As holiday and other family gatherings draw near, so does the pressure to be gracious, forgiving, happy and “normal.” Our expectations of ourselves and sense of others’ expectations can fuel internal conflict and guilt — particularly in situations involving ruptured relationships with parents or others.
Most of us know that holding onto anger and grudges is toxic to mental and physical health, as well as relationships. Alternatively, forgiveness can lead to better health and well-being, and even increase overall kindness. Forgiveness means letting go of anger, resentment, and the need for vengeance or justice. Paradoxically, when we forgive, we feel more empowered, freer, and less controlled by other people, allowing us to reclaim jurisdiction over ourselves and our lives.
Why, then, in some cases, can’t we just forgive?
Well, forgiveness is not so simple. We cannot just decide to forgive and command ourselves to make it happen through sheer force of will. Forgiveness can become especially loaded when family, cultural, or religious expectations threaten to shame or scare us into taking the high road. But forgiveness doesn’t work when we force ourselves to do it out of moral principle, guilt, fear, or self-doubt. Further, forced or superficial forgiveness can backfire. Rather than set us free, it can create insidious anger, resistance, and passive-aggressive behavior alternating with depression, guilt, and shame.
Forgiveness is most complicated when the person who harmed us denies that anything happened, normalizes it, or denies the impact it had. In fact, forgiving a spouse who fails to take responsibility and repeatedly offends has actually been shown to have negative — not positive — effects, increasing victimization and lowering the forgiver’s self-esteem (McNulty, 2011).
There can be no forgiveness if “nothing happened,” if the other person is not first held accountable in our mind, and if the offender’s position has overtaken the affective reality of our subjective experience. Forgiveness is not sustainable in the absence of significant self-reflection that establishes a cohesive, consistent sense of what happened and the impact it had on us.
The problem of denial becomes particularly relevant when the harm inflicted involves implicitly or explicitly blaming the victim, is invisible to others, and difficult to prove. Examples include sexual abuse and childhood psychological maltreatment: a pattern of making the child feel worthless, unloved, endangered, or only of value in meeting others’ needs (Spinazzola et al., 2014).
In these situations, the offending person’s position of denial and blame is often internalized alongside the truth of our own experience battling to be heard. This dual track leads to wavering between defending our right to be angry and secretly feeling guilty, ashamed, and self-critical. Both sides are played out internally without resolution or integration.
In this way, the mind-bending effect of past trauma is repeated later internally, reinforcing a dysfunctional family dynamic in which there is confusion about who is doing what to whom. When emotional manipulations and distortions are disowned and hostility disguised as caring, it’s easy to lose track of what’s really happening. Blame is projected onto the victim, who internalizes and holds the guilt instead. Particular personality characteristics of the offending person can protect him or her from feeling guilty or responsible, for example: self-centeredness, blurred boundaries, lack of self-awareness, possessiveness, inability to take responsibility for one’s own feelings and behavior, tendency to misinterpret other people’s intentions, and pathological certainty of being “right.”
Anger and refusing to forgive can serve a self-protective function by creating a necessary boundary between oneself and the other person when it is not otherwise possible. Anger allows for emotional and psychological separation by creating a tangible enough barricade between ourselves and the offending other to prevent us from being overtaken by their feelings and perceptions.
Anger here can have a soul-saving function, both as a signal that there is something wrong and a protective barrier while we come to know and embrace the truth of our experience.
Alternatively, ongoing anger can also be a sign that we are still hooked in a self-defeating pattern of trying to get validation and emotionally affect the person who hurt us. Staying emotionally entangled, whether in the relationship or in our mind, protects us from the grief and loss that comes with letting go.
When forgiveness fails, it’s not a sign of weakness, but often a warning from an authentic voice inside of us fighting not to lose the integrity of our self-experience. Struggles with forgiveness are commonly caused by unacknowledged communication from inside ourselves that need to be put into words and understood. Until we translate and process the message, it will persist in alerting us, like an unopened text, and frustrate our efforts to move forward.
Our brains keep track of our subjective perceptions, storing an implicit or visceral narrative often felt in our bodies. Before healing can happen, we have to tolerate and accept our feelings and refrain from silencing the vulnerable part of ourselves that holds our authentic experience. Empathic understanding of the injured part of ourselves is necessary to satisfy our unmet need for validation. Doing so releases us from having to keep a tenacious grip on our feelings as a means of holding on to our true self.
When we heal, we have greater flexibility and more options because we’re no longer controlled by feelings and memories taking center stage. But letting go of anger can potentially feel unsafe and complicating because it involves redefining our relationship with the offending person. However, forgiveness does not negate that the offending behavior happened, nor imply that it was deserved or defensible. Further, it does not force us into anything or dictate whether the recalibration takes place only in our inner world, or whether it crosses into our real-time relationship. Resolving anger and letting go of grudges can restore inner peace, wholeness, and a sense of freedom, reducing our susceptibility to the effects of judgment regardless of the boundaries we decide are best for us.
McNulty, J. K. (2011, June). The dark side of forgiveness: the tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6), 770-783.
Spinazzola, J., Hodgdon, H., Liang, L., Ford, J. Layne, C. M., Pynoos, R., et al. (2014). Unseen wounds: the contribution of psychological maltreatment to child and adolescent mental health and risk outcomes. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 6, S18-S28.
Unforgiving man photo available from Shutterstock