Many clients come to therapy seeking release from hurt and emotional pain caused by a devastating betrayal in an important relationship whether it occurred recently or from long ago.
What they are often struggling with is the issue of forgiveness. It has been said that the act of forgiveness is the greatest of virtues and the highest form of love. Yet, how do we forgive someone who has hurt us but who has not earned our forgiveness? What do you do when the wrongdoer is too defensive to take on board what you are saying, who will never genuinely feel that they have something to apologise for or who just doesn’t seem to get it?
These are some of the questions that have challenged me in my work with clients and which I have often pondered on. Therefore when I recently found a new book by one of my favourite authors which had a chapter on forgiveness, I immediately bought it. In this book, ‘Why won’t you apologise?’ Harriet Lerner, psychologist and renowned relationship expert addresses the question of whether we always have to forgive those who hurt us. The book offers so much wisdom and guidance that I’d like to share some of her ideas in this post.
Ideas and beliefs about forgiveness
There has been a lot written about forgiveness. We live in a culture that espouses the virtue and necessity of forgiveness and encourages us to forgive people who have hurt us. Some of the most common beliefs are that there is no peace without forgiveness, that only forgiveness can free the injured party from holding onto their anger and hatred and that it is a necessity for good mental and physical health.
By forgiveness, do you mean letting go?
What I’ve learnt is although many people may use the word “forgiveness”, they are not really talking about forgiveness. Instead they are referring to their wish to no longer feel intense emotions such as anger, bitterness and resentment. As Lerner says: “I want to forgive” usually translates to “I want to get past this and find some peace of mind”. Words or phrases such as “resolution”, “detachment”, “moving on”, or “letting go” may better describe what they seek.
The confusion of letting go with forgiving is often what is keeping people emotionally stuck.
So what is letting go?
Firstly, letting go doesn’t mean forgiving, forgetting or condoning the other person’s bad behaviour. It is not about absolving the wrongdoer of his or her actions.
Many people use the word for an experience of letting go of hurt over time. They want to find peace of mind through unburdening themselves from carrying so much anger and pain.
It is about accepting the reality that something has happened but the wrongdoer is unreachable and unrepentant or perhaps long dead and we have a choice whether to continue to carry the wrongdoing on our shoulders or not.
We all want to suffer less, yet we are inclined to keep doing things that block us from resolution and letting go. Among the factors that may keep people from moving on include a need for justice and our tendency to take things personally.
Therefore, letting go means that we choose to protect ourselves from the damaging effects of staying stuck in the past. It is acknowledging that chronic anger and bitterness generated by nursing grievances and holding grudges rob us of the energy to fully live in the present and to plan for the future.
Making a choice to heal rather than to hold on
There is no one path to healing so letting go means making a conscious choice to respond in ways to facilitate the release of our burden of anger and resentment.
We know that we have successfully let go when we have stopped obsessing about the injury, and when thinking of the past offense or hurtful behaviour of the offender, there is no emotional charge or if there is, it has substantially dissipated.
Letting go requires commitment and work, but forgiveness need not be a part of that process. It by no means follows that you need to forgive a particular action in order to let go.
What does it mean to forgive?
That said, if forgiveness is not letting go, what is it?
Some individuals hold the word forgiveness to a high spiritual standard and seek to forgive the non-repentant wrongdoer in the most profound spiritual sense of the word. For them, forgiveness may be a key part of their religious beliefs or central to their worldview.
For those who practise radical forgiveness, forgiveness is a form of love and compassion that is possible even for the most heinous acts and the most horrific of situations. From this perspective, forgiveness involves recognising the pain of the wrongdoer and wishing that he or she be happy and well.
Some people possess a special capacity for forgiving the unforgivable but not everyone is capable of radical forgiveness, nor does everyone strive for it.
Last words from Lerner…
- There are many paths to healing that do not require forgiveness
- You do not need to forgive a person who has hurt you in order to free yourself from emotional pain
- You are not less loving or a whole person if there are certain things you do not forgive, and certain people whom you choose not to see
- You can even reach a place of love and compassion for the wrongdoer without forgiving a particular action or inaction
Material for this post was taken from Why Won’t You Apologise? – Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts by Harriet Lerner (Duckworth Overlook, 2017).