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What If You Can’t Forgive?

By July 1, 2019August 21st, 2019No Comments

Sometimes, forgiveness seems impossible.

You, someone close to you or that you loved has been abused, raped or even murdered. You are severely traumatized and are advised that forgiving the perpetrator will help you heal. Do you forgive them? What if you cannot? Are you then condemned to suffer?

The strategy of forgiveness has become central to psychotherapeutic interventions, the idea being that your continued grudge or pain is hurting only you and is taking up real estate only in your brain. Why should we forgive and must we? Should survivors of slavery or the Holocaust forgive? Should children taken from their parents or parents separated from their sobbing children forgive? Would you be able to do so if you were in that situation?

Perhaps it is helpful if the perpetrator is truly remorseful and willing to make amends, but how often does that happen? I would propose that there are as many more ways of healing and that you chose one that fits your own psychology and your own belief system. For some of us, that is forgiveness, but for many others, forgiveness seems impossible.

1. Can you then somehow detach from your anger by using mindfulness meditation? This tool involves an ongoing practice. You must learn to meditate, which is relatively simple. Keeping up the practice is more difficult until you learn that you don’t have to sit on a cushion to do it. You can practice mindfulness anytime and any place. It involves simply paying attention to your inner voice and your inner feelings. Just notice and label the, “anger,” “regret,” “sadness,” etc. Nothing more needs to be done and soon you will notice that your feelings morph and change. They are liquid, not solid.

2. For others, the anger or regret is best channeled into a related activity. A few examples will make this approach clear. A woman who has been abused may decide to join a feminist organization to fight violence against women. A parent whose child dies of cancer organizes a fundraiser for children with cancer. A gay person “comes out” and marches proudly in a parade.

3. Another approach is to use painful experience as a teaching moment. This reframes anger or pain as an opportunity and it is indeed an opportunity. In this way, you benefit from the situation. You place yourself, not the damaging person, at the center of your own story. It is about you in a new and positive way.

This is not an exhaustive list, but only some approaches that have worked for some people in or outside of psychotherapy or an analogous group experience. It is well accepted by therapists that in surviving an abusive relationship, the victim stops loving herself rather than the abuser. Underlying all these possibilities is the real necessity to forgive yourself rather than anyone else. It is only human to want a just world, just as it is human to be able to heal from injustice. And as a deep enough physical wound leaves a scar as a reminder, so does a psychological one.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.