The Barriers to True Forgiveness
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.