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This post is Part 8 in an 8-part blog series on forgiveness. (If you missed the previous posts, you can find Part 1 here.)

In Part 8, I want to talk to you about holding on to forgiveness.

Here is a common scenario: You have worked through the steps and have made quite a bit of progress toward forgiveness. You have worked to recall the hurt in a more neutral way and develop empathy for the person who hurt you. You understand forgiveness is an altruistic gift and you have committed to forgiveness. You are feeling great.

Then something happens. Maybe you see the person, or watch a movie that reminds you of the hurt. All of a sudden the anger, sadness, and fear rush back. Your heart starts to beat faster, and your jaw and fists clench.

On top of your reaction, you might feel frustrated because you thought you had moved past what happened. “I even went through all those steps!” you might tell yourself.

So what’s the deal? If we have a reaction like this, does it mean we didn’t really forgive the person?

I would argue no.

I actually think it’s pretty normal to have a negative reaction when we are reminded of a hurt. People often throw around the phrase, ‘forgive and forget,’ but I don’t think completely forgetting something is possible. Also, reminders of past hurts might protect us from getting hurt again.

I like to think of these reactions using the metaphor of a stove. If you ever burn your hand on a stove, you probably will be more cautious the next time you are around a stove. You might not put your hand quite as close to the stove, and you might move more slowly.

In the same way, the pain, anger, or fear that comes up when we encounter a person who has hurt us (or even the memory of what happened) doesn’t mean we haven’t forgiven. Instead, it might be a way to protect us from getting hurt again.

However, even though it is normal, it can be unpleasant to experience negative emotions when we are reminded of the hurt. Here are some things you can try in order to hold on to forgiveness when you are in the midst of remembering the hurt.

  1. Get out of the situation. Sometimes we tend to remember a hurt when we are in a particular place or situations, or around a certain person or group of people. If the situation is causing us to think about a painful experience, one option is to get out of the situation.
  2. Distract yourself. If you start to think about something negative, it usually doesn’t work to just will yourself to stop thinking about it. For example, if I tell you: don’t think about white bears, you probably can’t get the image of cuddly white bear out of your head. What works better is to distract yourself with another activity. Read an enjoyable book, watch a funny movie, or call a friend.
  3. Remember: the pain of the remembered hurt is not the same thing as unforgiveness. Sometimes we might think being reminded of a hurt is the same thing as unforgiveness. Then we might feel even worse, because we tell ourselves we didn’t forgive good enough. You don’t have to put this pressure on yourself! You did forgive, but you just experienced a reminder of what happened. This is normal.
  4. Seek reassurance. Sometimes it helps to talk through the situation with a family member or friend. Share what you are feeling, as well as your struggles with the forgiveness process. The other person can reassure you about your forgiveness work, as well as comfort you in your struggle.
  5. Use the documents you created. If you made a certificate of forgiveness or wrote a letter of forgiveness as part of a previous exercise, get them out of the drawer and review them. Remember the gift you chose to give, and the commitment you chose to make.
  6. Walk through the steps again. Remember the acronym REACH: Recall the hurt in a more neutral way. Empathize with the person who hurt you. Give an Altruistic gift of forgiveness. Commit to forgiveness. Hold on to forgiveness. It might help to spend some time focusing on one or more of the steps.

Discussion: What are some things that make you doubt you have really forgiven? What is one strategy you can take with you to help you hold on to forgiveness when you are reminded of the hurt?