Five years ago I published a blog post about forgiveness1 and the unjust pressure society was placing on victims to forgive their abusers. I had hoped that time would dull the edge of this unjust pressure and the pendulum would eventually swing back to forgiveness being one of several choices open to a victim, to be dispensed at the victim’s pleasure and only in the presence of remorse expressed by the abuser.
Alas, the forgiveness imperative continues to gallop along unimpeded, spreading resentment and invalidation to everyone who hears that they must forgive their abusers even when those abusers not only do not feel remorse for their actions, but have no intention of ceasing the abuse.
People who buy into this nonsense—that in order to heal from abuse you must unconditionally forgive the abuser even when they don’t feel remorse and fully intend to continue their abuse—find themselves wondering what went wrong when, months down the track they realize that not only have they not healed, they are still being abused by the same people, in the same way. They not only have not reaped the promised reward of forgiveness, the abuse had not abated and the only thing that has changed is that they have become complicit in their abuse rather than protesting it.
We are confronted daily in the media by self-styled gurus who insist that, in order to heal ourselves, we must give forgiveness to those who have hurt us, whether they ask for it or not, whether we want to forgive them or not. We are told that if we don’t forgive, it is not possible for us to move past our trauma or “achieve self-empowered freedom that conquers [our] sense of victimization.”2 This, in my mind, is nothing more than unmitigated bullshit.
Fortunately for us, however, there appears to be a nascent contrary movement afoot, a movement quietly building amongst relevant professionals. More and more articles by credentialed authors are beginning to appear, articles that question, both directly and indirectly, the wisdom and side effects of wholesale and indiscriminate forgiveness.
Wikipedia, for example, tells us that forgiveness is the “…intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.”3 The wording of this definition clearly call into question how this squares with the forgiveness imperative that is thrust at us from all sides, from family members blaming us for internecine rifts to media darlings dispensing their faux wisdom to even our own therapists. Taken point by point, it is clear that even this middling reference does not accept the idea of uncritical forgiveness.
“Intentional and voluntary.” Ok, forgiveness probably doesn’t happen by accident, so the intentional part is pretty much a given, but what about voluntary? If you are pressured to do something, told by numerous respectable sources that you are wrong not to do it, and led to believe that you are harming yourself, is your capitulation truly voluntary? Is succumbing to the forgiveness imperative really a voluntary act? Or is it an act you have been pressured into doing?
“Victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense…” So, when you are pressured by the forgiveness imperative, do you actually have a change in your feelings regarding the offense or offender? If your change of feelings is to feel guilty for withholding forgiveness or resentful that you “have to” forgive rather than keeping your legitimate feelings of resentment, anger or fear, that is not the change of feelings that are part of real forgiveness. If your change in attitude is not a change from distrust and resentment to something more benign, then you aren’t really feeling forgiving…and if you don’t feel forgiving, you cannot be forgiving.
“…lets go of negative emotions like vengefulness…” Well, I haven’t forgiven my mother for her predations into my life and the lives of my children, but that doesn’t mean I feel vengeful. In fact, vengefulness is often not part of the feelings we take on when we are betrayed by one of our parents—we are much more likely to feel deeply, profoundly hurt. For me, vengefulness went away a long, long time ago (before her death) but it didn’t make me feel any more forgiving. Can you forgive while feeling vengeful? Probably not. Can you leave vengeful feelings behind but still not feel forgiving? Absolutely.
“…with an increased ability to wish the offender well.” So, in order to forgive, you have to be able to wish your abuser well? The father who raped you when you were eight and blamed you—the mother who lied about you to your employer and derailed a promising career…the sister who seduced your fiancé—the grandparent who undermined you and turned your children against you—the brother who conned you out of the money you had been saving to buy a home for your spouse and kiddies—you have to wish these people well rather than a taste of their own medicine? Why would you wish them well? Isn’t that the same as wishing their predatory behaviours onto others rather than yourself? Personally, I wish them all the experiences necessary to enlighten them to their negative impact on others so that, at some point, by suffering the same pain they inflicted, they might experience a glimmer of empathy as a result of their own suffering: “Now I know how Edna felt when I did that to her…” And yes, I know that it is unlikely for that enlightenment to happen, but would I be doing anyone a favour by dismissing their deeds with an offhand “I wish you well” rather than “I hope you suffer enough to feel what you have put others through”?
The truth is, using this definition of forgiveness, very few of us feel truly forgiving, even when yielding to the social pressure to forgive. In fact, one therapist and author. Lori Gottleib, has come up with the term “forced forgiveness” to describe just such a situation. “Often they feel pressured to forgive, and then end up believing that something’s wrong with them if they can’t quite get there — that they aren’t enlightened enough or strong enough or kind enough.”4 The forgiveness imperative adds a further burden to the victims, making them feel inadequate when, in fact, it is the imperative and those who push it who are inadequate due to deficient insight, compassion and understanding.
Gottleib further states “But forgiveness is a tricky thing, in the same way that apologies can be tricky. Are we apologizing [or forgiving] because it makes us feel better, or because it will make the other person feel better?…Who is the forgiveness for? Granted, for some, forgiveness serves as release — you forgive the person who wronged you, without condoning their actions, and it allows you some peace. But that’s not true for everyone.”
Mark Banschick, MD, says “Victims are confronted with the pressure to forgive those who caused them pain. They are told that forgiveness is an essential ingredient for the healing process…When victims succumb to the pressure to forgive, they may feel that they’re being victimized once again because in a way, forgiveness can negate the agony they endured and their right to be angry…The absence of anger in a scenario like this leaves you vulnerable to abuse. Absolving someone you loved deeply and trusted from the devastation they caused you may come at the expense of your integrity. Sacrificing the value of your dignity to let someone off the hook for their intentional betrayal isn’t always worth the forgiveness they may desire to lessen their sense of remorse and regret.”4
Even in a situation in which the abuser expresses remorse and regret, Banschick advises caution, opining that your dignity and integrity are more important than assuaging the guilt of those who hurt you. But we, as ACoNs, seldom come across such a situation. For us, we are pressured to forgive without even receiving an apology, a regret, or even a hint of remorse. We are even pressured to forgive when our abuse is clear that s/he has no intention of ceasing the abuse. Guilt, if it enters into the equation, is assigned to us for being unwilling to forgive rather than upon the abusers for perpetrating the abuse. It is an injustice that, until very recently, nobody but the victims seemed to see, the idea that we victims owe a kindness—forgiveness—to those who abused us and we are somehow deficient if we are disinclined.
Gottlieb says “You can have compassion without forgiving. There are many ways to move on without forgiving, but pretending to feel a certain way is not one of them. Forced forgiveness is false forgiveness... As therapists, the last thing we want to do is to talk people out of how they really feel.”5
I agree with her completely. If you are going to forgive those who harmed you, wait until you truly feel forgiving. Don’t do it because someone tries to guilt you into it or tries to con you into it by telling you that must do so in order to heal and move on—that is just not true. Be true to your own feelings, feel them, process them, honour them. Dr. Banschick says “A bad therapist will push forgiveness. A good one will help you find the best way of coming to terms with the betrayal,”6 and nothing could be more true.
Forgive when you are ready, when you truly feel forgiving, when you no longer feel the desire for vengeance, retribution or even justice, when you no longer feel resentment or hard-done by. When you accept the past for what it was and the present for what it is, when you can accept that your abuser will not change and that is acceptable to you, that is when you are ready for forgiveness.
And even then, you do not have to give it. It is a gift you bestow on someone. It does not wipe away the past or expunge it, it does not require you to forget past wrongs or to permit the forgiven person to again victimize you. It does not mean you have to be friends or be vulnerable to that person ever again. You can forgive and walk away—or you can refuse to forgive and still walk away.
Forgiveness is your gift to bestow upon—or withhold from—anyone you choose. And nobody has a right to judge or condemn you for whatever choice you make, for the choice is not theirs to make. It is yours alone. And whatever you choose is OK, as long as you are being honest with and true to yourself.
4 Op Cit.