I found myself inspired this morning by the story of Pierce O'Farrill, who recently survived three gunshot wounds in the Colorado theater tragedy. Only days later, he has extended forgiveness to the gunman. This reminded me of the most incredible story of forgiveness that I have ever heard, which was when members of the Amish community extended forgiveness to a gunman and his family less than a day after he killed many children from their community in a school.
I developed my own model of forgiveness after that, but in the 4 years since, I have noticed a range of misconceptions about forgiveness that are obstacles for my clients. Most of them are ways that our minds and culture bundle other things with forgiveness, rather than seeing it as a process of its own. These myths include:
1. Forgiving means that what happened was OK: this is the #1 barrier to forgiveness that I encounter with my clients. There is a perception that if we forgive someone, it either lets the person off the hook, or is somehow an indication that what happened was OK. I see these as separate processes: a) an understanding that the act was not OK and that the person remains accountable, and b) a process of forgiveness that happens in parallel.
2. If I forgive, it might happen to me again: for people that have experienced something traumatic, one of the adjustments afterward is often a vigilant stance of self-protection to avoid being a victim again. For some people with these experiences, the anger, pain, and anxiety related to the event, operate as fuel to help remain on guard. Through counseling, many people can develop new ways to protect themselves physically and emotionally, which allows for a forgiveness process to begin without the fear of being harmed again.
3. I need to "forgive and forget": this is a common phrase I hear for people that want to begin working on forgiveness. However, if we forget what happened, we can also lose the learning that came from the experience. Therefore, I usually advocate more for "forgive and remember".
4. If I forgive, it means I have to reconcile with the person: when we are harmed in a relationship and have taken steps to distance ourselves, forgiving the person does not mean we have to go back. If we ultimately want to return to the relationship, forgiveness can help it be successful, but if you are done with it, you can forgive and still choose it to be over.
5. If I don't forgive, then I am a bad person: some people feel a pressure to forgive even the most terrible acts due to pressure from others and a belief that being unforgiving makes you a "bad person." My view is that we are never required to forgive someone to be a "good person", although many good people do work to forgive others. Instead, I see forgiveness as simply an option we have when we are looking for peace and healing.
6. After I forgive, I will never feel angry or hurt about it again: this final myth is one that can eventually be true after some time. Going back to the Amish school shooting story, I could not comprehend how quickly the victim's families were able to change their feelings, especially in contrast to the broader culture that tolerates (or even promotes) revenge, and my own beliefs about how enraged and destroyed I would feel if someone I cared about was killed. It wasn't until a few years later that I saw a film about the tragedy, and the father of one of the victims clarified that he is often thrown back into anger and pain, but works for "forgiveness everyday".
I think forgiveness can represent the best of what we are capable of as humans, and can be a fitting balance to something horrific, but we have to be ready for it.
Will Meek PhD is a counseling psychologist in Vancouver, Washington. Get notifications of all his new posts through Facebook and Twitter.