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

When You Can’t Forgive


31 thoughts on “Forgiveness is Not a Menu Option”

  1. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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..

    • forgiveness to me comes in the form of addressing the offender(s), whether its in the form of a letter, face to face conversation, or just simply relocating or all the above combined. i have been wronged by 3 people closest to me, 2 got letters and one got the divorce (again, in writing). one is my own daughter, bought with her father’s money and manipulation,and a close friend who clawed her entitled homewrecking nails into my husband (at the time). betrayal is a very hurtful, i find this kind of hurt heals best by time and distance, not foregiveness. the offender(s) can ask for that themselves and that i would accept!

      • I can understand your anger at those who turned your daughter against you.
        I am currently working through Tina’s book for parents of estranged adult childrenn.
        Please try to let go of the idea that your daughter must apologise to you. Regardless of how unjust the situation is, she will always be your daughter, and will always prefer to receive love than judgement.
        You write as though your husband had no choice about the ‘homewrecking’ friend.
        Your daughter was also hurt by the breakdown of her parents’s marriage.
        Perhaps your own hurt has made it hard for you to see her hurt, or to feel the pain of felling as though she had to choose between her parents?

        • In my book, spouses cheat not friends and certainly not our kids. my ex lived in my house bc he made sure my daughter had a cell phone. no matter how many times i took it away or turned it off at a certain time. he dragged me into court 4 times to fight over custody and money up until 3 weeks before she graduated from high school. she ran away 1 week before her 18th bday. because he opened the escape hatch from punishment. she and he both opted for her to drive 80 miles to school every day instead of making her stay home and face the punishment. he showed up at my house at midnight with 3 cops bc she was fighting with me about going to a beer joint at age 14. no calls to me to see what the fuss was about. this is the kind of anger i have and expect an apology.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  6. 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.

    • Wow, Snowburst. You took an incredibly deep and wide look at the topic, from angles I hadn’t thought of. I like how you started by looking up those definitions, and letting them form a basis for your discussion. You raised the very interesting question of “What is forgiveness, anyway?”

      As a therapist and a proponent of what I call constructive wallowing, I tend to fixate on the *emotion* of forgiveness. Exactly as you said, “Anger is not in itself a sin. Retaliating is a sin.” That’s my bias: emotional well-being and the tolerance of all emotions, including forgiveness AND/OR its absence. That’s what inspired this post.

      The philosophical, spiritual and historic aspects you’re highlighting bring a breadth and depth to the topic that I’m honored to host on this blog. Thank you so very much for taking the time to share your reflections here.

  7. hello, I’m new to your blog and recently bought, and working through the estrangement book. A friend once gave me Sheila Cassidys article “seventy times seven”. I’m not a practising Christian, but it helped me enormously in my early 30’s to deal with a betrayal by a best friend who had an affair with my husband. It’s a process. Over time. I realised early that if I didn’t intend to head in that direction, I would never be free of severely toxic feelings. After about four years, I ended up working in the same building as her. I was remarried by then, and could stop and chat with her in the corridor with, genuinely, no big feelings either way. However, in my late 50’s here and three weeks into the other issue with an adult child, this line from your (i have to say excellent, superb extremely helpful book) book is challenging me currently! I like a challenge…to keep moving in myself…expand! learn! >The Child must go forward and perpetuate The Parents’ genes, and so must be given every advantage, even at The Parent’s expense< Oh gawd! and, yes, she is heavily pregnant!

  8. I purchased your Guide For Parents of Estranged Children a few days ago, and I am slowly working my way through it. It has been such an eye opener! There have been more than a few tears, but I am also able to laugh at myself when you show us how things look through our children’s eyes. Even though my son is 40, I understand that I have to revisit the Parent-Child relationship again, and rather than defending myself, I will need to open myself up to my “child’s” point of view. (I have been operating on the, “Dog-gone it, you’re an adult, look at it from MY side too!”) Now, I can see why and how that attitude that won’t work.

    Especially insightful in this dynamic was your scenario about a complete stranger who accuses you of stealing his car. Wow! (And, wham!) When you understand WHY a complete stranger can say something like that to you, but your compassion remains, it demonstrates just why in the closer relationship (parent-child) that is so difficult to do. It was such an emotionally powerful observation, my husband and I laughed and cried at the same time. Thank you.

    I have a few chapters left to read (and then I’m turning it over to my husband), but understanding forgiveness (the topic of this thread) is paramount to re-establishing our relationship with our son. It is difficult to get to the point of listening without defending, opening ourselves up to criticism without explaining, and just “being” there again as loving parents for our adult son, but you are helping us. Letting parents know that they need to replenish their “buckets” (which may never have been filled for either of us) is also powerful. It will help us stay the course.

    One question I have relates to our grandson. Since his birth, I had been a regular caregiver ~ watching him 2-4 times a week, plus the occasional weekend. He was the joy of my life . . . running up to me and jumping into my arms when we saw each other. My son and daughter-in-law have not allowed us to see him for almost a year. He is now 5-1/2 years old. (After 6 months, we saw him a few times, but then they cut us off again.) The reasons kept changing, but it was clear he was being used (taken away) as a form of punishment. Now, I no longer even know what size clothes he wears. They live close by (they were 7 minutes away; they moved about a year ago and are now 20 minutes away).

    At what point can we tell them that it is not acceptable to use him that way? Or, can we? The grief associated with not seeing him has been difficult. (I’m sure you understand what an understatement that is.) They recently gave us an invitation of sorts to watch his soccer game. But until this gets straightened out, I feel (a) if we don’t go see our grandson, then we are deemed bad, or (b) if we do go to watch him, we are accused of only wanting to see our grandson. In fact, we would like the entire family back together again.

    I realize our first priority is to get the relationship with our son (and DIL) back on track again. My husband and I don’t want our grandson impacted any more by this than he already has been. Perhaps the answer lies in the final chapters, but I would appreciate your insight if possible. Thank you.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about the hopefully temporary but still devastating loss of time with your grandchild.

      You wrote, “It is difficult to get to the point of listening without defending, opening ourselves up to criticism without explaining, and just “being” there again as loving parents for our adult son.” You couldn’t be more right! The parents who have managed to do so, however, report stunning results. Their kids are completely disarmed by the lack of defensiveness. The advanced-level difficulty is keeping that up and thus re-establishing trust.

      I’m afraid I’ve been slow to respond to comments this month. By now I’m sure you will have answered your own question. If not, as a reader of the Guide you’re welcome to join this month’s Q&A call or send me your question as concisely as you can by email, and I’ll put it in the queue for an upcoming call.

      Thank you so much for your feedback. It sounds like you’re skilled already and will do great things with a few extra tools in your toolkit.

  9. Tina, I intend to buy that guide too, re estrangement. But is there not a time when you give up and let go, and say ok, ‘you have to see my side too’.. the above parents could not have been so bad to not see grandchild..why do we have keep listening silently etc..what about us…

    • Geraldine, the sense of injustice you voiced is understandable and very common. There’s nothing unreasonable about wishing your child would sit down and hear you out. But in reality, they often choose not to. What then?

      You have every right to walk away. The feeling of injustice is a bitter diet to live on month after month, or even year after year.

      The Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children is for parents who want to take the reins and do whatever it takes to try to heal a damaged relationship with an estranged adult child who’s not cooperating *before* giving up and walking away.

      Often there’s a lot of personal growth that wants to happen through the fire of this terribly painful situation. The Guide supports readers in that as well.

      Thank you for your comment. I wish you well.

  10. Coming very late to this thread. I just wanted to say how helpful I have found your idea that “forgiveness is an emotion”. I have been struggling with this for over a year. I have been beating myself up because I cannot forgive my daughter for what she put us through and now I understand that it is simply because a) she has not apologised and b) I don’t trust that she will not do it again.

    We do see her about once a month now and since the first meeting she has behaved as if nothing happened between us. It just makes me want to scream.

    I am also struggling with my feelings of bitterness towards her. Yet somehow those seem to diminish with time, and be less sensitive to the fear that she will cut us off again. Maybe forgiveness is a bit more active

  11. Late post here, too. This a useful change of perspective. Much of what I’ve read in my web searches on forgiveness just seems glib, even smug. What if someone’s child, parent, sibling, spouse, or other loved one suddenly committed suicide, blaming the survivor in the note? Should he grasp his own upper and lower jaws and move them about as he forces himself to cough the words “I forgive you”?

    Fortunately, the person who hurt me hasn’t done *quite* so complete a job of things. Still, I have no reason to believe she’ll ever deliberately see me again. She judged, condemned, and cast me out, giving me no opportunity to say anything in my defense. Conditions #1 and #2 from your Psychology Today article have not been met (and probably never will be), and condition #3 is N/A at best.

    So I think I’ll stop trying to build a house out of imaginary lumber now.

    If only this would all just recede in the rear view mirror . . . .


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