Exploring Forgiveness, Part 2: Misconceptions

tom(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a four-part series concerning exploring forgiveness.)

In the first part of this four-part series, I argued that victims have no moral obligation to forgive their perpetrators, and that feeling coerced by the idea of forgiveness as a duty can actually be harmful when victims aren’t ready to do it authentically. It’s true, however, that there are benefits to practicing forgiveness. But there are also some important misconceptions as to what forgiveness is, which can stand in the way of doing it. Here are four of the most important of these misconceptions:

1. Holding on to resentments punishes others. Many people won’t forgive a wrong that was done to them years ago because “it would be letting her/him off the hook,” as if someone they haven’t seen in years is somehow living “on a hook” if they continue to hold a grudge against the individual, but would feel undeservedly better if they stopped.

2. Forgiveness means condoning bad behavior.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean not forgetting, nor does it mean denying that real offenses were committed. It is a deliberate decision to let go of the past, and to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward those who have harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. None of this involves excusing or minimizing bad behavior.

3. If I forgive you, I have to let you back into my life. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. It usually is a lot easier to forgive a wrong if the perpetrator apologizes, but letting go of resentment and vengefulness is still something we can do completely on our own, without the other person even knowing we’ve done it, because the essence of forgiveness is simply letting go of the past. Reconciliation, however, is about committing to a future. It means returning to some degree of friendliness, and for that to happen, trust has to be reestablished. We may choose to forgive someone who has abused us, but still recognize that the person might continue to be abusive toward us if we re-opened the relationship. Forgiving doesn’t mean being naïve about the character or intentions of others.

4. Holding on to anger keeps me in control. Anger is an intense energy, and feeling it can make us feel safe and in control. But the bottomless, self-righteous rage of those who feel mired in victimization feels anything but powerful. Those who are caught in that mind-state invariably feel impotent and imprisoned in their own inner hells.

Finally, forgiving requires the maturity to accept some uncomfortable truths: that the past can’t be changed; that another person’s hurtful actions can never be undone; and that the people who wronged us may never see the error of their ways. But the practice of forgiveness can also reveal another important and surprising truth: that in the end, no one else has to change in order for us to be at peace. We’ll explore that more the next time.

Next: Benefits of Forgiveness

Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. His website is tommoon.net.