If you’ve spent any time reading/listening to psychology, self-help books or gurus, you’ll have heard it mentioned.
According to many people, it’s the answer to most, if not all our problems. The key to enlightenment. A necessary part of becoming a better person. If we don’t embrace forgiveness, the general message goes, we will devolve into bitter misanthropists, trapped in a life of inner turmoil and destined to never achieve our full potential.
The problem with forgiveness
One origin of the word forgiveness is in relation to debt. Forgiving a debt means wiping the slate clean, cancelling it out, and returning the person’s balance to zero. And this is how the personal growth movement talks about forgiveness in relationships too. Although it might sound like a cold metaphor, our relationships are like bank accounts too. Behaviours that foster connection and goodwill within a particular relationship are deposits. Behaviours that distance the connection, have a negative impact on someone, or draw on one side of the relationship are withdrawals. The more deposits we make, the more withdrawals we can make without going into the red. If we make too many withdrawals, we end up in relationship debt. Decisions, incidents, and situations that require forgiveness are withdrawals.
This is where these two definitions of forgiveness: the monetary and the spiritual, diverge.
Can you imagine walking into a bank and saying to your advisor, “Look, I know I’m £100,000 in debt, but I think it’s up to you to be the bigger person in this situation and forgive and forget.”?
Unlikely, but this is the most common approach to forgiveness in relationships. If this were the case, a real bank would enter a dialogue with the customer and ask them to repay the debt (i.e. make amends). If the customer couldn’t, he or she would enter bankruptcy and the debt would be erased. But would that bank lend the person money again? No.
So banks say: “OK, you’ve declared bankruptcy. We won’t come after you for the money you owe us anymore, but we’re also not going to lend you money again until you’ve rebuilt your credit score.”
But spiritual gurus say: “There is no debt. Your feelings and perceptions are merely a manifestation of how unenlightened you are. And, if you don’t forgive this person, you’re denying yourself the chance to be a better person.” Not only that, but it tends to be the case that the bigger the transgression, the more pressure there is to forgive. This is nothing more than spiritual bypassing, plain and simple.
The main issue I have with the conventional personal growth-related message about forgiveness is that it places the responsibility on the wronged person to do the forgiving, overlooking any responsibility on the part of the person who did the wronging. Assuming the best, I understand the potential reasoning behind this: we can’t control other people’s behaviour and we can’t force someone else to do anything they don’t want to do—including make amends. We could waste our emotional energy (and our lives) waiting for a resolution that will never come. But the answer isn’t to just suck it up and forgive and forget.
Forgiveness is earned, not owed. Although we can’t control other people’s decisions or behaviour, it’s not rational or fair to pressure people to put their genuine feelings and experiences aside to placate someone who wronged them.
So, when do we forgive someone?
The simple answer is: when we want to. Since I wrote the original version of this post several years ago, I’ve heard from a number of people who have been pressured from multiple sides to forgive ex-spouses, parents, friends, siblings, and so on for transgressions ranging from serious to life-changing. And most of these people have said the more pressure they’ve felt to forgive, the worse they feel—not only about what originally happened but also about forgiveness.
There are two things that lend themselves to forgiveness: time (and with that, perspective) and the willingness of the wrong-doer to make amends. Making amends is more than an apology. An apology is words while making amends is action. It’s the wrong-doer fixing his or her mistakes and taking their fair share of the consequences.
If this kind of acknowledgement or amends-making is missing, then it makes sense you’re not ready to forgive someone. Even if those things are present, you still need not forgive someone if you’re not ready to, because it’s your choice.
Pressuring someone to forgive doesn’t give them the space and time they need to process what happened and heal. Not only that, but one argument for forgiveness goes something like “You need to accept people for who they are.” When someone is struggling to feel forgiveness or isn’t yet in a place where they’re ready to extend absolution, don’t they deserve that same acceptance too?
Is there an alternative to forgiveness?
Yes: acceptance and, with that, closure. Not thinking a person or a situation should be any different than it is. Acceptance isn’t the same as liking or condoning a behaviour or situation. It’s not the same as forgiveness in the sense of wiping the slate clean. It also doesn’t mean we don’t care about the people in question. As a counsellor I knew once said: “Some people are better cared about from a distance.”
What the conventional messages we get about forgiveness don’t acknowledge is that it’s healthy to have boundaries, especially when someone repeatedly hurts or harms us and doesn’t take responsibility or make amends for this. Having boundaries is healthy. Giving people third, fourth, fifth, and more chances with no acknowledgement, no amends, or active hurt and damage, is not. That’s more like enabling.
It also feels important to acknowledge that not feeling ready to forgive isn’t the same as ruminating and dwelling on the situation or person involved. It’s also not the same as holding a grudge. Rumination or grudge-holding is unhealthy. It’s a drain on your emotional energy, it gives all the power back to the other person, and it prevents you learning and growing from the situation. I think it’s also important to explore our reactions to each situation: sometimes we might feel wronged to a great degree when our feelings are about something else (usually based in the past), not the situation itself. This is especially true if you find yourself feeling angry about day-to-day occurrences and situations. Anger is often a cover for other more vulnerable emotions, like hurt and anxiety.
The bottom line
It’s totally OK not to forgive someone if you’re not ready to. That’s your prerogative; you can forgive or not, whoever is concerned. It’s also important to explore why we’re not ready to forgive someone and what the underlying thoughts, feelings, and experiences are underneath bigger emotions like anger.
There are very, few people I have chosen not to forgive in my life. These decisions have been deeply considered and very difficult. But I’m not bitter, angry, or stunted in my personal growth because of this. I’ve achieved what those self-help writers who advocate forgiveness for all are talking about: I’ve stopped thinking things should be any different from how they are, I accept my own feelings and experiences, and I accept the people involved for who they are too. I’ve created necessary boundaries, I’ve moved on with my life, they’ve moved on with theirs…we’re just not doing it together. And I’m a stronger person for that.
Do you think forgiveness is necessary for healing? Share your thoughts below.