The Forgiveness Rainbow (Because Forgiveness is Rarely Black and White)


It’s funny how topics arrive in batches. A few weeks ago, everyone was having difficult conversations. This past week everyone seems to be talking about forgiveness: at work, at school, with family, for transgressions large and small.

What I’ve determined is what I’m sure many of you know:  there are shades of forgiveness.

Many of them are gray.

And while situations at the extreme of the ‘forgiveness rainbow’ – the black stripe– often begin with an incident, an event, an affront….

“X happened and now I decide whether I am going to forgive.”

Most moments necessitating forgiveness are nuanced— pesky shades of gray.

These are the situations where someone has been behaving in a certain way for some time and it’s been OK….Not great…You put up with it….

Until you don’t or you can’t– or you won’t!

(Until you do, or you can, or….I guess I seem to be…)

You see how grey things can get?

With this in mind, here are some of the ways people talk about – and I’ve been thinking about—forgiveness.

I’m guessing many of you have heard the expression, “Not forgiving someone is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

In other words, holding onto resentments is often far more detrimental to you than it is to the other person.

This is one school of thought.

But what if forgiving feels unsafe?

In these situations, I think about something a therapist once said to me,

“Forgiving people doesn’t mean you let them close to you.”


So, I can forgive—not poison myself—and still feel safe?


But what about the middle ground?

What if there’s no way to adios someone out of your life but you can’t imagine getting to a place where you can give to them as you did before?

This is when I found it helpful to consider my ability to forgive myself for things I’ve said and done.

To ask myself the question, “Would I want to be forever judged for the way I behave(d) on my worst day(s)?”

 I hope—I try—not to be that harsh with myself.

(I hope you do, too.)

Which can make it easier to embrace the ambiguity necessary to forgive others.

For additional ideas on how to approach complicated relationships, look at, “Is the Relationship You Have the Relationship You Want?”