How to Forgive When No One’s to Blame

There is no time of the year more ripe for forgiveness than the holidays. When you mix the anticipation and expectation of these weeks and add a pinch of neuroses, well, you have one of my standby recipes for disaster.

Here’s how I’ve already screwed up this year: My sister Kim’s birthday fell just a few days before Thanksgiving, so I knew I’d see her when I went up to her house in Massachusetts for the holiday. I called to wish her happy birthday; it went to voice mail. I sent a text letting her know I was calling. It was odd, because she’s usually so responsive. I needed the kids’ sizes as I was doing some shopping in midtown New York, not too far my apartment. She zipped back a reply with the info, but that was it. Hmm. She must be busy.

It wasn’t until I got home and was scrolling through Facebook that I saw it: A picture of Kim and two of her girlfriends in Times Square, posted that afternoon. Wait, what? She was in New York? A block from where I had been shopping not two hours before?

First came the shock, then confusion, followed closely by disappointment and hurt. And then the mind-reading trap sprung shut on me: She must not have wanted me to know and that’s why she didn’t respond to me. OMG, I’m a drag. She’s avoiding me and doesn’t want me around. I would never do that to her! This is what’s going to happen from now on? My family sneaks into the city and avoids me? Fine! Fine. Go have fun with your stupid friends.

(Read more about how to free yourself from thinking traps.)

Of course, I don’t really think any of those things. They’re assumptions, and dangerous ones at that. My rational, sane mind knows that my sister and I are very close, that she loves me and likes spending time with me. And that her friends are anything but stupid. But my irrational emotional mind was at the wheel and drunk on self pity. Before I knew it, I had fired off a texted rant (bad idea).

“You knew I was coming to NY,” my sister texted back. “I told you already. I don’t know what the drama is about.” This just made it worse, because now I was hurt and histrionic. And, wrong.

When I called my other sister, she said, “It’s her birthday. Why are you making this about you?”

Indeed. Why? Because when you’re hurt, your pain swells to the size of whatever room you’re in. And here we were, days before Thanksgiving, a day of high-concentration family time. I wanted everything to be perfect for the holiday and now look at the mess I made!

I cooled for a day. And then, I felt another urge: To let it all go. Here’s how I did it:

1. I ran a reality check. I asked myself, Was this a common thing? No. Was she routinely hurtful and dismissive? No. Did I believe she loves me and wouldn’t do anything to hurt me? Yes. So what was I doing? I was having the emotional version of an allergic reaction. I had to realize that this was a weird, rare situation, not some telltale sign of the future.

2. I apologized first. There is one rule of forgiveness: You can only manage your own. You can’t cajole the “right” response to an upset, nor would you want to. In order to let this all go, I had to apologize for my part in it, which I did. I called her and said I was sorry for that reaction, warranted or not. There would be no point in clinging to my side of things. As they say you can be right, or you can be happy. Right can be a lonely place.

3. I forgave my sister (without making it a thing). Forgiveness is pretty cut and dried when one person royally screws over another. But what about when it’s not obvious? After all, Kim had not done anything wrong or intentionally harmful, and me saying “I forgive you,” would have implied I thought she had. My sister’s response was to declare it a non-issue (which, from her end, it really was), and to put out the flames with facts (“You knew I was coming. I’m sure of it.” and “See? I sent you that text at 11:45a”).

I had to forgive something other than just her delayed response; I had to forgive what she didn’t give, the thing I wanted most: Empathy. I didn’t need her to present evidence of “how I should have known”; I wasn’t trying to be right. In fact, I wanted her to reassure me that I couldn’t have been more wrong because she wouldn’t do that on purpose, ever. But just as my sister assumes I should know she was in New York, I should equally assume she loves me unconditionally, which I believe she does. She shouldn’t need to say it, even if I wished she had.

4. I forgave the situation instead of assigning blame. I also had to just let go of the whole thing by labeling it a “snafu,” not a “symptom.” Because if you look at everything as as symptom, you start seeing patterns that aren’t there, and making painful assumptions along the way. So, it happened, I thought. It’s not a thing now; it can be a one-off.

5. I forgave myself. I had to forgive something else as well: My own mewling, tantruming, deep-seated need to be reassured, affirmed, and kept safe from harm. That’s the hardest part. Because no one can promise you that you won’t feel hurt or wronged sometimes, not even the ones who love you most. You can only promise, when that happens, that you will let go and go and go.