I listened to a brilliant talk this past Sunday about forgiveness – and as I listened, it made me think that this concept of forgiveness, both by us (forgiving others) and to us (others forgiving us), is a concept that I consistently see be relevant in the therapy office as well. As the speaker pointed out, the “punishment” of non-forgiveness is normally felt by the person who is not forgiving – not by the person who is not forgiven. It has been said that withholding forgiveness for someone who has wronged us is “like taking poison and waiting for them to die.” It feels like anger, and hurt, and betrayal, and scores of similar negative emotions – emotions we say we don’t like.
So then, why don’t we forgive? From a mental health perspective and through the lens of trauma it makes absolute sense – our bodies are wired to keep us safe and to warn us quickly of danger, whether that danger is physical or emotional. So when someone has presented as a threat to us, we set them in our minds as a danger and we consistently remind ourselves of the danger that they pose.
It’s a great survival mechanism for animals that may try to eat us – not so much in broad social systems where we have to navigate hundreds, even thousands, of relationships.
The case that I make to my clients is two-fold: first, forgiveness does not imply permission. I do not have to withhold forgiveness in order to be sure that the person knows that what they did was wrong. If they know it was wrong, they know – and if they don’t, my making myself miserable by holding on to the hurt and anger and betrayal isn’t going to have any effect on their understanding.
The second, and perhaps most profound point, is that I do not need to hold on to my hurt in order to protect myself from it happening again – internal pain is not necessary to create external safety. We will justify our negative emotion by believing that it motivates us to set boundaries, but I would submit that those emotions are actually not necessary for boundary setting. A lot of cognitive behavioral therapy is about changing perspective and finding more balanced and rational ways to see events. Though it is difficult, we can all learn to set good, healthy boundaries that protect us from being hurt again by the same person without having to sit in anger, or hurt, or betrayal.
It takes work, sometimes through self-help and sometimes with a professional – but as we move through our past hurts and safely find forgiveness, we can all learn and grow, and change to become the people that we want to be.