The Compassion Chronicles

From anger to compassion and forgiveness.

To Forgive or Not Forgive: That is the Question

Is forgiveness always necessary, or even possible?

Many people believe that forgiveness is necessary if we are to put the past behind us and move on. Twelve-step programs teach the philosophy that we should forgive others because they, like us, were doing the best they could at the time. Many religions teach that forgiveness is the only fair and compassionate thing to do, since we have all sinned and we have all hurt others. Many psychotherapists also believe that forgiveness is necessary in order to heal. But as wise as spiritual leaders and therapists are concerning the importance of forgiveness, sometimes forgiveness is not possible. Unfortunately, we have not been given permission to choose not to forgive. It is my belief that forgiveness is not necessary for healing, and in some cases may not be the healthiest thing to do. This is especially true when forgiving is tantamount to giving permission to hurt you again.

Sometimes we need to hold onto the very thing that prevents us from forgiving in order to cope and survive--anger. Anger can be a powerful motivator, especially for those who have been victimized. Anger can help us rise above the victimization and to fight our way back from the most devastating of traumas. For example, research shows that female victims of rape who allowed themselves to express their rage about being raped were able to recover from the trauma much better than those who never got angry. It is often anger that motivates a victim to continue facing the pain.

In the case of child sexual abuse, it is often anger that helps victims feel separate from their abuser (victims of incest, in particular, often feel too enmeshed with their abuser) since anger separates us from others. Victims also need their anger in order to ward off feelings of shame and guilt (victims of all forms of abuse, especially sexual abuse, tend to blame themselves for their own victimization).

Hopefully, there will come a time when a victim no longer needs her anger. When this happens she or he will be more able to look at forgiveness as a viable option. But each person needs to come to this point on his or her own and not be pressured to forgive because it is the "politically correct" thing to do.

I'd like to hear your thoughts and feelings on this sometimes touchy subject. Do you think it is always possible to forgive? Do you think it is necessary for healing? What is the offender never admits that he or she did anything wrong, do we still need to forgive?

Beverly Engel has been a psychotherapist for over 30 years and is the author of 20 books, many of which have been bestsellers.

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