Separating Forgiveness and Reconciliation (Episode 90)

“Forgive and forget.” Who hasn’t heard that a million times? The thing is, forgiveness is a complete act. Turns out, you don’t have to forget or reconcile after you forgive somebody. Join host Kay Coughlin to explore this radical way of looking at forgiveness that could free you from a lifetime of emotional baggage. As always, no judgment, no pressure and  no guilt! 

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Transcript: Separting Forgiveness and Reconciliation (Episode 90) 


You’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I’m your host, Kay Coughlin. I’m a business coach and an advocate for people with family caregiver responsibilities. I’m a family caregiver for my mother, too, and I just don’t believe that we caregivers have to put ourselves last. I believe that our families, government, and society in general owe us a lot more help than we usually get. And I’m here to help you learn to speak up for yourself so you can live your own life again.

This is episode 90.

I had a different topic planned to talk about for this week, but then last weekend I had a very long drive with my friend Jen, who I had not seen in a lot of years. So if you are listening to this, Jen: Hi! We were on a road trip to go visit our friend Alison. And so I guess that I’m dedicating this episode to Jen and Alison. Can people do that? Is that a thing to dedicate a podcast episode? I guess I don’t care. It’s my podcast, so I’m doing it anyway. And I love you both very much. If you are listening to this, you mean a lot to me.

So one of the things that came up on our road trip was how Jen has also had to learn that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, which is what I’m talking about today. I was kind of blown away by this conversation because I’ve done a lot of work on this myself over the years, and I just don’t run into many people who have also done the work or who are willing to discuss it.

It’s a difficult topic, and I think it’s kind of a taboo topic, but this particular idea of the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, this has been on my mind for a while to talk about on the podcast. But I haven’t done it because for most of us, it is just so ingrained into our brains and our culture that we think they’re the same, and I really thought that it would be too painful to talk about it here.

But because it came up with Jen, I took it as a sign that I am supposed to talk about it. And I think that going into the holidays, this could be really helpful for a lot of us. And maybe you can even get some relief from that pressure that we get from other people to forgive and forget or forgive and reconcile. So I am really grateful to Jen for the time we spent together and for reminding me about how important and probably how timely this really is.

And I used the phrase “forgive and forget” just a second ago. And that is the phrase that is kind of drilled into our heads from the time that we are very small.

It’s this idea that we are expected to forgive people for whatever they did, and then forget what happened, put it behind us. And then the implication then, going further, is that we will immediately let them back into our lives, and that’s what we mean by reconciliation.

I went ahead and looked up the definitions of forgive and reconcile. Just to be clear about this here today, the word forgive, basically, means to pardon an offense or an offender, or to stop feeling resentment against somebody.

Reconcile, then, means to accept somebody or be friendly with somebody, at least according to the dictionary. But I think we mean reconcile more in the way that we will welcome somebody back into our lives. And the implication here really is that we are going to restore that person to the same status they had in our life and relationship before whatever it was happened.

Now, I think we also like to use the phrase forgive and forget because we really like alliteration. It’s just so easy to say those two words together and it really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

But lumping them together like this is not only lazy. There’s this real pressure to actually forgive and forget as if that’s the thing we should do. Or to forgive and reconcile no matter what it is that happened that requires that forgiveness.

Now, before I go any further, I want to be really clear and reassure you that you do not have to forgive or reconcile. I’m not trying to convince you, I’m not trying to pressure you that you should do the work of forgiving somebody. That is not my place in your life or in your relationships. All I’m trying to do with this episode is just maybe give you a little opening for your heart and your mind so that you can start considering forgiveness in a more intellectual and maybe a less emotionally loaded way. Maybe even a way that’s emotionally safer for you because you can do it without reconciling. But I am not here to tell you that you have to do it or that you should do it.

Okay, now I want to tackle something else hard here because you might be thinking that we put these two ideas of forgiving and reconciling together because that’s what’s taught in the Bible. Interestingly, there is not any evidence for that. I’m not going to get into it here. This is not a podcast about my faith. And also it’s my pastor who has done the work on this, and he’s really my source for this. He’s a very thorough guy. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man. And I trust him. So if you have specific questions about this Biblical or I guess non-Biblical aspect of forgiveness and reconciliation, I’m just going to ask you to send those questions to me and I will ask my pastor for help on this one.

But anyway, I want to give you this reassurance that while it might be traditional to imply that this idea comes from the Bible, it doesn’t actually.

Now, I am not saying here that forgive and forget, or forgive and reconcile, that that advice doesn’t come from your own traditions and whatever your faith is. And I know this is an idea that’s probably going to make some people mad, but it just doesn’t come from that source, from the Bible. So I know that that’s maybe a little surprising to hear and even a little hard to believe. But there it is, and I’m moving on from that now.

And I also want you to consider this. If somebody is trying really hard to make you believe in this or make you believe in anything that results in harm to you or could result in harm to you, and I’m talking about emotional harm too. I want you to ask yourself who stands to gain from it and who stands to lose from it? So it’s true that somebody might put pressure on you to forgive and forget or to forgive and reconcile, but to make themselves feel better. So they’re not thinking about you.

They might be trying to get you to do this so that you will do all of the work of repairing that relationship. That is not okay, and it’s not your responsibility. The weight of being in relationship with other people is not 100% on your shoulders. Do you hear me? In any relationship, there’s at least two people involved. And what that means is you are off the hook. You can only do the work that’s on your side for yourself.

So these two concepts of forgiving and reconciling are very different, and they mean very different things to your life and in your heart and in the ways that you can be in a relationship with somebody. So when you can separate them the way I’m talking about here today, when you can see them as existing totally independent of each other, it actually kind of releases you from a sense of danger about what would happen if you forgive somebody, but then you have to let somebody back into your life after they hurt you.

What I’m telling you today is you don’t have to do that. Forgiveness is a one-sided act. It comes from you or from me. It’s a decision that I can make or that you can make to pardon the way that somebody has behaved against you or to stop feeling resentment against them.

Think how much emotional freedom there could be in that for you? Well, I know personally from my own experience how much freedom there is in that. Like all of us, because we’re humans, there were things that people did to hurt me when I was a child, very intentionally. And people did that to me too when I was an adult. I mean, there’s people who are doing it right now.

But when I would kind of nurse that pain and that resentment, I was the one reliving that pain over and over again. It was almost like by reliving that pain, I keep poking myself with a hot needle, but then I expect the other person to feel that pain instead of me feeling that pain.

So when I freed myself from the obligation to forget and to reconcile, I gave myself permission to stop reliving all of that pain. But why is that? Well, when I used to feel that obligation, that pressure to reconcile, I knew that there was a really, really good chance that I would be opening myself up to serious emotional pain and emotional danger if I let those people come back into my life in the way they had been before. Or if I let them have access to me and my life the way they had in the past.

So I just can’t let this topic go by without mentioning human giver syndrome and boundaries. Human giver syndrome is the ancient belief that some people are put here on this earth to make sure the people around them are successful, happy, and thriving. And to make life more convenient and as comfortable as possible for those people, no matter what it costs them personally. And I’m not going to talk about it anymore here today because I talk about it a lot in other episodes.

But what I do want to say is that, in other words, this idea of forgive and forget, or forgive and reconcile, makes life a whole lot more convenient for the people who have done the bad acts, the hurtful acts. Because they can be welcomed back into your life and keep behaving the same way. And human giver syndrome tells us that this is right and it’s okay, and I’m telling you it’s not okay.

Now, when you set a boundary, that’s about you, that’s a decision about what’s okay with you and not okay with you. So the boundary here would be, “I choose to forgive you so I can get peace from my own anger and resentment, but I don’t choose to forget the action or to reconcile with you because I value my safety. And it’s not safe to let you be in my life in the same way anymore.” So that’s the boundary you can set here, or set it in your mind.

You don’t have to say that to someone. That’s not the way boundaries always work, but that’s the boundary you can set in your head.

So, the work of forgiveness is completely one-sided. I can do it all by myself without having to tell anybody.

Now, that might be really hard. And of course I can get help with it. I hope that you know by now, if you’ve listened to any other episodes of this podcast, that I always recommend not trying to do this kind of thing alone. Get some help. Don’t be isolated with it.

But the decision to do it is 100% up to me or to you. And then it’s also up to me to do the work. I don’t need to involve anybody else. I don’t need somebody’s permission.

And I can even forgive somebody who is dead. Speaking of that, since I am being very honest here today, I have to admit that I still have some of this work I’d like to do around my relationship with one of my grandmothers. Now, my grandmother has been gone a long time, but throughout my childhood she did many hurtful things to me. She wasn’t a safe person for me. When I’m ready someday, I do want to work on forgiving her, and I know that that work, when I choose to do it, it will be powerful and complete, even though she’s dead. Because it’s one sided, she doesn’t have to be here in order for me to do that work of forgiveness. Now, I’m not ready to face it yet when it comes to her, but I hope that I will someday, and I know that when I am, I will be able to tackle it because it’s my choice.

Now, reconciling, since it’s about restoring somebody to your life in some way or other, is work that requires at least two people to participate: you and the person or people who did a hurtful thing against you. I’m not saying that it’s not possible to do the work of reconciliation, I’m only saying that it is not required for forgiveness to be complete.

And often it is not safe to reconcile with someone. And we can be talking about emotional safety or physical safety, or maybe even safety when it comes to your career. Safety is incredibly important and it’s something that you have a right to.

And safety is not a one-sided act. It’s not something that you can control on your own. So if it’s not safe to reconcile, don’t reconcile.

The idea of forgetting that someone hurt you, well, that is not based in safety either. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter how somebody hurt you, that is not up to me to judge. If their presence in your life could open you back up to any kind of danger or feeling of a lack of safety? Don’t reconcile.

Remembering that somebody hurt you can be a very smart thing to do to ensure your own personal safety. It’s not cruel or vindictive or retaliating to simply remember that a person did a thing that hurt you. Now, that might be very inconvenient for the person who hurt you, but remembering it for you, that is a neutral thing that you can do to keep yourself safe.

It is entirely possible to remember a hurt against you and not have any kind of emotional reaction to it or pain associated with it anymore. In fact, I’d say that’s an intelligent way to behave. There are things in my life that used to hurt me a lot, and I can think about them now and there’s no more emotional pain.

I just want to remind you that it is always your right to be safe. That is a human right for every single human being, regardless of wealth or status, or age or gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity, or anything about you. No matter what anybody says, you have a right to safety. And you also have a right to forgive someone if you want to do that work for yourself without reconciling with that person.

In fact, I’m going to tell you that forgiving somebody, but without reconciling, can be a powerful act of love for yourself. To stop holding that resentment against another person can release you from what’s a very exhausting cycle. I know that personally because I have lived from that place of resentment and it takes a lot of energy to keep that up over time.

So yeah, there are people in my life I’ve decided to forgive but not reconcile with. I have done the work of forgiveness without telling that person and without offering to reconcile.

Now, I’ve also found that forgiveness is work I have to do over and over again sometimes, unfortunately, and it’s because that I’ve gotten into the habit of dwelling on the hurt. So I remember the hurt, and then I have to go back and do the work of forgiveness again. But remember, it’s for my sake, it’s not for the sake of the other person.

But the good news here is that like so many things that I talk about here on the podcast, forgiveness is a muscle. It’s a skill, a muscle that you can build if you want to, when you’re ready, if you’re ever ready, and that’s going to be up to you to choose it.

And you can forgive. You can use that muscle without ever having to let somebody back into your life, without having to reconcile.

Now, I know that a lot of us do carry some pain around with us about the holidays related specifically to hurtful things that people have done during our holidays. And what it can mean to forgive someone is to find peace and release yourself from the energy of keeping that pain alive all the time. While still keeping yourself safe because there isn’t any pressure to reconcile or to bring that person back into your life.

I want to close with this. If somebody tells you to forgive and forget, just forgive and forget, how do you respond to that? Well, the answer is it depends. In a lot of cases, maybe even in most cases, you can probably just ignore them, kind of let it go in one ear and out the other.

I’ll tell you that one of my most important boundary decisions is that I don’t take responsibility for changing somebody else’s mind. And in a lot of cases when somebody tells you to forgive and forget, that’s not your problem. And it might not have anything to do with you, and you can just let it go through you. Just pretend that they never said it.

If someone is in an important relationship with you, or if we’re talking about a critical situation, like maybe something at work, well, that might be a little different. You can use this episode as a guide if you want to work on that, how you handle it if someone tells you to forgive and forget, or you can get some help from that. You can reach out to me or you can get some help from somebody you trust.

Whew. Okay. That was a lot for today, but I do think this is just really important. If you’d like to dig into this some more with me, go find me over in my free Boundaries Community and we can discuss it over there. And you’ll find the link to join that at Facilitator On Fire dot net slash Boundaries. That is open to anybody to join. I don’t have to be your business coach for you to join that, and you don’t have to be a caregiver to join that over there.

I am very excited to tell you that next week on the podcast, my guest is going to be Kate Washington, who is the author of the book, “Already Toast, Caregiving and Burnout in America.” She’s a wonderful writer. The book is a terrific blend of really excellent journalistic research and her very personal account of being a caregiver, so it’s kind of a memoir. It’s just really, really beautifully written. I have read it three times now cover to cover, and I refer to it quite often in my work and in my life. I will leave a link to that book in the show notes in case you would like to pick up a copy before you listen to the episode next week. Thanks for being with me here today.

You can find out more about all of this work at Facilitator On Fire dot net. That’s Facilitator On Fire dot net. If you’d like to be less lonely and get some personalized help too, go check out the membership, which is called, “From One Caregiver to Another Cafe,” and you’ll find that at Facilitator On Fire dot net slash membership. It’s the place for caregivers to find non-judgmental community – I know that’s really important – and to safely explore what it could be like to put your own life back into your life. I can’t wait to be with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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