Forgiveness Is Overrated, Empathy Is Not

Somehow forgiveness has become the gold standard of human enlightenment.  We seem to accept the ability to forgive others as a sign of maturity and emotional wellness without questioning if this is actually true.  And while forgiveness can grant us a great deal of emotional relief, it is only able to do that when we are truly ready to forgive.  When we aren’t, this mandate of forgiveness can be truly damaging.  “What’s wrong with me that I just can’t/don’t want to forgive?” So, I’d like to offer a different perspective on this issue of forgiveness and I hope it provides some peace for those of you who are not quite ready to forgive.

To understand forgiveness, we must first understand the opposite. The opposite of forgiveness is holding onto anger and anxiety around a particular relationship. So, what purpose does it actually serve to hold on to this anger and anxiety?  We know we’d rather not feel anger and anxiety.  We know that, most of the time, we’d prefer to feel in harmony in our relationships.  So why hold on, you might ask.  In fact, there are very good reasons. 

Anger and anxiety are emotions designed to protect us.  Both emotions trigger the fight or flight chemicals in our bodies necessary to fend off things and people who have the potential to do us harm.  Without these feelings, we’re toast as a species.  Without these two feelings we die at the hands of an aggressor (literally or figuratively).  So being angry protects us from harm and staying angry continues to protect us from further harm.  It keeps us ready to fend off that which would hurt or “kill” us.  Expressing this anger is also important.  Expression of these feelings in fantasy or words allows for a release of the pent up protective energy that is building in our bodies—preparing us to spring.  So, in short, we must hold onto our protections and express those feelings until we truly feel safe from the hurt. 

How do we begin to feel safe, then?  This isn’t as easy a question as you might think.  Some answers are easier said than done.  Setting boundaries, for example, sounds easy but is often very hard.  For example, if setting boundaries is received by your loved one as a withdrawal of love or an effort to control, it will likely lead to as much (if not more) emotional damage to set a boundary as it would to allow continued unkind behavior.  Another way to feel safe may be to build your own authentic support network that will cushion the blow.  Having a strong support network allows us to feel as if we are not alone in the battle and allows a release of the need to protect all the time.  But this, too, is easier said than done.  Most of my patients report that they don’t feel like they can truly be their authentic self with many of their friends or family (if any).

Another way to feel safe is to have an authentic apology—filled with self-awareness and a plan to avoid future hurt.  In this, we may begin to believe that the person will attend to our needs carefully in the future.  This may allow us to be more vulnerable and experience the person in new ways.  As we can’t control others and so many people lack the ego strength required for a full amends, we can’t count on this one either.  To further complicate things, sometimes the hurt we’ve endured continues to cause pain even when the person is gone.  If someone has accused us of character flaws that don’t match with who we want to be, it will cause ongoing emotional pain until we can resolve our underlying sense of not enough-ness.  So just the memory of the person causes pain and anger. 

So we begin to see why it is so hard for so many of us to forgive those who’ve hurt us.  We need the anger to keep us safe. What is realistic, then?  I’ve always thought a better goal may be empathy.  While you may not be able to forgive your ex-boss for targeting and humiliating you, you may be able to imagine what type of life would lead someone to target and humiliate someone.  You can have empathy for what hurt must have led them to hurt others in that way.  You can remain angry with them, maintain that their treatment of you was wrong, be clear that you won’t allow that treatment of you again and still have empathy.  This act, on a subconscious level, allows you to feel less a victim of someone else’s cruelty and more an observer of their patterns.  This, in turn, may allow for a bit of psychological relief.  This act can also begin to release any feelings of shame that can arise from being treated badly.  Often we wonder what is wrong with us that someone could treat us that way.  To harness some empathy helps to separate their treatment of us from our sense of self.

But in the meantime, it’s okay to not forgive.  It’s okay to fantasize about all the ways you’d love to get revenge.  Just also try to find ways to feel safe enough in your skin that you don’t need to soak in your anger and anxiety forever.  Get a good therapist, invest in friendships where you feel seen and find ways to set boundaries with those who will continue to hurt you.  The anger will release on it’s own when you are truly safe from harm.