Forgiveness is Bullshit

Wherever you find an intolerance for and avoidance of “negative emotion,” you are almost guaranteed to also find a “doctrine” of forgiveness. I cringe every time I hear forgiveness come up. For a while, my cringing was accompanied by guilt because I felt horrible that I would see such a “positive” action/attitude as repulsive. I could easily understand why I might feel repelled by the fundamentalist definition of forgiveness, but I didn’t understand why I was also disgusted by the more “liberal” definitions of forgiveness.

As I’ve taken the journey to reclaim my right to have my emotions, even the shadow ones, I’ve gained a bit of a better understanding of my hatred of the very idea of forgiveness.

Basically I’m here to say it’s all bullshit.

Yes, I know I’ve probably made many of you gasp and even branded myself in some minds as a “bitter person.”

That’s okay. If you don’t feel like reading on about how the idea and pressure to “forgive” can actually be harmful, you are free to stop reading here. But I guarantee there are going to be a good number of readers who sigh with relief at what I just said because, deep down, they feel that way too.

Why do I think forgiveness is bullshit? Before I answer that question, I want you to close your eyes and think about your best denotative definition for the word. Can you?

Well, let’s go over some of the popular quotes and quips about forgiveness. Then at the end, we’ll actually look at the dictionary definition and discuss that (now please don’t ruin things and look it up in the dictionary just yet).

  • “Forgive and forget”: I actually got this one a lot in fundamentalism. It’s a very convenient phrase for teaching children to suppress memories and accept repeated abuse. In fact, when I, as a teen, confided to a counselor at The Wilds Christian Camp that I couldn’t “forget” about my abuse and I was having a hard time “forgiving” the abuser as a result, I was told that as long as I never talked about it to anyone ever again and pushed the thoughts about the abuse out of my head whenever they intruded, I would be able to forgive, even if I didn’t officially forget. It should be pretty easy to see why equating forgiveness with amnesia of an event is bullshit. Stupidity is not a virtue.
  • “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” This little gem from C. S. Lewis is representative of another commonly repeated idea in fundamentalism. It doesn’t really define forgiveness, merely mandates it as a divine expectation, which can be just as bad as the definitions. I would actually classify this as spiritual/emotional abuse even without having a definition like the one above simply because of the way that such a divine mandate is wielded against the wounded to undercut their healing. It’s probably also the only idea off the top of my head that I would say Jesus should be ashamed of propogating with his “seventy times seven” statement in Matthew 18:22. . . unless of course, the translation effect fails to account for the possibility that at that time and in that period “forgiveness” wasn’t what we think of it as today.
  • “True forgiveness is when you can say, ‘Thank you for that experience.’” (Oprah) Bullshit should be so easy to find in this one. I can think of several experiences that I would NEVER thank someone for, my sexual abuse being the most prominent that comes to mind. In fact, if forgiveness is really finding the ability to be thankful for what someone else did to you that hurt you, I’d have to say that I’ve never forgiven anyone who wronged me, nor do I want to.
  • “Forgiveness has nothing to do with absolving a criminal of his crime. It has everything to do with relieving oneself of the burden of being a victim–letting go of the pain and transforming oneself from victim to survivor.” (C. R. Strahan) This is one that on the surface seems nicer. And there are a lot of variations on the idea of freeing or healing oneself through forgiveness. But my next question is, if forgiveness is not absolving someone, what is it? These types of phrases never give an alternative. And I’m sorry to break it to anyone who likes this definition, but it’s not in the real definition. “Absolving,” on the other hand, is. So the attempt to whitewash forgiveness into something entirely personal and not connected to the offending person is really just all BULLSHIT.
  • “Forgiveness is the discovery that what you thought happened, didn’t.” (Byron Katie) Bull-fucking-shit! I actually expected better from Byron Katie. I’ve heard a lot of good things about her and was horribly disappointed to find her propagating such a stupid definition of forgiveness. It’s just another form of the amnesia prescription of forgiveness, but with an even more sinister undertone. Instead of just forgetting it happened . . . it’s actually suggesting that it didn’t happen. Yes, let’s tell a grieving parent that forgiving a drunk driver who killed their child would mean discovering that the driver didn’t actually kill their child. That doesn’t sound insensitive at all! For that matter, I’m sure there are a few spouses who might also protest at the idea that forgiveness means discovering that infidelity didn’t actually take place. In case it isn’t obvious, what Katie is describing is called a misunderstanding, and that doesn’t require forgiveness, merely clarification.

But what about the real definition? Okay, here you go. According to Dictionary.com, forgiveness is:

  1. to grant pardon for or remission of (an offense, debt, etc.); absolve.
  2. to give up all claim on account of; remit (a debt, obligation, etc.).
  3. to grant pardon to (a person).
  4. to cease to feel resentment against: to forgive one’s enemies.
  5. to cancel an indebtedness or liability of: to forgive the interest owed on a loan.

The definition and connotation of forgiveness is all about the other person—the person who wronged you—and setting them free, absolving them, letting them off the hook, ceasing to feel anger (or bitterness or whatever the new demonized emotion is) towards that person.

I’m here to cry bullshit on the whole charade.

Forgiveness isn’t necessary for healing.

Forgiveness is not necessary to “move on.”

It’s not even necessary in order to feel compassion or love for someone.

It’s not necessarily healthy.

In fact, more often than not, in the instances when forgiveness is prescribed (severe betrayal, severe hurt/abuse, severe tragedy, severe trauma), it’s actually harmful to the person needing to heal. There’s a reason why anger is listed as one of the main steps in grief—it’s important! Getting angry, feeling sad, holding someone else accountable, they’re all part of “moving on.”

What does a statement like “you just need to forgive” do? It heaps more guilt on the person who is experiencing those emotions—those necessary emotions—by making them feel like they’re wrong or unhealthy or weak for experiencing them. In other words, it’s blaming the victim, encouraging them to ignore their own needs and cater to another person’s desires.

It denies the mind’s natural way of healing itself.

You don’t get past the anger by suppressing it. You don’t move through grief by denying it. The only way to get through those difficult aspects of healing is by claiming the right to feel them.

And the only reason why forgiveness sounds so “positive” to us is because we have this fucking stigma about the shadow emotions being “negative” (which I discussed briefly here). We as a society don’t know how to handle those intense emotions, so we distance ourselves from them. And when someone else is experiencing them, we prescribe “forgiveness” as the fix-all that allows us to sound helpful without actually doing anything to help. If we move past the idea that shadow emotions are negative, suddenly the need to forgive by letting go of those emotions is non-existent, along with the need to distance ourselves from those emotions.

Does forgiveness ever have a place?

Maybe.

I’m an open-minded person and willing to consider that forgiveness really does have a legitimate purpose somewhere buried underneath all the bullshit–that it can potentially be a healthy  byproduct of healing in some circumstances. But I’d be more than willing to bet that, in those instances, the forgiveness happens fairly naturally.

In the instances where the hurt is bigger and the problems larger, i.e. whenever forgiveness takes up focus, it should be up to the individual to decide if that is something they need or even want.  It should be up to the individual to decide if the relationship is worth the work of restoration or if it’s safe to continue with that relationship. Moreover, it shouldn’t ever be the goal. Healing should be the goal, whether or not it includes forgiveness.

And without a genuine apology for the pain and damage caused and change to avoid repeating it, I don’t think forgiveness is either possible or healthy. Healing comes in those instances by learning to set boundaries, take a stand for your own needs, and hold the other person culpable for their actions, not by giving a blank check to someone who repeatedly hurts you.

I think it’s high time we forgive ourselves this absurd expectation that we should always forgive. It’s time to allow ourselves to recognize that healing isn’t about forgiving the other person; it’s about listening to ourselves.

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136 thoughts on “Forgiveness is Bullshit

  1. Completely agree. I move on, I don’t forgive and there is no bitterness, And the people that I know who harp on about forgiveness never forget anything, they go on and on and on about whoever or whatever they claim to forgive. It’s a self-absorbed notion that makes people feel better but has no meaning. I would rather ride on my unicorn. Has about the same value.

    • Dough Boy says:

      I agree with you Samantha,

      I feel that people that claim to “forgive”, do it because they do not want to fully feel their anger or hurt in connection with who hurt them? So they never really get rid of their anger, they just keep stuffing it away. Hence, why they always have to keep coming back, over and over, about how much they have forgiven this or that person?

      If you constantly practice the “forgiving and forgetting” then you can easily deny and suppress you’re feelings of anger in relation to it?

      In my opinion forgiveness is just an easy “traditional” cop out for people to “consciously” deny their own emotions, but in the end the body has the last word. And the body will say yes, when you’re mind says no…

      In other words, those emotions will never disappear, no matter how much you try to get rid of them. They will always be expressed in some way or another, either overtly or covertly…

      • It’s an unfortunate aspect of our society that people feel compelled to ignore their own emotions, especially anger and grief. I don’t doubt that there are those who can forgive and truly forgive in a healthy way. After all, most of us have to learn to forgive some things throughout life because relationships are going to get a little messy. However, there’s a difference, I think, in forgiving and restoring a relationship to a healthy place and in suppressing emotions and ignoring the harm done by an action.

    • Forgiveness if often misunderstood says:

      I love the idea that forgiveness is a CHOICE. A choice that an individual makes for him or herself. It may not be for everyone. Thus, one can forgive and it can be very healing but it does not have to be for everyone. I wish that others holding a negative view of forgiveness would recognize the same idea. It is not helpful to talk in generalizations, such as, “All who talk about forgiveness….”. This may be true for some but not for all. Please don’t make generalizations and assumptions people in favor of forgiveness or those who choose to forgiveness. Also, make sure that you accurately understand what forgiveness is and is not as well as the contexts surrounding forgiveness before advising against it or making assumptions about the people who choose to forgive or advocate forgiveness for healing.

      • Dough Boy says:

        Of course forgiveness is a choice…

        A lot of people choose to not deal or look at their feelings all the time, it is nothing new.
        And forgiveness is a part of that, in fact to “forgive and forget” is one of the oldest “tricks” in the book for denying your feelings in my opinion.

        Also why should we not advise against forgiveness, if it has had negative effects in our lives? Shouldn’t we warn others of the dangers of forgiveness, if we know about them?

        Why can there never be a counter argument against forgiveness? Why should there only be one opinion, that forgiveness is “always best”?

        I HIGHLY suggest reading this article for people to make up their own mind whether they want to forgive or not?

        “Concerning Foregiveness: The Liberating Experience of Painful Truth” by Alice Miller”

        http://www.alice-miller.com/articles_en.php?lang=en&nid=48&grp=11

        But why should we turn a blind eye to something that could be destructive?

      • Forgiveness if often misunderstood says:

        If you knew anything about forgiveness, you would know that forgiveness is not FORGETTING! One does not forget a deep, personal, and unfair hurt, although one can forgive such a hurt. And the second step in Enright et al’s (1991) interpersonal forgiveness model is anger. This means that before one can forgive, he or she needs to get angry, in a safe and healthy way, about what was done unfairly to them. Forgiveness is not possible until one expresses and deals with all their feelings about being hurt. Knowledge and informed criticisms of forgiveness are always appreciated. Spouting off about what you think forgiveness is and is not or involves is NOT helpful!

  2. Dough Boy says:

    I agree with you magical.

    Also I believe that most people in the world (not all) have been brought up “not to feel” their own emotions, probably since childhood.
    And as a general rule, people in general, avoid their own emotions because they don’t know how to deal with the pain, or how to face their fear of feeling those scary emotions? So this mostly results in people resorting to avoiding their feelings all together, and then they’re left with a crushing emptiness inside?

    And of course this emptiness is then filled with addiction, or other behaviours. Anything, but, feel that pain, anger, humiliation etc. , all those ugly feelings. But we cannot live a full adult life without taking our feelings seriously. Only children are not affected by their denial and emotional blindness.

  3. MikeyAngry says:

    After reading this article and others about the topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that forgiveness is an arcane idea, and one that demands the offender be given lower status. In this country, we’re taught from birth to allow others to shit on us, almost indiscriminately, because ‘forgiveness’ is a ‘sign of being a bigger person’… Which basically means that when we forgive, we’re elevating ourselves above someone dumber and less mature than us.
    Accountability is a long forgotten staple of real life. It’s time to resume the practice.

  4. Dough Boy says:

    “If you knew anything about forgiveness, you would know that forgiveness is not FORGETTING!”

    What makes you such an expert on forgiveness then?

    And since when am I just “spouting” stuff on forigveness?
    I have read countless of articles such as this one and Alice Miller’s, plus I have my own experience about forgiveness. Why am I not allowed to comment on that? Unless you personally don’t like what I’m saying, and you try to make me shut up right?

    What you are saying is very rude! And it’s like saying that we can’t talk about the moon, because we have never personally visited the moon?

    Like I said, people can read this article for themselves and then make their mind up about forgiveness. They don’t have to be dictated by you
    about how they should think of forgiveness or not!?

    “Forgiveness if often misunderstood”

    “Concerning Foregiveness: The Liberating Experience of Painful Truth by Alice Miller”

    http://www.alice-miller.com/articles_en.php?lang=en&nid=48&grp=11

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