Why You Don’t Always Have to Forgive, According to a Psychologist

Why You Don’t Always Have to Forgive, According to a Psychologist
Photo: fizkes, Shutterstock

When we have been wronged by someone, common advice usually includes us forgiving the wrongdoer. As we know, that means we must seek to “cease feeling resentment against (an offender)” or “to give up resentment of or claim to requital.” Many times, our collective imagination about what forgiveness looks like includes the active participation of the offender in earning the forgiveness, or it includes us simply letting go of the offence on our own.

“It’s important how you define forgiveness,” said Dan Neuharth, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and author of the Psychology Today blog Narcissism Demystified. “I view forgiveness as a continuum.”

On one end of the continuum is exoneration, where the slate is wiped clean, while on the other end is finding a way to accept and let go of what happened, which may or may not be communicated to the offending person.

Forgiveness can be complicated

Forgiveness gets a lot more complicated when the person who did the hurting won’t accept the impact of their actions and aren’t willing to put in the work to change. It’s in these circumstances that the process of forgiveness either needs to look different, or it needs to be foregone altogether.

“It’s not necessarily about forgiving that person, it’s about finding a way to let go of the bitterness and blame,” Neuharth said. In the case when there is active harm going on, whether physical or emotional, by necessity, this is when you have to really consider what the healing process should look like.

“You have to think long and hard whether forgiveness is even wise, or whether you want to give that person access to you,” Neuharth said. “A sense of safety is more important than forgiveness.”

Forgiveness requires vulnerability

As Neuharth notes, there is an innate sense of vulnerability in forgiving or letting go, as that can be an acknowledgment of the risk that it could happen again, especially if you decide to have on-going contact with the person who hurt you. “It’s hard to acknowledge how vulnerable we are,” he said.

When it comes to that vulnerability, it’s important to recognise and acknowledge what the cost may be if it were to happen again. “Some people are able to move on, or say, ‘I can let this go, and I trust myself to set healthy boundaries and be vigilant, and even if it happens again, I know I can survive,’” Neuharth said. “But other people may feel like, ‘If this happens, it’s going to be costly, it’s going to hurt me, and I don’t want that.’ Neither is wrong, it has to be what works for you.”

Log in to comment on this story!