Updated: Sep 30
“You are not a less loving or whole person if there are certain things you do not forgive, and certain people whom you choose not to see.” - Harriet Lerner
If you’ve been a member of the Mother Wound Project community for awhile, then you already know we have an uncommon take on forgiveness. Our uncommon take is rooted in four key things:
The lived experiences of the people in our mother wound community
The lived experiences of the folks on our MWP team
The lived experiences of my counseling clients
Psychologist Harriet Lerner’s game-changing work on forgiveness
In this blog post, I’ve pulled from all four of these to give you 6 counterculture truths about forgiveness that you just might be needing to shift your mother wound healing journey (or any other healing journey) out of neutral and into drive.
May the healing be with you! [epic, not-at-all-corny Star Wars music]
1. Forgiveness is not universally healing
Forgiveness is often portrayed in our culture as a necessary part of every healing journey, but is it? The short answer: No.
In Why Won’t You Apologize relationship expert and psychologist Harriet Lerner highlights the risks of assuming forgiveness helps everyone when she writes, “If you believe that forgiveness, like gratitude, is a universally healing emotion, you may be inclined to encourage other people to forgive someone who hurt them. Your intentions may be good, but you run the risk of victimizing the hurt party all over again.”
Despite our good intentions, pressuring someone to forgive their abuser may invalidate their pain, dismiss their emotions, and overlook the complexity of their healing journey. This is the re-victimizing Harriet Lerner is warning us about.
Instead of encouraging a survivor to forgive, a better way to support them is to believe them about their own lived experience (e.g. the abuse), hold space for their valid feelings, and respect their autonomy. If forgiveness is right for them, they’ll figure that out.
2. Different people define forgiveness differently
My work as a counselor has taught me that forgiveness is not a one-size-fits-all thing.
For all of us, our understanding of forgiveness is influenced by a whole bunch of different things, including but not limited to our family of origin, our personal values, and our own life experiences.
Even a set of twins raised by the same two parents can have vastly different understandings of what it means to forgive. And that’s perfectly okay.
Instead of trying to pigeon-hole ourselves and everyone else into the “one right way” of approaching forgiveness, we’re much better off anticipating a wide variety of definitions and learning to ask good questions.
Allowing ourselves to be curious and ask the person we’re supporting, “What does forgiveness mean to you?” is infinitely more valuable than proclaiming “Forgiveness for you should mean this.”
“I want to forgive my father,” may appear to be a simple statement,” Harriet Lerner tells us, “but it won’t have the same meaning for everyone. For this reason I ask many questions that will help me to understand the meaning of this word for the particular individual who is seeking my help.”
When we create space for people to delve into their own unique thoughts and beliefs about forgiveness we honor their autonomy and trust their ability to discern for themselves the path to healing that’s right for them.
After all, if true healing came through conforming to societal norms about forgiveness (or any other thing), would any of us still be seeking it out?
3. Forgiveness is not the going rate for an apology
Harriet Lerner was the first person to put into words for me this wildly problematic misconception we have going on in our culture. This misconception says forgiveness is something we’re owed in return when we give someone we’ve hurt an apology.
I mean, isn’t late stage capitalism dreary enough? Do we really have to have transactional apologies now, too?!
Cashier at the Apology Store: Find everything okay today? One apology for you. [swipes apology across scanner] Will that be all for you? Okay, you’re total comes to forgiveness. [takes forgiveness card and swipes it]
That example is fake—obviously, lol—but without a doubt, somewhere in the world right now, this scene really is going down:
Someone’s mom: The nice man just told you he’s sorry. Now what do you say?
Someone (age 5): I forgive you nice man.
Someone’s mom: Good boy!
Even if we could all agree on what forgiveness means, do we really want to live in a world where we’re all parroting, “I forgive you” regardless of whether we’re feeling forgiving or not?
I mean, rote memorization can be fine for learning things like multiplication tables and math facts, but I’m having major Alexis vibes trying to apply the concept to something as nuanced as forgiveness.
Unpopularity aside—my friends who’ve known me since high school and college are not at all surprised—I’m going to go with Harriet Lerner again. She writes, “But a true apology does not ask the other person to do anything—not even to forgive.”
When we can resist the notion that forgiveness is something we’re owed for an apology, this allows us to focus on what really matters in an authentic apology: taking responsibility for the hurt we’ve caused, expressing empathy for the person we’ve hurt and remorse for our actions (or inactions), and making amends.
Something tells me that if we focused on giving (an apology) rather than on what we’re getting (forgiveness), the world would be a kinder, more loving place.
4. Abusers aren’t owed forgiveness
We’re allowed to not forgive those who’ve hurt or abused us just as much as we’re allowed to forgive those who’ve hurt or abused us. One choice is not any more moral or noble or courageous than the other.
Forgiveness is not something any of us owe to the people who’ve caused us pain, and this remains true even when others might clutch their pearls about it. And they’ll definitely clutch their pearls about it.
Why these busybodies are more concerned with victims forgiving their abusers than they are with abusers making things right with their victims will always elude me.
Can you imagine the folks who pressure abused people to forgive spending an equal amount of energy pressuring the abusers they’re seeking forgiveness for to make restitution with their victims? I sure can’t!
Both Harriet Lerner and I appreciate the quote by Janis Abrahms Spring that says, “You don’t restore your humanity when you forgive an unapologetic offender; he restores his humanity when he works to earn your forgiveness.”
Don’t let the double standard confuse you: When someone harms you, you’re not doing a disservice to them by not forgiving them. They, however, are doing a disservice to you by not holding themselves accountable for the harm they’ve caused you.
5. True healing doesn’t require forgiveness
Contrary to popular belief, forgiveness is not a prerequisite to healing from trauma. This myth is a persistent one, with even a few therapists and other mental health professionals touting its supposed necessity.
I’m not sure how to say this without sounding high and mighty, so I’ll just come out and say it: Whenever I hear a fellow support professional make the claim that forgiveness is required for healing, my mind immediately goes to this: “OR maybe you haven’t witnessed much healing for reasons.”
Hey, at some point we’re all beginners. Maybe the professionals who make this claim simply haven’t worked with enough people yet to know that healing really does happen all.the.time without forgiveness. For me, I’ve just witnessed healing without forgiveness way too many times in my private practice to pretend otherwise.
Like so many other things in life, once we personally witness a thing, we can no longer honestly say that thing doesn’t exist.
A psychologist with decades worth of experience under her belt, Harriet Lerner references her own therapeutic work with clients when she writes, “I’ve worked with people over many decades who are struggling with the forgiveness question and I know this one thing to be true: You do not need to forgive a person who has hurt you in order to free yourself from the pain of negative emotions.”
When we, like Harriet Lerner, recognize that forgiveness is not a mandatory step on the journey to healing, we can then relax into allowing our loved ones to navigate their healing at their own pace.
As much as we might wish we could create a step-by-step roadmap to recovery for the people we love, healing is ultimately a deeply personal process that varies from person to person.
6. No one has the right to pressure us to forgive
At the end of the day, the decision to forgive or not to forgive is yours to make, and yours alone. Someone who’s encouraging, urging, pressuring, even insisting that you forgive is recklessly driving entirely outside of their lane.
“Most importantly, it is no one else’s job—not that of your therapist, mother, teacher, spiritual guide, best friend, or relationship expert—to tell you to forgive—or not to,” writes Harriet Lerner.
This is your life, your healing journey, and your heart. Ignore all the unhelpful, unsolicited advice the healing journey is known for (that’s a blog post for a different day), and remember, you’re the one who gets to call the shots here.