A Therapist’s Reflections on Forgiveness (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a short series on forgiveness.  It might help you to read Part 1 before reading this post.

Setting the Stage

Before laying out a blueprint for what healthy forgiveness looks like play by play, I want to talk a bit about conflict management in general, and I want to address some other points that will inform how we approach forgiveness.

First off, remorse and repentance by the offender is not required for forgiveness to take place.  Part of the beauty of forgiveness is that it is something that can be done without anyone else’s cooperation.  This means that I am not held captive in my anger and resentment by things out of my control.  Any other approach puts the offender in control, and you don’t want to be at his/her mercy.

Also, the primary beneficiary of forgiveness is the forgiver, not the forgiven.  I’ve heard statements like, “S/he doesn’t deserve forgiveness,” or “They’re getting away with murder, and they seem to be moving on just as pretty as you please.” That’s fine, because it’s not about *them*.  This is about you.  Releasing the anger and resentment benefits you, regardless of the attitude of the person who hurt you. Leave justice and vengeance to God.  Trying to make sure that someone pays for what they did to you is a losing battle.  It’s not helpful to try to hurt someone else because they hurt you.  That approach will have you in a never-ending cycle of craziness.  If you can release your anger and move on, you win.  Otherwise, your life is on hold indefinitely.

Forgiveness is a process.  It’s not a one-and-done.  It takes effort to forgive, and often one must reminder him/herself to forgive on a daily basis.  When hurt runs deep over a period of years, you are not going to all of a sudden be able to put that hurt behind you.  Recovering from a serious wound to your soul takes time and a commitment to decide daily to forgive the one who hurt you.

On another note, I want to speak to what I call a “posture of forgiveness.” Many people are used to a posture of defensiveness and vindictiveness.  Being able to forgive well begins before someone hurts you.  You must remind yourself that forgiveness is the healthiest way to deal with hurts done to you.  So, when people do indeed hurt you, you are already positioned to let go of the anger and insistence on retribution.  Many have been hurt so much by so many people that they have come to expect that others, given the chance, will hurt them.  For those folks, adopting a posture of forgiveness is especially difficult because they believe deep down in their souls that everyone else has malicious motives and will undoubtedly hurt them.

Forgiving Self and Forgiving God

I want to take some time here to talk about forgiving self and forgiving God.

Forgiving self is something many struggle with.  They live in shame and often self-loathing.  They personalize everything that goes wrong in their lives… They assume that whatever difficulties they encounter are their fault because they screwed up.  Or even worse, they *are* a screw-up.  They constantly find things to blame themselves for.  Sometimes, people become obsessed with the mistakes they have made.  It’s like they play a video in their heads of all the ways they have screwed up and they never turn off the tape.  It’s not hard to see how depression and hopelessness can grow out of that.  Many folks will give people who have hurt them second chances, while not giving themselves any room for making mistakes.  That’s a double standard.

I struggle with the concept of forgiving God.  I think what happens is that people develop false beliefs about God.  They see him as capricious, distant, punitive, lacking empathy, etc.  In those cases, forgiving God is as much about developing a healthy view of God as gracious and loving as it is about forgiveness.  I think the difficulty people have with forgiving themselves is related to how they see God.  If God is punitive, unforgiving, and distant, I am likely to see myself as I have come to believe that God sees me.   When I give myself permission to see God as gracious and merciful, I am on my way toward allowing that grace and mercy to cover my mistakes and shortcomings.  I might add, that being unable to receive forgiveness for one’s self directly correlates to his/her inability to forgive others.    You have to have experienced grace in order to share it with somebody else.

Conflict Styles

There are several conflict styles that are generally ineffective at handling conflict.  One way to deal with conflict is to be in conflict mode with the offending person all the time. This is the “defensive/aggressive” style.   People who use this style stay angry and usually either extremely defensive or flat out aggressive… This person may perceive a slight or offense in almost every situation, even when none exist.  This is where everyone keeps the score in their minds, and no one has a “posture of forgiveness.” In families, this kind of conflict style may be the only way that each member communicates with the others.  Conflict, in essence, is a string that ties everyone together and gets everyone to engage.  They may not know how to do that outside of open conflict.  Another way to deal with conflict is the “cut-off.” If you never interact with the person you feel has hurt you, the assumption is that you won’t have to deal with the conflict.  Unfortunately, that rarely works, and the offended party, even if they never see the offender, harbors resentment and negative energy.  This kind of conflict management can be frustrating to those who genuinely want to deal with the offense and work things out.  The “cut-off” disallows any communication so the issue at hand never gets resolved.  Another conflict style is what I call the “doormat.” In this style, the offended party just takes and takes and takes crap from someone and stays in a passive relationship to the offenses.  However, after the “doormat” has taken so much, s/he will explode seemingly out of nowhere, sometimes over something that at the time seems small or trivial.  Lastly, another way that people resolve conflict has an enmeshed quality to it.  An offense, no matter how small, will be quickly identified, and both parties rush to resolve the issue.  In this style, the offender may rush to apologize and the offender may rush to “forgive.” Essentially, the conflict gets brushed under the rug, and the issue is never actually processed.  This kind of conflict style can often exist in an abusive relationship.  The offended party may be codependent and needs desperately to feel like everything is ok, so they accept anything that sounds like an apology.  The offender, on the other hand, may be an abuser that says “I’m sorry,” but there is no intent to change abusive behavior–apologies are without substance or remorse.  This sets the victim up to be revictimized over and over.

In any conflict style, there is often a third party who acts as “peacemaker.”  We see this in families, at our jobs, in our friendships, etc.  The “peacemaker’s” primary objective is to get everyone to kiss and make up, because they become anxious and intimidated by open conflict.  The “peacemaker” often forms triangles with the offender and the offended.  S/he he will talk to one and then play his/her conversation to the other, and then vice versa.  In that situation, the two parties, the offender and the offended, never actually work through the conflict with each other because they are communicating through a third party and not directly with each other.

Attributional Error

Attributional error is often a huge factor in maintaining conflicts.  When people commit attributional error, they make assumptions about the motives others have when they do something hurtful or upsetting.  Essentially, if *I* make a mistake or hurt you it’s because I’m an asshole, and that’s the kind of crap assholes do.  However, if you make a mistake or hurt someone, it’s because of an oversight, or you had a long tiring day, or you just misunderstood… or something like that that seems benign.  If forgiveness is going to take place, people need to chuck their assumptions about why people do what they do.  In my experience, very few people get out of bed in the morning thinking, “Ya know, I think I’m going to act like a total bastard today.  I’m going to do what I can to screw so-and-so over.” But many times those who practice attributional error also practice confirmation bias.”  They only notice things about other people that confirm the negative view they already have of that person.  But again, most people, given the opportunity, will do kind things and will want to treat others well.  Taking that angle is related to taking a “posture of forgiveness.” Very few people are intentionally malicious.

Why Is It So Hard to Forgive?

  • There has been a long standing pattern of wounding that has been very costly over a long period of time.
  • People have never seen a model of effective conflict resolution, and thus don’t have a pattern for how to go about dealing with interpersonal injuries
  • There has been a pattern by the offender of insincere apologies.
  • It feels unfair that we, the offended, should have to do the emotional work of forgiveness, when the situation isn’t “our fault.”
  • It’s hard to let go if there are no consequences for the offender.  S/he should be punished.
  • The offense is especially egregious.
  • Others put pressure on the offended to forgive once and for all without allowing the forgiveness process to take it’s due course.  This gives way to premature forgiveness and adds a wrinkle to the situation.
  • The assumption that forgiveness must be accompanied by reconciliation.
  • It’s hard to let things go because it means accepting that the past with all its hurts and wounds cannot be changed… ever.
  • Letting go and accepting what happened may mean that you come to the realization that someone is not whom you thought s/he was.  In close relationships that can feel truly traumatic.


Thanks for reading.  In the next and final post I’ll go through a healthy forgiveness model step by step.




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