‘You’re a better person than I am,’ she told me, as I shared relief and disbelief that I had finally let go of the pain and the anger and blame that I had carried from my mother for so many years.
She too had a – let’s say, challenging relationship with her mother (to put it nicely) and she was nowhere near a place to forgive or let go of her anger or grief.
Forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness...
The holy grail of enlightenment. Or, one of them?
‘Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die’, you know.
‘You have to let go of things if you’re going to move on.’
You already know (hopefully) how I feel about gaslighting your own emotions.
‘I’m not angry, I’m forgiving! I’m IN ACCEPTANCE…’ *screams in pillow*.
And how I feel about spiritual bypassing.
‘If I were really enlightened, I would be able to forgive – what’s wrong with me?’
Here’s what I’ve observed about anger and forgiveness.
When something happens to us, or someone does something to us, we often start with sadness or shame (or numbness or dissociation – I mean, there are a lot of choices, but let’s say sadness or shame for now).
That sadness or shame can make us feel like something’s wrong with us, that we’re powerless.
We may feel grief for what we lost – whether it’s the love we deserved as a child but will never have, the excitement of a first encounter that now won’t be one, a feeling of safety or security or trust.
When – if – we get to anger, it’s very often an empowering feeling, especially after years of not being allowed to experience or express anger.
Our anger can be about owning our own boundaries and defining ourselves as having worth and deservingness.
If a person has spent years making themselves small to avoid abuse or try to get love or keep themselves safe, they may have completely abandoned any sense of boundary or entitlement (remember, entitlement isn’t always a bad thing – we are entitled to bodily autonomy, for example).
They may have shut down their own needs, wants, desires… IDENTITY to exist around that person.
From what I’ve seen with my clients and my social circle is that ANGER is often a righteous anger – maybe mixed with hurt – of ‘how dare that be done to me?’
And that ‘How DARE you?’ can be revolutionary.
For me, I needed a looonnnnggg time in my non-forgiveness of my mother before I could even consider it.
I accepted it to a certain extend – I mean, l wasn’t a walking ball of rage.
But, I didn’t want to let go of that anger because I needed to stick up for myself, on some level, in my own mind after so many years of acting out the way I was taught, which was ‘other people’s needs before my own.’
(And to be fair, this is still something I struggle with.)
Healing is a process - whether it's physical, or emotional
We don’t ask people to get up and walk without any support in the hours after they’ve had knee surgery because right after knee surgery, what the body needs is rest so it can focus on healing.
Later, yes, walking is an essential part of the rehabilitation process – if they don’t walk they may never fully heal.
There’s a time and place for each step.
That righteous anger – the anger that feels like finally taking and holding our own side, that feels like sticking up for ourselves, might be an essential stage of healing just like resting after surgery.
Then, when we’ve passed through the anger phase we can go to the compassion for them, or forgiveness to them stage.
We damage ourselves when we rush the healing process
Think about the damage that would be done if someone forced themselves to walk 10 or 15 minutes every day immediately after surgery, with no crutch or support.
Not only would there be no healing, there would be even more damage.
When we encourage people to go straight to forgiveness, to compassion, when they haven’t had enough time to be angry, does that do the same damage?
What is enough time for anger?
I would say, again, like with healing the body, the amount of time we need to experience our anger is proportionate to the damage caused.
If you cut your knee, you probably only need to put pressure on it for a few minutes before you’re ready to go back out and run around.
If you’ve had knee surgery that involved repairing the ACL ligament, you need much longer before you’re ready to run around on it again.
Likewise, if someone impinges on our boundary or wrongs us for a moment, we may only need a moment of anger before we can move to compassion and/or forgiveness.
In other cases, we may need to be angry for years as we re-build our sense of sovereignty and un-do the beliefs that took root in our psyches that we don’t deserve boundaries, that everyone else’s needs are more important than our own, or that we’re unloveable or unimportant (all things my clients have experienced).
Channeling Anger -- Healthily
Anger can be empowering.
Allowing yourself to be angry, seeing that it wasn’t YOU who was in the wrong, but the person who manipulated and/or abused you, can be a huge step for many people who have experienced years of the opposite.
We have a narrative in our culture that anger is destructive, but I think that’s only because most of the ways people channel their anger are in destructive acts.
Or, they don’t act at all and it just simmers in their body – and any unexpressed, stored emotion in the body can be destructive.
We can feel angry and not go and physically, verbally or emotionally abuse someone else.
We can feel angry and not take our anger out on people who had nothing to do with it.
We can feel angry and channel that energy into change, into fighting injustice, into shaping our own lives as something that we can be proud of.
Anger doesn’t have to leave you feeling bitter. It doesn’t have to eat you alive or destroy your life.
Anger... then forgiveness
I’ve worked with people who tried to force their forgiveness, because it’s what they *should* do, only to realise they still felt like they were abandoning themselves (or their inner child).
Whereas with clients who fully own and hold their anger, express it, and channel it constructively?
They come to forgiveness, or acceptance* when they’ve given themselves full permission to experience their anger.
Everyone’s timeline will be different based on their own experiences of their lives.
*I don’t define forgiveness as saying something is ‘okay’ or ‘not a problem’, but if you do, then ‘acceptance’ might be a more appropriate word.
over to you
Is there something you’re trying to shoehorn yourself into forgiving, when you really haven’t fully gone through the anger phase?
Do you need to give yourself more space to constructively experience that anger, to stand up for yourself in your own mind?
Is there someone in your life that you repeatedly think ‘they should just forgive! Anger is so bad for them!’? Can you see it in a different perspective now?
Finally, do you know someone who might find this useful – either because they’re struggling with the ‘forgiveness’ piece; aka they’re not at the forgiveness stage of healing,
They’re always telling people to forgive before there’s been sufficient time for anger?
Hopefully, the next time you find yourself or someone else ‘stuck’ in the anger phase, you’ll realise that it can be a very important step in the healing process and not one to feel ashamed of or down on yourself about.