Recent Comments

    What Makes It Hard to Forgive?

    By Tom Moon, MFT

    A few years ago, while speaking at a workshop on the subject of forgiveness, I asked how many people in the auditorium had never experienced deep betrayal at the hands of another person. Not one of the approximately two hundred people who were there raised a hand. It was a powerful moment for all of us, a dramatic confirmation of the reality that betrayal, loss, and abandonment are universal human experiences, and that none of us gets very far in life without experiencing them.

    But this incident also underlined why it’s so important to be able to forgive others. If we can’t, we gradually become prisoners of the past, bound and constricted by the increasing weight of our resentments and grudges. To try to get through life without forgiving is a little like trying to run a marathon while carrying a bowling ball.

    Yet most of us have found that it’s not so easy to do. In fact, many of us are adamant that there are some people we will never forgive for what they did to us. This feeling is both common and strange. What is strange about it is that grudges and resentments are painful experiences for the person who holds them, and most of us know that we feel better when we’re able to let go of them. Nevertheless, we’ve all held onto resentments, as if we need them. Why is that? I believe there are at least four reasons:

    1. We imagine that holding onto resentments punishes others.

    The idea that harboring ill-will toward others somehow punishes them, even when they have no idea that we’re doing it, is a common, but irrational, idea. I’ve heard people say that they won’t forgive a wrong from years back because “it would be letting him off the hook,” as if someone they haven’t seen in years is somehow living “on a hook” if they continue to think hateful and resentful thoughts about them, but would feel undeservedly better if they stopped. Forgiveness is, first and foremost, a gift we give to ourselves.

    1. Forgiveness means condoning bad behavior: We forgive actors, not their actions.

    Forgiveness is largely a decision to renounce vengefulness, to let go of the impulse to get even. It doesn’t mean excusing or pretending that wrongs weren’t committed, or that they didn’t hurt us.

    1. If I forgive you, I have to let you back into my life.

    This idea is based on the misconception that forgiveness and reconciliation are the same thing. They’re very different. Forgiveness involves letting go of the past. Reconciliation is about committing to a shared future. It means returning to some degree of friendliness, and for that to happen, trust has to be reestablished. Unlike forgiveness, real reconciliation can’t be unilateral. If I’ve done you harm, the first step to reconciliation requires that I accept and acknowledge my wrongdoing. If I deny responsibility for what I did, deny that it was wrong, act as if your feelings don’t matter, or deny that you have any right to hold me responsible for what I did, you aren’t going to be able to trust that I won’t hurt you in the future. Genuine reconciliation can’t just be based on the desire for harmony. It requires a mutual commitment to shared ethical standards, and, where serious harm is involved, a meaningful process of amends and restitution. We can choose to forgive someone who has abused us, while still recognizing that the person might continue the abuse if we re-opened the relationship.

    1. We believe that anger, not forgiveness, keeps us in control.

    Anger is an intense energy, and feeling it can make us feel safe and powerful. But the bottomless, self-righteous rage of those who are mired in victimization feels anything but strong. 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 hateful actions are part of that unchangeable past; 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 truth: that at the end of the day, no one else has to change in order for us to find emotional freedom.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website