Forgiveness shaped by the stories of people’s lives

If you had asked me what I thought forgiveness was when I was a young adult, I probably would have said that it is something you do for others—others who have wronged you in some way, to give them a break and let them know that you are no longer angry or upset with them.

As I’ve matured emotionally over the years, my view of forgiveness has evolved significantly. Some of my change in perspective is a result of my own cumulative life experiences, and some of it is from stories of people’s lives I have read about. However, much of the influence has come from working as a psychiatrist and hearing the life stories of my patients.

I hear stories of both failure and success in life. I regularly see people who have been wronged, or even severely violated, by others in ways they would rather forget. None of them forget, but some certainly find ways to more easily move forward in life while others remain “stuck” and in some way immobilized or impaired because of their emotional scars.

Although many of these patients have been severely wronged by others, I believe that we all can learn from their lessons and apply some of these principles to the more mundane but typical daily events where we may need to consider forgiving others.

How would I describe forgiveness today?

  • Forgiveness is a life decision that you make: a decision–not to forget about the event (that usually isn’t possible)–but, to “release” it from your life so that it no longer has power over you. I’ve seen many people successfully “take back their power” and decide that they’ve had enough of living in the victim role.
  • Forgiveness is something you do primarily for yourself. It is not necessarily a kind gesture toward those who have wronged you, although secondarily it could be, especially if you are forgiving someone with whom you wish to remain in a relationship.
  • You don’t need to tell those you are forgiving that you’re forgiving them. Certainly it’s your choice to do so, and doing so may have a healing or closure quality to it for some victims, but it’s still possible to forgive and keep it to yourself.
  • To truly be forgiveness, it is an act that must come from deep within, from an inner knowing. If it’s done out of guilt (“I really ‘should’ forgive them”) or coercion, then it’s not really forgiveness. Saying that you’ve forgiven someone does not mean that you have. Only you know when, inside your own soul,  you’ve truly let the past insult go.
  • Forgiveness can be instantaneous, but for most people it’s a process that occurs over time.
  • Forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of great strength and courage.
  • Forgiving yourself can be a monumental life-enhancing experience. None of us is perfect. Continually keeping yourself down or making yourself feel guilty or miserable because of past mistakes does not right any wrongs or improve the universe.

Patients I have seen who truly forgive often heal more quickly from their emotional wounds and are more likely to function better. In my personal experience, I’ve seen patients recover more quickly from conditions such as anxiety, depression, and even PTSD after making the life decision to forgive. Their relationships with others in their lives often improve as well.

Why doesn’t everyone who has been wronged choose to forgive?

Pride is one major reason. Forgiving feels like waving the white flag of surrender to some people. They think that it means they’re giving up or giving in. I often hear statements from patients indicating that those who have wronged them don’t “deserve” to be forgiven. They “deserve” to have others angry with them. Forgiving them would mean letting them off easy.

But there’s a saying: “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.”

Exactly.

Remaining angry with someone does not punish him or her. It punishes the one who is angry. And so a wrong from the past becomes a perpetual emotional barrier to moving on in life. The victim remains in an ongoing state of being victimized even though the insults from the past are long over. The one who has been wronged is then at risk of falling further into a victim role, not functioning well or not living life to the fullest. At the same time, the perpetrator has ironically moved on with his own life.

Wallowing in self pity, stewing in anger, holding onto one’s grievances, and even staying in the victim role all have some degree of twisted but seductive appeal. But staying in this low energy state is akin to harboring an emotional cancer that is ultimately self-destructive.

What can people do to get themselves to forgive?

There is no easy answer. This can be a long-term psychotherapy topic for some, some who never find a way to forgive. Yet others simply “do it.”  Forgiveness is a choice, but an admittedly complex and difficult one for many.

For the more minor daily insults we all may suffer from others, people can make the choice to simply let these occurrences go. No, none of us should allow ourselves to be pushed around or mistreated. Being assertive is wise, but holding grudges is not. Especially when it comes to getting along with loved ones, it’s better to remember that each of us is human and therefore fallible. We should choose our battles wisely–when faced with the choice of being right or being kind (or, substitute being right or being at peace), choosing to be kind (and therefore at peace) is the path to forgiveness.

What about for those who have been more seriously wronged by others?

It’s the same idea of eventually releasing what has happened, but it tends to be a much greater decision. Most patients I have seen in this category have simply gotten to the point in life where they have said loudly to themselves, “Enough!” They’ve had enough pain and immobilization–enough of living in their own private hells since the wrongs have occurred. They decide that they do not want to waste one more minute of their days or have one more fretful sleepless night because of what someone did to them in the past. It’s time for them to take their power back.

Jeffrey Knuppel is a psychiatrist who blogs at The Positive Medical Blog, where this post was originally published.

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  • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

    And sometimes, the battle chooses you . . . and taking power back means you fight back – even when it’s hard – and even as you move on with your life.

    To promote the notion that someone wronged who refuses to forgive is somehow “mentally-ill” does a great disservice to those who are wronged and seeking justice.

    I simply don’t believe in “cheap grace” when it comes to criminal actions.

    It would be very nice if our regulatory bodies and government/law enforcement agencies felt the same way.

    • http://www.positivemedicalblog.com/ Jeffrey Knuppel, MD

      I agree completely that nobody who refuses to forgive is “mentally ill.”

  • Finn

    I have to agree. Some actions–like rape of a child by a parent–are unforgiveable, yet a great deal of both pop & professional psychology seems to be devoted to getting those who were raped to forgive their rapists. The idea that not to forgive means that one is “[w]allowing in self pity, stewing in anger, holding onto one’s grievances, and even staying in the victim role” sets up a false dichotomy: either forgive your attacker or you make yourself suffer endlessly (which sounds an awful lot like victim-blaming to me).

    Anger need not be consuming; it can, as noted above, be the fire that fuels the drive for justice. Forgiving one’s attacker is not the only way to avoid self-pity or to step out of the victim role; fighting for justice, for oneself or for others who’ve suffered similar assaults, works even better than forgiveness for many people. There’s more than one way to move on; forgiveness is far from the only route.

    • http://www.positivemedicalblog.com/ Jeffrey Knuppel, MD

      I agree that nobody should be coerced in any way to forgive. As I said, it’s a very personal decision. As a psychiatrist, I never pressure anyone to forgive. Not to forgive does not necessarily mean to wallow in self pity, etc., but it certainly does for some people. As you pointed out, forgiveness is not the only way to move on. But what I wrote about in this post is largely based on my own anecdotal experiences as a practicing psychiatrist. For many years I’ve spent about 1/2 of my professional time treating prison inmates, and I have seen countless examples of inmates who have chosen on their own to forgive, and they have found a way to be at peace and to move on. Likewise, I’ve seen many many more who know nothing but anger, hatred, and resentment–and it’s not serving them well; it’s not working for them. It simply keeps them stuck and devoting far too much life energy to the past, keeping them from moving forward.

      • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

        Anecdotally (and with regards to what I endured at the hands of my hometown hospital – and continue to endure courtesy of the corrupt N.C. legal system), a lot of people have hammered me with the forgiveness clap-trap for years.

        But theraputically, as it applies to my life and my cause, it does not work for me . . . and I feel strongly that all too often, therapists (and clergy) make good/struggling people feel forty-times-worse (and horribly guilty/unworthy) because they cannot embrace wholesale forgiveness as the be-all-and-end-all measure of mental health and even faith.

        Like others who have e-mailed me to discuss this post, I think that true peace does not come for some of us until we see the perpetrator(s) of our miseries apologize and/or brought low . . . or one of us dies.

        I have all of my mental faculties . . . I am a Christian who tithes 10% of my gross . . . I’ve worked in nearly 40 locations (as an independent contractor/locums) in the twelve years since what happened, happened (in short, I’ve moved on and been quite productive – far from “stuck”) . . . I don’t drown my sorrows in drugs or drink . . . and I’ve found an outlet (blogging) via which to vent my anger and frustration with a fundamentlly-broken system of medico-legal oversight and perhaps someday change the world. Indeed, my anger and my sadness and my disgust motivate me to perservere.

        I’d like to share something from my own blog that speaks to the concept of turning the other cheek:

        “I have no qualms about “going negative” on people who have behaved so negatively . . . Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves on a battlefield:

        I keep going back to the way this nation (greatly blessed) was founded. It wasn’t because our Founding Fathers turned the other cheek. Tea in the harbor and all that. Lincoln’s generals trounced the enemies of the union at Gettysburg . . . and drove a stake through the heart of the Confederacy during Sherman’s march. They weren’t “nice” about it. Hitler’s ovens were not shut down by Churchill sitting down and shutting up . . . or the Allies staying “positive”. I think God expects good men and women (as individuals and collectively) speak and to act when faced with great injustice.

        So I’m standing and speaking, and if it’s ugly/blunt so be it. We don’t live in a pretty world.”

        And sometimes forgiveness, quite frankly, is the EASY way out.

        • http://www.positivemedicalblog.com Jeffrey Knuppel, MD

          Dr. Johnson–I agree wholeheartedly that in life we often must fight for what we believe is right. However, I don’t see standing up for oneself and forgiveness as being opposite or mutually exclusive concepts.

          In any event, I am not here to try to prove that I am right and that you are wrong. If you find that your current approach to your struggles, whatever they may be (I don’t know about your personal situation you refer to), is bringing you the results that you want and helping you to be more at peace, then maybe it’s working for you. Nobody has to forgive anybody, and I’m certainly not here to suggest to you personally that you need to forgive.

          All I can say is that what I’ve written is true for both myself and for many of the patients I have treated. The purpose of my post was to share those observations by writing about them. I was well aware when I wrote the piece that some people would not hear my message regardless of how I said it and that others simply would disagree. And that’s okay.

          • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

            Dr. Knuppel, I’m not trying to prove I’m right and you’re wrong either.

            But I am saying that your way is not the ONLY way – and that all too often well-meaning therapists (and clergy) over-play their hand . . . and, in my opinion (as someone who has a lot to forgive . . . FYI knowing more about it is as simple as clicking my name), do more damage to already-damaged souls than good.

            I think that’s something you should consider in your practice . . . as I consider your message in my own life.

  • RD

    Resentments are like peeing your pants. You feel it, everyone else sees it, and you are the one who looks foolish.

    • http://www.positivemedicalblog.com/ Jeffrey Knuppel, MD

      RD–that’s a great quote. Thanks!

      • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

        After careful consideration (it’s bothered me since I first saw it), I am compelled to comment that, far from being “great”, RD’s comment is condescending and snarky.

  • http://www.weightlosscoachingmd.com Melanie Lane MD

    This post is beautifully written. When you refuse to forgive, you make yourself victim to the situation which hurt you over and over. It is no longer your abuser driving your mental anguish, but you. You are the one in charge of what goes on in your head. Forgiving is generally not done for the perpetrator, but for the one who was hurt.

    As Dr Knuppel says, forgiving is not the same as forgetting, nor does it imply that what happened to you was right. I have had traumatic things happen to me. When I indulged year after year in anger and resentment and hatred, reliving those events over and over in my head, the result was devastating depression and substance abuse.

    Through forgiveness, I have relieved myself of a huge burden of grief, sadness, and anger. My depression has lifted and the need to numb myself with drugs has dissipated.

    Forgiveness makes room for healing and for compassion. It isn’t anger that motivates me to help others that have suffered similar grief, or any grief for that matter. It’s compassion. Anger just begets more anger.

    It is not okay with me for someone to abuse a child. But fantasizing about hurting or killing someone who has makes me no better than that abuser, especially if I act on those thoughts. The way to end violence is to teach nonviolence. Nonviolence begins with forgiveness and compassion.

    • http://www.positivemedicalblog.com/ Jeffrey Knuppel, MD

      Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad to hear that you’ve found a way to peace in your own life.

  • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

    Spoken like a guilty man/woman.

  • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

    The 7:06 pm post was addressed to RD.

    Melanie, you hit all of the usual talking points, but I am afraid that once again, I must disagree vehemently with your premise that everyone is best served by embracing forgiveness . . . or that the act of forgiveness serves as some kind of measure of mental health or even faith.

    Nor is everyone seeking justice after being wronged fantasizing about hurting the people who hurt them . . . or suffering from depression . . . or a substance abuser.

    Furthermore, I embrace grief and anger and sadness as part of the human experience that should not and cannot always be erased. Those things can be tremendous motivators for positive change.

  • Kay

    Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. I pray every day to forgive this doctor for something that happend thirty years ago. What he did was worse than a death in the family. One day before I die I hope to forgive him.

  • MLR

    The article by De. Knuppel was insightful. The comments that it encouraged added levels of meaning. The article and comments make this is one of the best treatments of the problem of forgiveness that I have seen. Very useful for helping clients with this issue.

  • Molly Ciliberti, RN

    To not forgive is like hating someone and then you take poison every day hoping that they will die! You are the one suffering, not the person you hate. Forgiveness gives more to the forgiver than the forgiven. The burden of hate is gone and you can begin life afresh. It gives both of you a renewal of spirit and a lightness to the heart.

  • Molly Ciliberti, RN

    Dr. Mary Johnson, my mother abused me physically and emotionally and she had a personality disorder and eventually Alzheimer’s. I hated her for decades and had clinical depression. Finally I realized that no one would choose her life, no one. She was ill and actually was amoral (she made up right and wrong as she went along.) I could go on forever hating her and in doing so punishing myself with my depression and pain or I could choose to get help (Lexapro and cognitive behavior therapy) and not let the past control my future. I only wish I had done it earlier. No more hate, no more depression, no more lugging around the heavy baggage that weighed me down. By forgiving her, I was free. Forgiveness is real and the act of forgiving is so liberating and wonderful.

    • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

      Molly, forgiveness worked for you. I can tell you that it will not work for me in this instance.

      I am well aware of the benefits of forgiveness – and letting go of the past/toxic relationships. However, the people who did me dirty this time were not sick. They deliberately and methodically and with great malice did everything they could to destroy me/my career/my sanity/my happiness. They thought it was FUNNY. And even as I move on in life (the past often dictates your future), I will chase them until they are held accountable. I don’t wish them dead. I want them fired for their misdeeds and/or in jail.

      In short, I can do something about what they did. My anger and my pain spurs me on. And I will continue to work towards towards bringing these men to justice and hopefully even plugging the holes-of-oversight I fell through.

      You could call it a hobby. Although it was not always so, a part of me now relishes the chase and the battle. Fighting back and speaking out and being a fly in their ointment is what liberated and empowered me.

  • http://www.positivemedicalblog.com Jeffrey Knuppel, MD

    Dr. Mary Johnson –(I’m replying to your message above ending in “…as I consider your message in my own life.)
    Point taken. Psychotherapists, clergy and others should not cram the idea of forgiveness down anybody’s throat or try to make people feel guilty for not forgiving. I never push this issue with patients, but I might introduce it more as a gentle question in some situations to see where the person stands on the issue as it pertains to them. In a psychotherapy context, it can be a very helpful topic to explore, but it should be done without pressure or judgment. A good therapist knows that they must meet the patient “where they’re at” and not try to push their own agendas or values on the patient.

    • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

      Unfortunately, Dr. Knuppel, the “gentle” approach is not something I’ve experienced personally – either from professionals/clergy or, indeed, on these blogs.

      There’s a whole lotta judgement out there – unloaded on those of us who won’t make everybody’s day easier/less complicated by just “getting over it” and “moving on”.

      But as I said on my blog today, the story of my life is NOT going to be that I rolled over and just took the crap these lying posers dished out.

      And I’ve hung in this thread so long because, in addition to what I have experienced, I have seen good-friends-(plural)-seriously-hurting marginalized and demoralized even more by the theraputic agendas of others . . . particularly as it pertains to forgiveness.

      It’s not a light switch. Or magic.

      • http://www.positivemedicalblog.com Jeffrey Knuppel, MD

        In the end only you can decide if and when forgiveness is the right path for you. Best wishes to you.

        To those others (Dr. Mary, the rest of what I have written here is not directed at you) who may be struggling with the issue of forgiveness, consider that we humans all behave as we do for a reason, even though we may not be consciously aware of what that reason is. In order to uncover this in psychotherapy, patients are often asked to imagine what life would be like without their “problem.” On the surface people often say they don’t want their problem, but they often come to realize that it is serving a function in their lives, although not usually a healthy one. Sometimes figuring this out can be a major shift in moving forward.

        I want to reiterate that forgiveness is a very emotionally-laden topic that affects nearly every person in some way. Some people are sure to skim this post quickly having already made up their minds about my message without really hearing what I was trying to say. If that is the case for you, please reread the post.

        My message was definitely not to roll over, bury your head in the sand, be nicey-nice and pretend that all is wonderful in the world. I work with patients who have survived hardcore traumas, often repeatedly, and I’m not nearly as naive about the evil elements that exist in this world as you might think I am for having written about this topic. Quite the contrary; for many patients, moving on and not losing sleep any more about the past (while their perpetrators have long since forgotten about them) is a choice that frees them.

  • RD

    Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.

  • RD

    The above isn’t mine, it’s Aristotle. I’d add, ‘and for the right amount of time’

  • LPC1

    Everyone has the right to decide if they want to forgive or not. Everyone can decide if they want to continue being a victim or a survivor. Change is difficult and often scary because it is an unknown but staying in the same place, even if painful, is not scary since a person knows exactly what to expect. Seems like such a loss to live a life with being a “victim” as one’s identity, when being a survivor could be so much more powerful. Sad thing is the rest of the world may not see a person as being a victim but that is how the person sees himself/herself. The choice always is present.

    • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

      LPC1, I would respectfully submit that IF everyone has “the right” to decide how they approach trauma or wrong-doing . . . and if it’s not your intention to pass judgment on those very personal, very individual decisions . . . perhaps folks (especially professionals) could START by not labeling those who have a hard time with forgiveness as perpetual victims (with all negative connotations implied) . . . as opposed to survivors.

      WHY must people be put into neat little boxes?

      You CAN be both victim and survivor (in addition to a whole lot of other descriptive terms) – and not forgive. I found my “power” in that choice – and I see myself quite clearly, thank you very much.

      I think I got in all the buzz words.

  • LPC1

    My comment was not directed at you personally. I do not know your story, that is yours alone. Sorry if you felt this was personal to you.

  • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

    LPC1, my story is not “mine alone” (kind of the point of me being in the blogosphere) but that’s another issue.

    I wish that some of the folks here would STOP trying to marginalize people (on this thread it’s primarily me) who disagree not only with Dr. Knuppel’s premise, but are genuinely offended/bothered by the judgemental and snarky way it’s being made – in other words (and as someone who e-mailed me about this thread noted) . . . it’s hard not to take it personally if you’re being told (by professionals no less) that if you don’t forgive something/someone, it’s akin to peeing in your pants and you “look foolish”. Not-to-mention, we’re victims. We’re “scared” (not). It’s “sad”.

    You didn’t mean it. But you did. Come on.

    RD’s second quote (of Aristotle) was pretty much on the money – the first notsomuch.

  • RD

    Dr. Mary Johnson, if you will notice, my posts are in response to this touching and well written article…nothing I have written is all about you. They are not directed to you. I actually did not even read your first post until after I had read your very personal and disparaging claims that I was “guilty”, “condescending”, and “snarky”. In the spirit of this article, I forgive you.

    • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

      So, telling people who don’t forgive that they’re peeing in their pants and look foolish ISN’T “disparaging” and shouldn’t be taken the least bit personally?

      I am willing to concede that the message of forgiveness works for some – but very seriously, I think some of the folks on this thread need to THINK about the way they are delivering it.

      For the record, after your second comment (which was actually Aristotle’s and much more perceptive than the first) I forgave you.

      • Plato

        The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions.

        • http://www.drjshousecalls.blogspot.com Dr. Mary Johnson

          Nice try, Plato. First, I’m a she. And I’m wondering what made me so “partisan”?

          Maybe we could start with what this doctor-formerly-in-public-service has to forgive (and what didn’t get fixed in “reform”):

          http://drjshousecalls.blogspot.com/2010/02/national-health-services-corps.html

          I’ve got one for you: Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely – Lord Acton

  • http://www.nourishourselves.blogspot.com Marie

    Wonderful, humane, wise observations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience Dr. Knuppel.

    I struggle with PTSD and listen to Belleruth Naparstek’s terrific guided imagery CD’s designed for dealing with that issue. One of the meditations is imagery for forgiveness. I didn’t listen to it for over a year. My thought process was ‘Yeah, I don’t THINK so!”. Feeling very magnanimous one day, I deigned to play it. I was amazed to find that it was a meditation focused on my heart, not on giving anything to someone else. But in healing my heart, I am able to let go of the anger that fuels an inability to forgive. It’s not easy, it’s not linear, but it is freeing.