I’m not surprised by the plethora of literature recommending forgiveness: “If you ‘let go’ by forgiving, you do not have to hold on to resentment and anger.”
Worryingly, the concept floats around in therapy circles and has been widely imparted, a message that forgiveness is necessary for personal growth.
Forgiveness echoes indiscriminatingly—to people who have experienced what may be considered “minor hurts,” as well as those who live with debilitating trauma as a result of someone else’s actions.
There’s a lack of consideration toward detrimental and “toxic” aspects of forgiveness.
The thought of a victim feeling that they have to forgive their perpetrator(s) is something I find uncomfortable, if not sickening. It places a burden of responsibility on those who were hurt. The victim becomes in charge of “letting go of” the consequences of another person’s cruel and selfish actions.
For people who have experienced trauma, often there is a legacy of abuse. Harm mostly doesn’t happen in an incident that can simply be wished away through a shift in mindset and positive thinking. Instead, more often than not, there’s a cumulative effect—multiple incidents that become embedded into a person’s psyche. Their sense of self, the world, and others is notably altered by the trauma. It impacts how a person navigates relationships, work, leisure, life, and may manifest in chronic illness as well as psychological illness. The chronic health conditions fibromaygia and rheumatoid arthritis have, for example, been linked to childhood trauma and abuse.
It’s no surprise that trauma is often found in suicidality, self-harm, addictions, eating disorders, and a multitude of other physical and mental health difficulties. It has a huge impact. People who have been abused live with the legacy of their abuse.
The idea of forgiveness reflects a culture where people who have been abused are blamed for the difficult experiences they live with as a result of their abuse.
There’s a toxic culture where victims are not taken seriously, their emotions are invalidated, and they are told that they are being too sensitive, too “poor me,” and too dramatic. They are advised to “just get on with it,” “stop carrying a chip on your shoulder,” and “move on.”
Forgiveness can be a form of shaming where a person’s natural feelings of sadness, anger, betrayal, and distrust are treated as wrong. We aren’t helping people when we place our own way of thinking on to their problems. Instead, we can make things worse. As a psychotherapist, I often see how experiences of invalidation and shame that happen in abuse are replayed in completely distinct interactions beyond the abuse, often years later.
Forgiveness sends the message that anger is bad.
Actually, anger is a natural response which can be necessary and transformative. Anger can spur a person to seek justice and “call out” the person who has perpetrated harm.
I think back to times when anger has propelled me to take action, rather than remaining stuck in the rumination and difficult feelings that I carried. Anger directed my emotions outward, energising me with the fuel that I needed. History has shown us how social movements grow from the fuel of anger at injustice. It is important to allow a person who has been harmed to decide whether they want to seek justice and call out their perpetrator.
In interpersonal situations, anger can play a functional role in communication, something that could be stifled if forgiveness is treated as priority. In his study on physical aggression in married couples, Mcnulty refers to a “dark side” of forgiveness: when individuals were less forgiving toward their partner, there was a decline in forms of aggression over time. This contrasts with couples who forgave more frequently; they experienced more stable levels of aggression over time.
This suggests that not forgiving can be more helpful than forgiving in certain situations. Not everyone will experience anger in the same way. Rather than write it off as bad, understanding its function and how it fits with the individual is key.
It helps to see forgiveness as a personal choice that lies with the individual.
It’s up to the person hurt to decide whether they want to forgive, and, if they do, how they go about it. By providing the individual choice, we respect their boundaries. Rather than imparting a message of seeking forgiveness, focus on creating space for an individual’s personal autonomy—a space where they can find safety and support and thrive.
Communication is important; we can all be guilty of falling in a trap of assuming what will help a person without actually asking them and talking about it.
Understanding goes a long way. Can you remember when you last felt understood? When we feel understood, we feel seen; there’s acceptance of our uniqueness and who we are. Take the time to listen, to hear what is needed and wanted.
The unique needs of the individual are crucial. When we apply blanket terms, we take away autonomy and personal agency. Forgiveness may work for some; the idea of transcending the suffering caused by someone else can be a liberating thought. But what works for some doesn’t work for everyone.
It’s important to consider where ideas come from and the implications that they have for individuals who may well have lost their voice in the harm that they experienced. Rather than “I know what you need,” let’s focus on, “I would like to know what you need.”