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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."

14 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.
    ger.

    • 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

    Tina,
    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.
    Ger.

    • 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. 😉

  • Diane Williams Andrew
    May 7, 2017 - 8:25 pm Reply

    I’m dreading my first Mother’s Day without either of my adult sons, their wives & my grandchildren. Any advice on what to do?

    • Tina Gilbertson
      May 20, 2017 - 5:07 pm Reply

      Diane, Mother’s Day is often a tough day to say the least for moms of estranged adult children. I wrote my Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children in an attempt to offer advice to moms (and dads) in this painful situation.

      You can read about the Guide and the program of support that it comes with on my Estrangement page on this website, or follow the link above to read the first chapter. Take care.

  • Snowburst
    May 17, 2017 - 11:39 pm Reply

    OOps!! I guess I forgot to finish this. Which is a good thing, I think, because I now have a different point of view about it. I think the actual definition of “forgive” can have many different interpretations. I am sure, as many feelings about it as well. Even the dictionary often has more than one meaning attributed to any given word. Which is why I enjoy looking up some common words like this one in the dictionary. The American Heritage version I have states that “forgiveness” has three different meanings: 1. To excuse for a fault or offense; to pardon. 2. To stop feeling anger or resentment against. 3. To absolve from payment of.
    And as with this word, if I want to find more clarity I choose some words from my dictionary to look up in my thesaurus. The first word I want to look up is from the first definition which is, “pardon”. Which only uses the word “forgive”. OK. To the dictionary again; “pardon” is also defined as, 1. To release (a person) from punishment. … to forgive, excuse… other descriptions are essentially the same as for 1. Now I want to look at “absolve”. It’s not in my thesaurus, so I’ll go directly back to my dictionary. The meaning is the same except to also include, to relieve of a requirement or obligation. All that said, Now I’m ready to begin.

    First of all I want to give you my theoretical opinion about Jesus’ forgiveness, particularly when he was crucified. He obviously forgave those who caused him offense. Which I am supposing, since he hung around with publicans and tax collectors, challenged office-holders of the synagogues, and literally turned over the tables inside them, to name a few, that the degree to which he was offended for speaking the truth was immense. Even when he was young. Can you imagine? But something different happened when he was nailed to the cross. When he was hung up there, one of his last words were to ask God to forgive them (those who were committing unimaginable offenses by that time) “…for they know not what they do”. I wonder if by that time Jesus became so overwhelmed that he couldn’t even think about forgiveness at that moment. I believe that he became so overwhelmed then that he had no more strength to forgive and at that moment his human spirit touched God’s and finally the age of the law was obliterated and replaced with the new and improved version of accountability, the age of grace. And I believe that is the present ethical definition of forgiveness.

    From the extremely dysfunctional point of view I had while growing up, forgiveness meant that there was no more issue about “it” and “it” was never to be discussed again. If the offendee brings “it” up at a later date for any reason, they will get accused of “bringing up the past”. And most often whatever the offense was, was virtually ignored and intense attention was paid to the need to “forgive” the offense. End of story. In which case the act of “forgiving” served to be a reason to disregard actually dealing with whatever the offense was. Which tends not to work and in my opinion, is not true forgiveness. That is victim-blaming. Along with ignoring offenses, dysfunctional forgiveness also includes pretending that (whatever offense) didn’t happen and if and when (whatever offense) happens again, which it almost certainly will plus more, the answer is to simply have the offended person “forgive” again. The problem with this version of forgiveness is, that it doesn’t address the issue at hand. And at least as importantly, why it happened.

    I love Oprah’s definition of forgiveness: that is, “letting go of the desire to get even”. That is to me, the setting down of your proverbial sword and looking for and hopefully finding a better use for it. I think that is a mental verb. And I think it is not to be confused with the emotional response to an offense. I think there is a difference between turning your angry and hurt attention away from an offender and still experiencing residual pain and disappointment. Jesus’ instruction to us was, to “be ye angry and sin not”. Anger is not in itself a sin. Retaliating is a sin. Projecting your anger onto others is a sin. My favorite example of this is of someone in 1981 (the same year my oldest son was born) who lost their 6 year old son named Adam by abduction from a Sears store in Florida. About two weeks later his son’s severed head was found in a canal and the child’s body was never recovered. The father of this child’s name is John Walsh. John Walsh is the face of the well known TV host of the program “America’s Most Wanted.” Even though it seems to me that he is driven by eternal severe anger and pain, understandingly, John Walsh and his wife Reve’ almost immediately started to become politically active. By 1982 they had initiated the Missing Children Act. The rest is history.

    Some offenses are simply offensive. Others are more harmful and can have residual effects that can last a long time, even causing pain and other problems for the rest of one’s life. Which is an indication that the degree to which someone still experiences anger is not necessarily an indication of the degree to which they have forgiven someone. There is more to forgiving than simply “letting something go”. Just as with the process of grief, forgiveness is a process. And sometimes that may require revisiting and review.

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