Sometimes bad things are done to good people; well more than sometimes.
• Your beloved children are being turned against you by a vindictive ex husband or wife.
• Your uncle sexually abused you – and you’ve kept it locked away.
Betrayal comes in many forms. On a global level, it’s from perpetrators of the Holocaust. On a community level, it could be the Columbine or Newtown killers. On a personal level, it could well be your ex husband or wife.
Therapists are approached with these terrible stories all the time. We know that forgiveness can be a way to emancipate from the hurt. And, many religious traditions view forgiveness as liberating – if not divine. Plus, we know that acceptance can put the betrayal into a bigger perspective, and let a person concentrate on the future and not the past.
In essence, forgiving can be healing.
But, isn’t a person entitled to their wounds?
Should Therapists Encourage a Patient to Forgive?
Many therapists today include forgiving as part of therapy. Forgiving soothes. Forgiving allows closure. Forgiving allows you to move on. Forgiving can heal. But, sometimes the wound is too deep - or the patient is simply uninterested. What should a therapist do?
In my opinion, it’s destructive to suggest forgiving as somehow required in therapy. Religious institutions have for centuries insisted on forgiving without mind to how such a demand might affect the injured party. So, you are hurt or betrayed, and now you are bad or weak because you fail to forgive.
As therapists, we want no part of this dynamic.
Nor do we want to participate in a heavy handed agenda towards forgiveness which infantilizes the patient by demanding that either he or she gratify the therapist - or rebel. This is not the work that we do. Patients will often unconsciously try to please us. They come in great need, and bring baggage, including the need for protection from an authority figure. And, we therapists are authority figures, however much we wish to distance ourselves from this role.
It is not constructive for a patient to prematurely forgive as a way to feel that they have been a good patient. This is bad therapy - as it is bad religion.
Sometimes what has happened is unforgivable. Someone murders your child, or steals your life savings or serially abuses innocents in their care – it’s unforgivable. You can freely choose to forgive the perpetrator, but this is not to be expected or fostered.
Terrible things do happen to innocent – and not so innocent people. As therapists, we are witnesses to the horror of history. Our job is to help those in our care to feel human despite their trauma. Our goal is to enable our patients somehow metabolize their betrayal or wound without becoming a victim to their victimhood. It is a worthwhile project.
Another Option, Acceptance:
There is a middle ground between the trauma of unforgivable hurt and wholesale forgiveness. It’s the concept of acceptance. The patient learns to accept the unforgivable. She was raped. He lost his life savings to a sociopath. Her best friend ran off with her husband. Acceptance is a coming to terms with the random harshness of life. Whether we’ve been good or bad, sometimes it’s our turn to get hurt.
It may be useful to accept so that you no longer live in the past with all the hurt. You can still rage – or feel the sting. You are not letting go, nor are you interesting in forgiving him. Some Holocaust survivors, for example, benefit from being angry. They may accept the unacceptable, but rage at the thought. Acceptance allows you to move on. There is some ownership of your victim experience – and that may be enough.
If a therapist pushes forgiving the unforgivable; I would suggest that he or she get some supervision. They may be a need to paper over the real hurts of life. Or, the therapist may mistake a religious impulse to encourage forgiveness, with a professional responsibility to allow the patient their own journey.
We cannot insist that a patient forgives someone who has deeply, and forever, harmed them. And, we certainly do not want to make our patients feel guilty because they cannot do something superhuman (forgive the unforgivable).
To Forgive or not to Forgive:
So, how can we help people who have been wronged so badly? Can forgiveness be part of the language of our therapeutic work, or should it be relegated to the clergy?
Our patients come to us stuck in an unhappy state. This is axiomatic. Our job is to widen the world of emotional possibility, and watch as a patient’s journey evolves from there. He may never have thought that forgiving was an option. Or, conversely, she may never have realized that she’s not bad for “failing” to forgive.
Here's What Therapists Can Do:
Good therapists do plant seeds. This is an art form. We subtly re-frame all the time. By asking questions that enlarge, by allowing space for a free expression of anger or guilt, by co-creating a matrix of a different relationship to the self, our patients can begin to think and feel differently.
It’s our responsibility to help bring about a paradigm shift – however small. One of these subtle re-framings can be suggesting that the choices to forgive or not to forgive are both human options to an injury.
The patient will take it from there.