“You Need to Forgive!" and Other Lies That Hurt You

"You need to forgive!" are words that victimize the hurt party all over again.

Posted Oct 07, 2017

There are some  well-intentioned but potentially harmful ideas about forgiveness floating around; the idea that forgiveness is the only path to a life that’s not mired down in bitterness and hate, and that those who do not forgive the unapologetic offender are less spiritually evolved persons at greater risk for emotional and physical problems.

These are myths that hurt people. There are many paths to "letting go" and finding peace that do not involve forgiveness. 

If, however, you believe that forgiveness, like gratitude, is a universally healing emotion, you may be inclined to encourage or pressure other people to forgive someone who hurt them. Often that “someone” has never apologized, oriented toward reality, felt remorse, or owned up.

“What your dad did to you happened a very long time ago,” a mother might say to her adult daughter.  “I don’t see how it can help you to keep digging up the past and holding on to old resentments. Can’t you just forgive and move on?”  

The mother’s intentions may be good, but she also runs the risk of victimizing her daughter all over again.

What does the hurt party need to hear? People who appear to be holding on to anger or bitterness frequently did not experience a clear, direct, heartfelt validation soon after an earlier betrayal or act of neglect occurred.  

The child or adult, may have been told that the bad thing was not really happening, that his feelings and perceptions were wrong, out of proportion, or crazy--or that what happened was necessary, even his fault, his choice, and something he brought on by his own difficult behavior.

To heal, the hurt party needs to hear an unequivocal validation of the awfulness of the experience, and an affirmation that his or her feelings and perception make sense.

Suggesting to someone that they forgive, can leave the hurt party feeling more emotionally unsteady and betrayed all over again. This can be so, even if the injury and insults were small ones, and especially, if they were not.  

The words, “Can’t you forgive him?” are the last words a hurt or victimized person need to hear when the wrongdoer has done nothing to earn forgiveness.  Clichés like these are similarly unhelpful: “She did the best she could.” “It is what it is.” “This happened forty years ago.” 

It is one thing to tell someone that you hope they can find a way to unburden themselves from carrying so much anger and pain.  It is another thing entirely to suggest that they should absolve the wrongdoer and transcend their anger through a heroic act of will or grace.

As I explain in Why Won’t You Apologize?: You are not a less loving or whole person if there are certain things you do not forgive, and certain people whom you choose not to see. Perhaps you are even a stronger or more courageous person if you have leftover anger, whether from one violation or countless little micro-violations even as you move on.  

Most importantly, it is no one else’s job—not that of your therapist, mother, rabbi, minister, teacher, spiritual guide, best friend, or relationship expert—to tell you to forgive—or not to.