Many health experts claim that we need to embrace forgiveness if we want to let go of anger, resentment, and thoughts of revenge after someone we care about has hurt us.
Phooey! We don’t have to forgive them at all. Our peace of mind isn’t about forgiving others. It’s about seeing how, in our emotional reactions to the behaviors of others, we’re likely to be replaying our own unresolved issues and stumbling unnecessarily into suffering.
A party to this psychological jabber, the highly regarded Mayo Clinic, a medical institute known for its research and education on health matters, has on its website a misleading article written by its own staff, titled “Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness,” that reads in part:
Nearly everyone has been hurt by the actions or words of another. Perhaps your mother criticized your parenting skills, your colleague sabotaged a project or your partner had an affair. These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of anger, bitterness or even vengeance — but if you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays most dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy.
This shallow advice says that letting go of grudges and bitterness depends on forgiveness. Forgiveness is sometimes appropriate, of course, especially when we have been gravely victimized. Yet as a remedy for conflict, it can easily be misused and misunderstood. To understand the bogus nature of the Mayo Clinic’s advice, let’s take a close look at each of the three examples from the institute’s posting.
1) Your mother criticized your parenting skills. Such criticism would only hurt you or make you angry if you yourself were sensitive to the feeling of being criticized. Otherwise, you would calmly consider whether your mother’s observation had any merit, or you would dismiss her words as an expression of her petulant nature and not take them personally.
Perhaps your mother has always been a critical person. That would likely indicate that, as a child, you absorbed criticism from her, or else you identified with others in the family who were criticized by her. This means you would have an unresolved conflict regarding criticism: You hate the feeling of it, yet you remain emotionally attached to the experience of it. Now, when mother criticizes your parenting skills, you get “hit up” once again with that old unresolved feeling of being criticized. You’re the one, however, who “takes a hit” on the feeling. To cover up your unconscious participation or collusion in this suffering, you feel offended by your mother and get angry at her. All along, you might have unconsciously provoked her in order to replay this old dynamic between the two of you. Forgiving her at some point might work as a painkiller to get you over the hump of this one incident—but it doesn’t do anything at all to resolve your sensitivity to feeling criticized by her or by others.
Before moving on to the second example, it’s important to note that the Mayo Clinic’s posting does say at one point far down in the text: “Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life.” This bit of advice comes too late. It’s basically just a footnote that’s provided long after the emphasis on forgiveness has been established. This passing comment is also too sketchy. It’s just advice; it doesn’t provide self-knowledge. It’s not helpful because we likely can’t release “the control and power of the offending person and situation” when we don’t see or understand how, unconsciously, we’re using the alleged offense to replay one of our unresolved ways of suffering.
2) Your colleague sabotaged a project. If you feel bitter or offended by your colleague’s sabotage, you must be taking it personally or it has cost you dearly in some way. To think that forgiveness of him is an option, you either feel that malice was intended in your colleague’s behavior or you’re possibly indulging in some sense of loss (for instance, of prestige or money) brought about by the wreckage of the project.
In other words, you could be holding a grudge as part of a cover-up of your unconscious determination to replay old unresolved feelings of being betrayed or victimized or your own unconscious expectations of failure. This raises the question of whether you might have chosen a partner who’s prone to sabotage. You might say you had no reason to suspect such a possibility, but chances are you ignored many warning signs. That means, rather than being bitter, you have some soul-searching to do in order not to repeat your own possible inclination toward self-defeat.
Your colleague’s sabotage likely arises from his or her own unresolved issues regarding failure, unconscious passivity, and being seen as a disappointment to others. When such emotional weaknesses are unconscious and unresolved, all of us can be compelled to act out in a way that produces self-defeat. If you were to respond appropriately to your partner’s sabotage, you might, rather than indulging in the hurt done to you, be concerned about his or her entanglement in self-defeat.
The situation, if confronted honestly and bravely, can become a valuable learning experience for all, not something you have to bring yourself to forgive.
3) Your partner had an affair. This is the most complicated of the three examples and, indeed, some forgiveness may be called for. (The more grievous the offense, and the more our own innocence is undeniable, the more that forgiveness is an appropriate option.) Nonetheless, if you’re interested in the best possible outcome for you and your partner, you need to examine your role in his or her infidelity. Usually before infidelity happens, an intimate relationship has begun to careen off course. Each individual is party to the growing divide.
Let’s look at your possible role. Were you taking your partner for granted? Were you lacking in the ability to affirm your love? Is betrayal or abandonment a theme in your live? Are you afraid of intimacy? Were you passive or codependent in the relationship? Did you overlook your partner’s past history of disloyalty? Are you more negative and more difficult to live with than you realize? What you might have to struggle with, more so than whether to forgive your partner, is self-forgiveness as your inner critic assails you for being a foolish dupe of your partner’s disloyalty.
Clearly, the act of forgiveness is misused when we use it to identify unfairly the other person as the prime culprit, conveniently covering up our own dysfunctional participation in the contentious situation.
The Mayo Clinic is only one of many providers of third-rate psychological knowledge. What we might need to forgive are our “experts” in mental health who have been providing us with such poor fare.