Forgiveness is a fundamental life skill that we are not taught and when used correctly, is a superpower that can transform lives
The term ‘toxic forgiveness’ popped up recently during an Oprah discussion with psychologist and author Nedra Glover Tawwab. Toxic forgiveness is defined by Tawwab as “an unhealthy way that people pretend to be unharmed, over it, or forgetful of the offense. Forgiving to keep the peace or people-pleasing is not healthy for your mental health or your relationship.”
In a different session, this time for Red Table Talk, Tawwab described how “I sit down with people and hear them beating themselves up because they want to forgive, they want to be ‘over it,’ but sometimes it is a process, and when we force it, it’s unhealthy for us.” To avoid this, Tawwab says that “A healthier version of forgiveness looks like acceptance of the event, learning to let go of some of the anger, and feeling less consumed by it.”
Forgiveness, she says, is a choice. “I think we believe that unforgiveness is being mean to people. You can be kind and not like people.” We all have psychic baggage. Mountains of the stuff. Human beings are resentment magnets, constantly monitoring and processing the behaviour of others, so that we may protect ourselves. We bear grudges. We hold onto things that other people have done or not done to us; we are hardwired for it. But does it really serve us? Or is holding onto resentments — even for genuinely bad things done to us by others — self-corroding and self-defeating? How can we release these feelings and free ourselves?
Forgiveness is a wildly misunderstood idea which we still associate with formality, religion, piety, major drama, or being taken for a mug. But what it really is, says Somerset-based author and coach Barbara J Hunt, is “a fundamental life skill that is rarely taught” and is “for everyday use.” It is, she says, a “superpower.”
Her book, Forgiveness Made Easy, begins with a clear definition from the late psychologist Dr K Bradford Brown: “Forgiveness is the absolute refusal to hold ill will against someone (or something) for what they did or didn’t do.” It’s not about the other person — it’s about yourself.
“Forgiveness is an internal state of what you do with what has happened,” says Hunt. It is not about martyrdom, or suppressing feelings, or sucking something up. “In the case of, say, adultery, choosing to forgive is very different from choosing to stay in the relationship while not forgiving.”
Hunt lists five main obstacles which can block our ability to forgive: misunderstanding (of what forgiveness is and is not); vulnerability (being afraid to forgive); ego (protecting ourselves from uncomfortable feelings); resentment (defined by Dr Brown as “Ill will held over time against something or someone for ‘good reason’”); and know-how (having a forgiveness method that works).
“Sometimes not forgiving is about point-scoring,” says Hunt. “And holding onto resentment makes us feel powerful, it gives power to the powerless, yet really it just means you feel the same resentful feelings over and over. Unresolved resentment can have a negative physiological impact.”
Hunt cites dramatic cases of forgiveness such as school shootings in the US, where parents of murdered children forgive the killer. Sometimes, such extraordinary cases are motivated by religious beliefs, but equally, it can be a basic survival tool to help process traumatic bereavement without being eaten alive by hate.
“I don’t believe anything is unforgivable,” she says. “Wrong, yes, illegal, yes, horrific, yes — but unforgiveable? Where do you go from there? How do people forgive the Holocaust?” And yet people do forgive the unforgiveable. From Victor Frankl to Martin Luther King, Kim Phuc to Nelson Mandela, there have been and continue to be extraordinary examples of how the human heart can reconcile actions and events we might consider beyond forgivable.
A common misconception around forgiveness is that it is all about these kinds of major traumatic events, rather than for the ordinary every day. “It’s not just for the big things — we all continually hold multiple resentments against everyone else,” says Hunt. “Everyone needs to forgive parents, siblings, friends, relationships — otherwise we end up like the Ouroboros, devouring ourselves.
“Forgiveness is completely misunderstood. It’s taught in a way that’s inaccessible and sanctimonious, yet it’s key to harmonious relationships, and is transformative within relationships. And it’s totally down to us — the only chess piece we have any control over in the game of life is our own.”
Another misconception is that we have to be in the same room as the person we are forgiving, that we have to directly address them face to face, and that they have to somehow respond. What if we can’t, or won’t, or they are absent, or unwilling, or dead? We can still say the words — we can still address the person, even if they aren’t physically present. The outcome — letting go — will be the same, says Hunt.
“Forgiveness work allows us to express the pain out loud — we get to say the words aloud,” she explains. “When you say things out loud, it’s as good as saying it directly to the actual person. It allows you to clear your field. And yes, sometimes you do have to keep the other person at a distance but that doesn’t mean you can’t forgive them. It’s about having a practice that frees your heart.”
Once you have forgiven someone, you can then grieve for whatever it was that happened. The idea of this can be terrifying, which is why so many of us choose to hold onto our resentments, as they are more comfortable and familiar. “We are as hopeless about grief as we are about forgiveness,” says Hunt. “Yet resentment is like setting yourself on fire and hoping the smoke will bother the other person.”
Rather than maintaining a rigid defence, she outlines a seven-step approach (right), for letting go of anger and resentment, so we can stop wasting our energy and resources on it.
“The potential for greater peace is enormous once we have done forgiveness work — our hearts are open and free, and not filled with resentment. We can then connect with, and serve, the wider group.” Hunt pauses. “Unless we learn to do this, to forgive from the heart, then we really are f**ked.”