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Forgiveness is Not a Menu Option

Man alone in restaurantEvery time I talk about forgiveness, I run into disagreement.

When I make the statement, “Forgiveness is not a choice,” I always get pushback from people who think I’m saying something else.

What they think I’m saying is, “Hey, you know what would be fun? Why don’t you hang on to your hurt on purpose and refuse to forgive the person who hurt you, even though you so totally could forgive them if you wanted to? Doesn’t that sound great?”

For the record, that’s not what I’m saying. And it drives me a little nuts when people think it is. 

What I’m trying to say is that forgiveness is a feeling, not just a policy. And that if you’re having a hard time forgiving, it’s not your fault. You’re not a bad person because you can’t forgive. 

It’s. Not. A. Choice.

Forgiveness is a feeling. An emotion. We don’t control what we feel any more than we control the actions of our autonomic nervous system.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before: “Refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

To me, that’s like saying, “Being short is like punching yourself in the stomach and expecting other people to double over.” I’m not good at analogies. The point is, being short isn’t a refusal to be tall, just as a failure to forgive is not a refusal to forgive.

Anyone who believes that they should be able to CHOOSE to forgive has been suckered into believing something that’s not true, that blames them for something they can’t help.

Stop Blaming Yourself

I saw a meme on Facebook celebrating the “strength” it takes to forgive in the absence of apology or remorse. It had very few “Likes,” and understandably so.  

Your instincts are correct: Forgiving someone who hurts you and shows no remorse is neither necessary nor healthier for you than continuing to feel however you do about it.

It’s not that you’re drinking poison; it’s that you’ve been poisoned. Big difference.

I fear there are people out there I’ll never convince. People who may get terribly hurt one day, and blame themselves for not being able to forgive. It’s frustrating and sad.

Here’s my original post, about the 3 conditions needed for forgiveness to occur (not be chosen), over on PsychologyToday.com:

When You Can’t Forgive


About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."

11 Responses to "Forgiveness is Not a Menu Option"

  • Alice
    April 8, 2017 - 11:50 am Reply

    Do you think Jesus FELT like forgiving those who were driving the nails into His hands, pushing the thorns into His head and crucifying Him?? NO! The Bible says He was fully God and fully man, meaning He felt all the things we as humans feel. He overcame His feelings and forgave as a CHOICE so the whole of mankind could be saved from destruction, if they choose to believe. Of course, its not easy to forgive, it goes against the grain, but it is a choice which you can make in your will, then your feelings follow. If you rely ONLY on your feelings, you run the risk of making decisions with ONLY half of your self. You have logic, reason and choice to guide you as well as feelings. Having been through much trauma, personal hurts and disappointments in my life, I could not get free from being bitter towards some people until I made the decision in my will to CHOOSE to forgive, even though my feelings were screaming the opposite. Do you know what happened when I did that? My feelings followed and I didn’t carry those offences around with me anymore. I became free.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 8, 2017 - 12:24 pm Reply

      That’s wonderful, Alice. At the risk of sounding like I’m splitting hairs, the choice you made was what to do with your will, not how to feel about it.

      Your decision (which I very much respect) was guided by an ethical commitment to forgiveness. I’ve always said that forgiveness, apart from being an emotion, can also be enacted as a policy, which is what you’ve done by choice.

      Lucky for you, it sounds like good feelings followed from your behavior.

      You made a hard decision about your will based on your values, which is not easy. I commend you on your strength. Thanks for your comment.

    • ger
      April 10, 2017 - 8:48 am Reply

      Alice, I can’t see how that would work. You’d have to split yourself in two, your head and emotions.
      There must be some strain in your body, emotions, with this forcing forgiveness..

  • Jasmine
    April 8, 2017 - 5:19 pm Reply

    The reason my life has been a disaster is because my parents taught me that my feelings were under my control, and if I felt anything other than joy and gratitude I was doing it on purpose and should be ashamed of myself. Now in middle age I don’t feel forgiveness for them, and I know this is not my choice, and I feel no shame for it. Thanks for helping expose those lies I was told in childhood, Tina.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 8, 2017 - 6:48 pm Reply

      It’s my genuine pleasure, Jasmine. Thanks for reading the blog, and best wishes to you.

  • Paulette
    April 9, 2017 - 7:51 am Reply

    In my own family with father not talking to son and adult grandchild holding on to hurts of not feeling loved by her brother. I have learned that their negative thoughts are what’s causing the problems they hold on too. I have tried to figure them out, knowing that holding on to hurts is very damaging, not only to themselves but everyone else in the family. For some reason, no one can help them. Believe me, I have tried, only to have them resent me. A Christian attitude of forgiveness would be the answer for them. I believe now that everyone has their own walk in life to get them where they need to be. It’s more a head thinking then a heart. They can’t get out of their own head to find their heart. When the heart follows is where the peace and happiness comes, That only comes from a close relationship with God.

  • geraldine
    April 10, 2017 - 8:33 am Reply

    Tina, Thanks so very much for your posts (and your brill book, constructive wallowing) which saved me !..wish I had it years ago. I agree so much, we are told if we don’t forgive it’s like drinking our own poison, though I have tried to forgive, believing this must be true, as I think it came from buddha? it didn’t work… You have clarified it now. Better for me to ‘feel’ my anger, as you say, then the anger at times eases, or seems less strong.
    keep on writing posts and thanks.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 10, 2017 - 10:59 am Reply

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a reply to this post, Ger. I’m glad it makes sense.

      And thank you for pointing out that feelings, once felt fully, are more likely to dissipate, not less.

  • geraldine
    April 14, 2017 - 12:22 pm Reply

    I am interested in what you thing of Eckhart Tolle’s ideas in his books, re our endless thinking causing a lot of our problems, and present moment living etc. I had an insight re seeing an on going problem, but without the thoughts and non stop talking about it, and, though it was still a problem, it was a much, much smaller one. It was a once off insight, but on going, a hard thing to do….I like him though.
    A blog or reply would be appreciated.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      April 21, 2017 - 4:58 pm Reply

      It’s been so long since I read any of Tolle’s books, I can’t trust my middle-aged memory to provide enough fodder for a comment.

      However, it sounds like the insightful Snowburst may have some input. Let’s wait and see what she has to say.

  • Snowburst
    April 21, 2017 - 1:28 am Reply

    Just so you know… I am working on an answer to this. 😉

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