opposite: they can’t let go of it. They feel a burning resentment towards the family members who hurt them.
I also see this with marriages. Many addicts struggle at some level with feelings of resentment towards their spouse, which gets mixed in with feelings of guilt and shame for how they’ve hurt them. They struggle with this mixture of feelings, and have a hard time sorting out in our minds how they can love someone, yet hurt them so deeply, and also feel sad and angry about certain aspects of the relationship.
People also struggle to come to terms with the hurts done by other people: old lovers, business partners, fellow church members, ex-friends. They’re not sure how to relate to them, or if they’re really ready to forgive them.
An Invitation for You
I invite you to set aside questions about whether you’re ready or able to forgive these people. For now, just focus on compassion. Think about how they may have been hurt in the past. Some of the suffering in their lives may be known to you, some not. The important thing is to intentionally hold these people in your mind as fully human … trying to do their best, but not having the tools to be the best parents, spouses, or friends that they want to be.
Recognize that these people were quite likely scarred by disappointments and mistreatment in their lives. It doesn’t take them off the hook, but it does enable you to bear with their failures with a little more openness.
Compassion for Yourself
While we’re at it, there is one more person you need to demonstrate compassion to: yourself. We are usually our own worst critics. The loudest voices of condemnation we hear are usually the voices in our own heads … it’s the things we are telling ourselves.
Many of us are merciless on ourselves when we slip up. Maybe we struggle with feelings of deep shame because of how our addiction has hurt other people and damaged our lives.
Forget about forgiving yourself for now. Can you at least show yourself some compassion? Can you at least remind yourself that the choices you have made were often the result of misguided coping strategies? You did the things you did not because you’re an awful person, but because you were a wounded person, looking for love and validation.
So today, have some compassion: for others, and for yourself.