When anger is compassion

There are two things about me that annoy me:

  1. I am anxious (read: quick) to forgive.
  2. I have a terribly memory.

(Ok, there are many more than those two, but since my therapist is not here let’s not pull too eagerly at that thread.)

The adage “Forgive and forget” is how I naturally and effortlessly live my life. I really, truly don’t mean that in a positive or braggy way. For one, it’s just how I was born. I had no say nor did I have a part in popping out into the world this way. That was all nature and nurture.

In some cases, of course, this trait is wonderful! Forgiving and forgetting (or choosing to set aside) hurts is an important part of life and relationships. It has helped keep my marriage and several friendships healthy and whole. In those cases, I’m deeply grateful for the ease with which I’m able to forgive and set aside hurts, and for the joy and love that easy forgiveness brings into my life.

In other instances, however, that ease leads to more pain.

Angry cat judges you from her cave of solitude. I feel you, angry cat.

See, in some instances of hurt, in order to truly forgive we need to give ourselves time to work through the hurt. To understand what exactly we feel and why. My quickness is not necessarily an expression of my ability to forgive in the face of deep self-knowledge and grace for others, but rather a desire to have the surface harmony restored. At heart, I am a peace-maker, not a truth-confronter.

I honestly don’t think it’s healthy to make the choice to forgive, even privately for one’s own benefit, before we have thought and worked through what the hurt was and what it means to us. Premature forgiveness just discounts the hurt and risks stuffing the bad feelings down where they fester and keep us in a perpetual wounded state. It risks us making ourselves prisoners of our deep, unhealed hurts, hurts we end up not being able to actually heal from because we can’t acknowledge them because we supposedly “already forgave” and therefore are supposed to be “over it.”

Eff that.

That’s not to say that making the effort to work towards being able to forgive isn’t worth doing. Doing the work to get us moving towards forgiveness is part of forgiveness. It’s the process of forgiving, even if it’s not the final stage of “forgiven.” I think acknowledging that it is a personal process with a start, a weird and undefined and murky middle, and a final (though perhaps never perfectly-so?) state of forgiveness.

Looking at forgiveness as a process is good, as well, because it gives space for the other person to do their part. To apologize. To take ownership of being the agent of unnecessary hurt. To communicate that they want trust to be restored and are willing to do the work to get there. There are many things — apologies, honest conversations, journaling, therapy, etc. — that need to happen before forgiveness can be fulfilled. Being too quick to forgive ignores the necessity of these steps and these parts of being healthy, happy, whole humans.

Part of what makes me so quick to forgive, beyond my peacemaking tendencies, is the combination of something actually annoying and dismaying about my brain and one thing that is good. The annoying and dismaying: I am very forgetful. The good: I easily recognize and value other people’s struggles.

So sometimes I’ll totally forget that someone did something to violate my trust or to hurt me in a significant way. Or sometimes I remember the hurt, but as I learn more about the person’s situation and psyche, I may start to feel compassion and tenderness bubbling up and crowding out any residual anger from the hurt. As a good Christian girl, I learned to go with those positively-valenced emotions as default. Leaning too much into that emotional skid often put me right back into an unhealthy situation, however, because I’ve never been good at setting boundaries.

ALL THAT TO SAY, and as weird as this is going to sound, in cases where the conflict and hurt have not been resolved, I think I may need to work on holding onto my anger, to work on holding it alongside compassion and tenderness. Just like compassion shouldn’t prematurely crowd out anger, anger shouldn’t be a barrier to compassion. Anger is a reminder to me of my hurt; compassion is a reminder to me of the other person’s hurt. (hashtag #hurtpeoplehurtpeople) Both people in the situation deserve recognition of their hurt. Anger is how I recognize my unresolved hurt when everything else tells me it’s not important, I should just “get over it.”

This means I need to be open to accepting anger when it bubbles up. I need to take those moments to sit with the anger, to examine it, to come to understand it, and only then assess whether I need to hold onto it or reject it. If it is reminding me of something important I so easily and too-quickly forgot, I should hold onto it for a while. If it is a relic of a conflict long since resolved (signaling to me I have some internal work to do!), then I need to reject the anger and start working harder to move towards deep, transformational forgiveness.

This all reminds me of Brene Brown’s exhortation to set boundaries as part of a compassionate way of living and loving, and that’s where I think anger can be a weird form of compassion. At least, it can have a very real role in me being compassionate. Sometimes I forget that I have been hurt, but I still feel a residual flicker of anger or resentment. That flicker may be all I have to remind myself that I am still in the murky middle of the process of forgiveness and may be what I need to give myself the space and grace to not be where I want to be, but to keep doing the work to get there.

When appropriate, anger is my emotional sticky note. It’s what allows or motivates me to set and keep appropriate boundaries as a part of my holistic effort to be compassionate in my relationships and to the people I love. Anger can be a very real part of my holistic compassion and a spur towards real, lasting forgiveness. How odd that is.


  1. Michael Miller says:

    I wonder if, at some level, not forgiving is a primordial survival mechanism. Perhaps it served our ancestors (and other sentient creatures) not to forgive / forget that time someone in the group hurt them, physically or otherwise, lest they do it again. Surely they remembered that time the saber-toothed cat stalked the group and dragged off its weakest member. Maybe, in this way, holding a grudge is actually in our collective DNA and is a continued key to our survival.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janamlight says:

      That is super interesting. I never thought about how forgiveness works on the evolutionary level. I can see how making sure to “forgive and forget” can actually help groups stay together (group cohesion being most important), but ALSO in some instances, like you said, the choice to not “forgive and forget” to be a way to signal to the group that certain actions will not be tolerated. I think the idea of holding a grudge is far too easily dismissed as something “bad.” But maybe that’s because I have a couple grudges that are particularly useful and enjoyable for me to keep! Ha!


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