It’s one of the central tenets of modern spirituality: if you forgive those who’ve hurt you, you’ll set yourself free. A Course in Miracles preaches it, and so do plenty of spiritual gurus. When I first started working with clients in the spiritual space, I dutifully passed on this mantra, but in the past 12 months I’ve started to distance myself from this message as it no longer feels true for me. In fact, the idea of forgiveness now feels downright unhelpful.
Part of my discomfort stems from the fact that forgiveness puts the onus on the hurt party to get over what happened, without holding the perpetrator accountable for their actions. In my experience, that leads to more resentment rather than true peace. It also doesn’t encourage the hurt party to reflect on any underlying issues or wounds that might have contributed to the situation – which means they may well attract the same situation down the track.
This has been on my mind recently after a hurtful comment from my mother brought up a lot of painful childhood memories. I grew up in a household where difficult emotions were feared more than nuclear war (and believe me, in the ‘80s, we all feared that a LOT). Often when we kids were upset, we were told we it was just because we were tired. Our feelings were instantly discredited. Sometimes we’d be shipped off to bed immediately until we could control our emotions. Sometimes our parents would talk over our heads – as if we were invisible – about how tired we must be. Rarely was effort made to enquire about how we felt, or why. Our feelings were disregarded because they made adults uncomfortable. As a kid who just wanted to be seen and understood, the message was clear: the way you feel doesn’t matter (which tends to be internalised as: you don’t matter). Also, this: there’s something wrong with you if you aren’t happy.
I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how unhelpful those messages are, and how much they’ve contributed to my challenges in dealing with the normal range of emotions we all face in adulthood. Not to mention, how it’s shaped my historic tendency to run veryveryveryfast from difficult feelings, instead of recognising them as an opportunity for growth and change.
Recently something happened which brought it all up again. In that moment, I felt the reverberation of all the moments when I had expressed fears and struggles and was ignored or told to get over it.
As an apparently emotionally intelligent adult, I tried to look for ways to comfort myself and make peace with the situation. And do you know what? Forgiveness was not one of them.
I believe that when we’re dealing with a deep wound, particularly anything concerning our family of origin, and boundaries and shielding work isn’t cutting it, forgiveness isn’t the best route to peace. Even when you understand why someone has done what they’ve done – and you may even have empathy for them – the wound might not heal. I know that pretending to be happy is my mother’s safety mechanism, and that she doesn’t have the capacity to validate and support (so-called) anyone’s unpleasant feelings, because she is so terrified of her own. But knowing all that doesn’t make me hurt any less.
The night before this recent incident happened, I had a dream where I was with my brother in the shopping strip near where we grew up. As we hopped out of the car, a random little girl in a pink jumper ran up to us and jumped into our car, and we couldn’t get her to leave. We considered taking her to the local police station, but we really couldn’t be bothered, so instead we tried to convince her to go find her parents. However she refused to get out of the car.
When I woke up, I assumed it must have been a dream about my niece, because I’d been thinking about her shortly before I went to sleep, but I couldn’t figure out what the dream was trying to tell me. Later, I understood that the little girl was me. In the dream, the little girl was looking to feel safe, but I had tried to avoid dealing with her problems.
What I’ve taken from the dream is that healing won’t come from trying to stick a Band-Aid over the wound but from getting to the heart of why it hurts so much. That takes emotional intelligence – and when you weren’t taught any skills for doing this, that can be very difficult to do. What has helped in this situation is reassuring myself that my feelings matter and that my emotional needs will be recognised and met – because that’s what I really needed to feel as a little kid. I don’t know whether this will help in the long term, but it certainly feels more authentic than the forgiveness route.
Healing doesn’t come from pretending the pain doesn’t matter, which is the message that ‘just forgive them!’ is peddling. I don’t know what the best alternative is, but I do know that you cannot wallpaper over unpleasant feelings – and nor should you try.