A Therapist’s Reflections On Forgiveness (Part 1)

We live in an angry society.  There is a lot of blame circling around.  When something goes wrong, it seems everyone is looking for someone to throw under the bus.  That’s true in the public arena, but it, unfortunately, is often true in our interpersonal relationships.  What is cast as a search for justice is sometimes actually a search for vengeance.  Where there is anger, there is stress, tension, and chronic resentment.  And those can give way to all varieties of mental and emotional disorders.

The society we live in is permeated by the “right” mentality.  If only I can win the argument that I’m having, all will be well.  If I can be validated as having the right position on this or that, then I can relax.  That is actually untrue.  When we are locked in an argument over validation and “rightness,” no one ever wins.  The search for “rightness” can in itself generate emotional and mental problems.  Nothing gets resolved, and our physiological stress response that generates adrenaline and cortisol stays kicked in high gear, making us susceptible to mental health problems and difficulties that arise from chronic stress.

In today’s culture, blame gets center stage.  You rarely get to hear about what happens after blame has been assigned.  Here’s the problem with blame.  If you do indeed find the right person to blame (including yourself), that does absolutely nothing to solve the problem.  There is no resolution.  So… people stay angry and develop long-term resentment toward whoever it is that they have blamed for some wrong or slight.

Contrast blame with responsibility.  While blame asks, “Whose fault is it?” Responsibility asks, “Who has the ability to do something about this mess?” I like to spell responsibility this way:  “response-ability.” Who has the ability to respond effectively or responsibly? Mind you, that can seem unfair.  Essentially, you ask, are you saying that even if other people screw me over, *I* have to be the one to pick up the pieces? In a word, “yes.” The alternative is to wait indefinitely for someone else to do something about it.  And chances are, if they haven’t done anything about it yet, they are unlikely to do anything about it in the future.

Myriads of studies have been done on the clinical effect of resentment and anger.  One writer summed up resentment as, “Drinking poison and waiting for the other guy to die.” Resentment and anger keep us in fight or flight.  They keep us exhausted.  Even when we are not thinking about them, unresolved conflicts from the past have a subtle way of working themselves into the present.  Some of us are so used to living the blame, anger, and resentment life, that we lose awareness that they are renting space in our heads.  Un-forgiveness often shows up as anxiety or chronic stress.  It can also lead to fractured relationships, which can lead to depression.  Depression often sets in because un-forgivers are waiting for someone else to solve their problems, and that leads to hopelessness that a given problem will ever get fixed.  Un-forgivers are also at risk of using substances, sex, or other addictions to provide a release valve for their chronic tension.  Un-forgiveness has also been shown in studies to correlate to loss of sleep.

“Forgiveness Therapy” is a term that has emerged mostly in the last 12 to 15 years.  Clinicians’ assumptions are that forgiveness in itself has healing properties.  I have practiced for a long time, and I have seen the power of forgiveness.  I have seen people who have been quasi catatonically depressed for a decade or more experience healing and move on to a productive and full life.

There are some common assumptions that keep many people from forgiving and moving on.  One is the belief that forgiving someone for something they did to you means that what they did wasn’t wrong.  Another is the belief that forgiving someone means that what they did to you didn’t hurt.  A third is the false assumption that forgiveness means you have to reconcile with the person who hurt you, giving them access to hurt you again.  Those three beliefs are false, and are not a part of a healthy forgiveness process.

In case you are thinking, “Oh, I need to tell so-and-so to read Jim’s post today,” STOP! Forgiveness is a message we all need to hear–even you.  None of us is unscathed by the permeation of anger, resentment, and blame assigning in our culture.  Furthermore, you may think you have forgiven, when you actually have not done so after all.

In the next post, I want to break down the nuts and bolts of a healthy forgiveness process.  It is important that we forgive (for our own sanity’s sake), but it is equally important that we forgive well and skillfully.

Stayed tuned for the next post on “Forgiveness.”


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