Karin Crompton, The Independent
Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. I don’t know who first said that, but they’re right.
They’re also full of it. According to this mantra — which often substitutes “unforgiveness” for the word resentment — I’m supposed to forgive whoever I’m angry with to release the animosity and therefore toxicity in my body. Once I do so, sincerely releasing my grudge, I give myself a psychic detox, open my chakras, raise my vibration, do as Jesus did, walk in Gandhi’s footsteps, become a role model, lower my blood pressure, and restore clean energy to my body (my vessel!)
In this scenario, I’m not concerned with whether the other person has sincerely apologised, changed their behaviour or shown a pinch of remorse. The act of exoneration is good for me.
But what if forgiveness, rather than resentment, is the real poison I’ve been drinking all along?
At this time of year, forgiveness ranks just behind diets in the public psyche. Proponents urge us to start the year fresh and unencumbered as we chase our other goals and lose the weight, both physical and emotional. It sounds nice, and it’s lovely advice for many. But for others, it’s potentially dangerous.
Just as the “good vibes only” culture came under scrutiny and spawned a new phrase — “toxic positivity” — so too should we examine forgiveness. Toxic forgiveness is blanket statement advice that falls into predictable patterns. The advice is hard to argue with because it sounds logical, and hard to call out because we can too easily be written off as eternally angry or bitter for doing so. Or, as the narcissist ex in my life might say, irrational.
It quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient: “Forgiveness is nothing less than the way we heal the world.” But this approach also lacks context, cherry-picks quotes, and leaves out any meaningful guidance. Importantly, it leaves out rightful repercussions for the offender. Tutu himself said forgiveness does not mean “pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong.”
Forgiveness can, then, sometimes turn toxic. “In fact, research suggests that forgiveness may in some cases increase the likelihood of revictimization,” social and health psychologist Juliana Breines wrote in a 2014 Psychology Today article titled, “Does Forgiveness Have a Dark Side?”
Breines cited a study of newlyweds conducted by psychology professor James McNulty, which “found that spouses who expressed forgiveness more readily experienced steady rates of psychological and physical aggression from their partners over a four-year period, whereas less forgiving spouses experienced a decrease in aggression.”
McNulty wrote: “In particular, the tendency to express forgiveness may lead offenders to feel free to offend again by removing unwanted consequences for their behavior (e.g. anger, criticism, rejection, loneliness) that would otherwise discourage reoffending.”
In “Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope” — a book that founder Robert Enright, a professor of educational psychology, penned with psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons — the authors suggest the findings might demonstrate that “those who score highest on this scale are doing the most excusing or condoning, which could make them vulnerable to further abuse. In other words, those who excuse may not seek a proper justice solution upon ‘forgiving.’ ”
Perhaps you can relate; many people have experience with an ex, a boss or a former friend who made grand apologies for unreasonable behavior and demanded forgiveness in return — before repeating the behavior days later. Gaslighting from these kinds of manipulative people, combined with a culture that encourages “accepting a fixer-upper” and forgiving endlessly, can leave victims in a confusing, vicious cycle. Bland clichés about the art of forgiveness can end up cajoling people — especially women, who are taught to stay quiet and please — into eroding their own boundaries.
My own compromise? I don’t forgive, but I also don’t dwell. My release and relief do not come from a traditional act of forgiveness, but instead from recognizing that someone wronged me and then sincerely accepting the idea that I did not deserve it. Further — and most importantly — I accept that it is not my responsibility to make things right.
The International Forgiveness Institute labels this “moving on despite a lack of remorse from the offender” strategy as a type of forgiveness. That forgiveness does not mean condoning or excusing the behavior, nor does it come pre-packaged with forgetting, they say. It is more about the release of active vengeance and anger.
Then there’s a whole other conversation about the way our society foists the burden of forgiveness onto those we’ve oppressed; how the oppressor expects — and relies upon — the oppressed to forgive and, most importantly, forget.
“To ask somebody who is the victim of abuse to simply give carte blanche forgiveness is a psychologically meaningless and potentially really harmful task to set them,” Friedman added.
Let’s dump the poison out of the chalice and take a more well-rounded look at forgiveness. There are other ways to move forward.
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