5 Reasons Forgiveness is Not a Good Way to Heal

For philosophers and clergy alike, the message is resoundingly clear: Forgive those who have hurt you, because holding on to anger is destructive. Case in point, see the small sampling of widespread broadcasting of such messages below.

Forgiveness is the final form of love

-Reinhold Niebuhr

To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and to realize that the prisoner was you

-Lewis B. Smedes

To err is human; to forgive, divine

-Alexander Pope

Forgiveness is often offered as a powerful solution; as an agent to not only help you heal from painful events but also allow you to move forward.

The general idea is that holding onto anger can make you bitter and hold you back from healing from harm that someone has done you. But the problem is that there are several serious problems with trying to use forgiveness as a solution.

Let’s first look at why it doesn’t work. Then, we will discuss a much better solution.

5 Reasons Forgiveness Does Not Work

  1. In today’s world, we generally seek to avoid emotions that are unpleasant, like anger and hurt. We naturally believe that we should escape “bad” feelings as soon as possible. Forgive and move on is a logical way to achieve this. However, emotions are not logical, and so this strategy does not work.
  2. Glossing over unpleasant feelings not only doesn’t work, but it also does not make use of the emotion. For example, hurt and anger carry vital messages from your body to your brain. The message from hurt is, “take care,” and the message from anger is “watch out, and protect yourself.” Before you forgive anyone, it’s vital that you listen to these messages, and heed them.
  3. True forgiveness is a wonderful thing, indeed. It happens after a process has taken place. This process involves accountability from the person who harmed you. If the person you’re forgiving has not acknowledged his or her harmful act and asked for your forgiveness, then you have not held the individual accountable.
  4. Forgiving those who have not taken responsibility for their actions falls short of holding them accountable. The offenders will be essentially let off the hook. This robs them of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
  5. Forgiving someone who has not owned up to their actions makes you unnecessarily vulnerable. John F. Kennedy said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” In this quote lies a warning that forgiveness can leave you vulnerable to re-victimization. Without your anger and hurt to warn and remind you to protect yourself – and if the person who harmed you has not been held accountable – you are opening yourself up to being harmed again.

Quotes and articles about forgiveness present it as a solution to painful situations.

But forgiveness is not a solution. It’s a process.

The Process of True Forgiveness

  1. The offender realizes he (or she) has hurt you, perhaps because you have told him; perhaps because he notices your anger or hurt.
  2. A discussion and/or acknowledgment takes place, in which the offender takes accountability for her actions.
  3. The offender genuinely feels guilt or remorse and apologizes for his hurtful actions.
  4. An emotional meeting of the minds takes place in which you feel the remorse and accountability of the offender.
  5. This emotional meeting of the minds allows you to truly forgive your offender. All is not forgotten, but a mutual understanding has relieved you both.

In the process of true forgiveness, the relationship is changed forever, sometimes in a good way. Many who go through these steps together end up feeling more connected and closer than they were before the offense took place.

When There is No Accountability

Of course, it is true that in many of life’s situations the offender does not notice that she’s hurt you or does not appear to care. There is no accountability, no acknowledgment, no apology. So, sadly, there can be no meeting of the minds. These are some of life’s most difficult and painful experiences.

Here the solution becomes not about forgiveness, but about balance and self-care. If you allow your hurt and anger to rule you, you will be in danger of becoming bitter or vengeful.

Instead, please use your anger and hurt to build and enforce boundaries that will protect you from the other person. Soothe and balance your painful feelings with attention to your own health and recovery. Talk to those who care about you, eat well, and rest. Pay attention to your feelings and manage them.

And always keep in your mind the most healthy and powerful guiding principle for one who has been unjustly harmed and left with no accountability:

The best revenge is living well.

Nothing could be more true.

To learn more about emotions, how they are useful, and how to manage them in relationships, see the books National Bestseller Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article originally appeared on psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author.

Jonice

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Kristen - November 6, 2019 Reply

Thank you so much for this article! It resonates with me in a HUGE way. I just finished reading a Christian book called Boundaries and even there the authors state that you can forgive someone, but guard your heart until you see sustained change. they state, “ Many are too quick To trust others in the name of forgiveness and not making sure that the person is producing “fruit in keeping with repentance”. (Luke 3:8) to continually open yourself up emotionally to an abusive or addictive person without seeing true repentance.”
Thank you so much for sharing all of your knowledge through these emails <3

    Jonice - November 9, 2019 Reply

    Thank you for sharing your views on forgiveness Kristen!

Sarah - November 3, 2019 Reply

I have found this article very illuminating, and as always others comments thought provoking. I see now that self-forgiveness is the only way I can really move on from certain situations I am still emotionally attached to, because I am the only one willing to go through the process of accepting my own part in what has happened, (because there will apparently be no meting of minds) then try to stop beating myself up about my actions, reactions and descisions. Accept responsibility and forgive myself, it’s as you say a process and this is the first step. I am not letting anyone of the hook – and I will not forget, but I hope to let go of the emotional charge, and reclaim some peace of mind and self -esteem. Thank you

    Jonice - November 3, 2019 Reply

    I hope you will forgive yourself; learn from mistakes and move forward. It’s all any of us can do. Best wishes to you!

Pat - October 29, 2019 Reply

FORGIVENESS, I forgive my mom and step dad
not only , I suffered from CEN , they also suffered from CEN.
Knowing that, gives me the strength to except myself and my feelings. I’m ok, feeling and all. I’m working towards be aware of my feelings and accepting myself.

    Jonice - November 1, 2019 Reply

    Excellent Pat. Keep up the good work!

Steve Janssen - October 19, 2019 Reply

How do we address forgiveness when the several persons who have wounded me (CEN, sexual abuses) when all the perpetrators are deceased?

    Jonice - October 21, 2019 Reply

    Dear Steve, do not feel pressure to forgive your abusers, and instead focus on yourself. Meeting your needs, addressing your feelings, and your own healing. All my best wishes to you.

Scia - October 15, 2019 Reply

There are at least two scriptures that people forget about: Matt 18:15-17, and Luke 17:3-4. In both of these, Jesus notes that one shouldn’t JUST forgive, but that the other person has to repent, too.

There’s also a book on apologies called “When Sorry Isn’t Enough,” where at least one of the two authors is Christian. In it, he notes that we’re told to forgive as God forgives, and that God didn’t forgive without repentance.

The part about teaching accountability is something I thought about, but that I don’t remember reading about anywhere else. Nice to not only see someone else get it, but to see it put in a nice, short article that I can easily share with others. =3

Astrid - October 14, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice,
thanks to your books I have finally been able to allow myself to accept that “me being broken” is not some “intrinsic flaw”, but actually caused by CEN. My therapist is trying to make me feel something, anything, for the young girl I was, but all I seem to be able to do is to rationalize and understand that my parents are only human, with their own difficult childhood and forgive them. In other words, rather than needing to learn how to forgive – in order to let go of anger and sadness, I need to learn to let go of forgiving – in order to feel anger and sadness. How ironic… However, it is a big problem, because I feel really “stuck”, and don’t know how to get past this.

Leslie - October 14, 2019 Reply

I understand the picture. But I think the definition of forgiveness in use here is incorrect. I speak from personal experience.
The curative factor is that forgiveness is ONLY the act of canceling the debt that cannot be repaid, NOT the restoration of the relationship. Renewed relationship and restored trust are things that can be earned AFTER the forgiveness has taken place, not a required element of forgiveness.
I have forgiven my tormenter, but there has never been a restored relationship. It was not requested by him, nor offered by me. Whether or not he ever accepts responsibility for his 20+ years of abuse no longer affects me. I am truly free of the pain and have moved on.

    Alexandra - October 15, 2019 Reply

    Leslie, I couldn’t agree with you more. I have been able to truly free myself by forgiving the offender. It helps me to refer to the action as letting it go rather than forgiving, which is a loaded, misused term. Thanks for speaking up.

anne brookes - October 14, 2019 Reply

What does one do when the parent who emotionally abused you solidly for 12 years as a child, and continued on and off for another 50 years, is dead? I still hate th old bitch…..

    angela - October 22, 2019 Reply

    As a 55 y/o mother of five grown children, and on my 5th marriage, I have been a very loving mother to my children, regardless of the severe emotional neglect and trauma my mother inflicted on me. I was second in line to six siblings, with the oldest being a sister. She was the adored child, and the rest of us were just in the way. Myself especially so, because even as a very young child I knew that I didn’t want to be like my mother, or live in an environment where children/people were treated like nothings. My mother obviously saw my drive in life, and now I understand it to be pure jealousy on her part. She never once showed remorse for her narcissism. I tried forgiveness, just because that’s what we’re told to do. It didn’t feel “realistic” to me, but I tried it anyway, but to no avail. Underneath she remains the picture of narcissism, and absolutely no part of my life, nor my children’s. I have three sons that are US marines, with bright futures in engineering, and my “revenge” is that the woman that tortured my emotional wellbeing gets absolutely no bragging rights for what I brought into this world.

      Jonice - October 24, 2019 Reply

      Dear Angela, trust your body to tell you when you are, and are not, ready to forgive. You have many strengths and I hope you’ll continue to focus on the feelings and needs of yourself and your 3 great children.

Guy-Harald Hofmann - October 14, 2019 Reply

Thank you very much for so clearly working this out so precisely. I well remember our mothers emotion-free given excuse for severe violence and emotional abuse of us children in one sentence. “I’m sorry.”

After the above given steps I am beginning to understand why that disturbed and didn’t help; and again left me with feelings of guilt today for not forgiving right away. Her one sentence excuse was eight years ago. And I have shed so many tears since then, beating myself up for not finally having forgiven.
So this article was VERY clarifying. Thank you very much.
Sincerely from Lower-Saxony in Germany

Kim Corcoran - October 14, 2019 Reply

Jonice,

Thank you!

This article shed light on something that I’ve been searching for the answers to.

In my gut, I could never believe that forgiveness was one- sided or just “forget everything”. I am deep in learning how to listen to my gut. Forgiveness & trust aren’t interchangeable either. That doesn’t mean that I harbor resentments but that I’m trying to honor myself & my health. Some relationships I’m keeping a safe distance or just moving on. Finally, from your article, it’s clear now & takes the mystery out of forgiveness.

Kim
Elk Grove CA

H - October 14, 2019 Reply

This is absolutely ridiculous and contrary to Christianity. Forgiveness does not depend upon whether the other person acknowledges or is held accountable. You’re called to forgive everyone- period!

    K - October 27, 2019 Reply

    Scia, above, addresses this scripturally, on the importance of accountability also:

    “ There are at least two scriptures that people forget about: Matt 18:15-17, and Luke 17:3-4. In both of these, Jesus notes that one shouldn’t JUST forgive, but that the other person has to repent, too.

    There’s also a book on apologies called “When Sorry Isn’t Enough,” where at least one of the two authors is Christian. In it, he notes that we’re told to forgive as God forgives, and that God didn’t forgive without repentance.”

Anne - October 13, 2019 Reply

Thanks for the above. Very timely. Just returned from seeing a sister in another state, talked for the first time about childhood sexual abuse by Dad. He’s long dead, never was confronted. Now I have more info re what he did to another, and probably to me also. Other family members do not talk about this, 2 seem to be unable to acknowledge that it happened. So, I am struggling, less than in the past, but feels like a new round (and around!) of “what do I do with this?” Have worked with forgiveness ideas, today they don’t seem valuable. As with many other of your articles, thanks!

JOSE LUIS - October 13, 2019 Reply

Dear Jonice:
Ever since I found you on Linkedinn I have been very much interested. At the beginning, simple curiosity, then growing interest. And yes, forgiveness is not the answer, but we need to move on. Sometimes, people who have hurt us, are not alive anymore, so we need to let go.
I love your quote – The best revenge is living well.

Ellen - October 13, 2019 Reply

I find this article interesting but I have found a different way to “forgive”. I think that anyone who can inflict emotional pain on others (even enjoying the effects of their actions) has their own emotional issues/insecurities to manage. I see their pain and inability to cope. I simply pray for them (I am not religious) and hand THEIR problem over to God. It is God’s job to judge and ‘forgive’ them. I think they are already having a miserable life and if they do not change themselves, they will have a miserable life again and again until they learn the lesson God intended them to learn. I benefit by learning to avoid abusive people and let them go their own dysfunctional way. I protect myself from people who want to harm me. I am not bitter or angry because I leave judgement of hurtful people to God so He/She can do the work of changing someone that I do not want to waste my time on.

Carol - October 13, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice, I grew up with emotional neglect but didn’t understand what the issue was until a few years ago upon discovering your work. I just knew I was angry and I have been working to forgive my mom for 20 years – part of that time she and dad were alive. I wrote a song for our relationship and shared it with her with little response as she was just not capable. I realize she was damaged and had nothing more than she gave. My parents are gone now – there can be no discussions or accoutability. This article about accountability makes sense but I was able just last week through EMDR to “forgive” her knowing there is really nothing to forgive (my belief from A Course in MIracles) and I feel something has shifted/that I am freer. I have accepted responsibility for the harm I caused my 2 sons with my unhealed CEN at the time they were growing up and have told them I regret I wasn’t able to give then what they needed and deserved but I have trouble forgiving myself even knowing I really did do my best. (not sure how holding on is serving me) My medical intuitive told me she believes the cycle has been stopped with my son and his wife with their daughters and I certainly hope so. I work for connected relationships with my sons but it doesn’t come naturally for us. Thank you for your work and for giving us a chance to do ours. Warm hugs, Carol

Brenda - October 13, 2019 Reply

I’ve read many books on Forgiveness and your description and recommended actions totally resonate with me. Thank you so much.

Jocelyn Millis - October 13, 2019 Reply

This article about the limitations of forgiveness with no acknowledgement of the hurt caused by emotional neglect is true in my experience because sometimes the ‘sins of omission ‘ hurt but do it invisibly. Thanks for this article.

Saige - October 13, 2019 Reply

Thank you for these insights and tools towards healing. I often encounter the ‘but we must forgive’ rule towards abusers and I ask the question: ‘Has the abuser changed their behavior? Did they seek to make amends? If so, what motivated their desire to change? Did they seek to change from their own accord and is that desire genuine? If these questions are not asked and answered safely the onus falls once again on the victim – the survivor of abuse to do the mending. Real mending comes from acknowledging harm. If we do not face our devils and confront their harm – whether in person, in therapy or in the safety of our own self space – we can wind up protecting them or worse, enabling, and that is a dirty dance.

TL - October 13, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this very clear sighted examination of forgiveness and how it works when both parties are engaged. Exactly what I needed to hear today!

Lydia Cooper - October 13, 2019 Reply

Thanks, Dr. Webb. I needed to read that.

Beth - October 13, 2019 Reply

Excellent article. The core of my EN was being told to be positive. Don’t let anything upset you and if you are bullied, ignore the people who are bullying you. This set me up for difficulty setting boundaries and I ended up being bullied in childhood and preteen years. I also ended up staying in a marriage with emotional and verbal abuse for 14 years. I never felt I had a safe place to share my feelings because I felt ashamed. Sometimes, I flash back to a time when a group of girls mercilessly bullied me in day camp one day. I can remember every detail. I concluded I need to forgive myself for not having the tools to set boundaries or share my feelings. That was far more powerful than forgiving them. It was through teaching my children to set boundaries, to never feel guilt for having feelings and that I would always be there for them that I learned to trust.

Catherine Wilson - October 13, 2019 Reply

It’s the “managing your feelings” part that can be so difficult, especially if hurt is piled upon hurt. When family members are involved and there has been a tradition of not accepting responsibility.

Diana J. darlingdianaj@gmail.com - October 13, 2019 Reply

Thank you for you apt descriptions of CEN, and for acknowledgement of anger. You have validated my own feelings as no one else has. Thanks.

Anne - October 13, 2019 Reply

My mother has died (12 years ago) so I’m not able to have the conversation with her about accountability for the childhood emotional neglect I felt. I was the 4th child and the 5th one born 3 years later (1 miscarriage between) was physically challenged and my father was an alcoholic. She has a lot on her plate I understand. However wholly letting go and loving completely seems to be hard for me. What to do?

GWOR - October 13, 2019 Reply

After 72 years of forgiving others I had to learn to finally forgive myself first as an only child of a violent abusive alcoholic and watching my mother die in parallel. I love your healing points to realize my great energy was always going out in forgiveness and nothing coming in the return air duct in profit for my own in forgiving .They took my me away from me.I was Strangled by their not- me like a noose they controlling my rope both push & pull and surprise.Now No more . Stealing my pension, strange QC outcomes , product returns, disappearing priceless formulas it nearly killed me and my me .
So now after leaving the beautiful industry of food, health & wellness can you imagine the contrast of being in the healing business I got sick in all categories many, many years ago and today now this very moment I breathe in good air and get rid of the bad . Sometimes I have to grab my ear and say “STOP” time out and just breathe. And then Center myself I am okay, fine and letting those who deserve to be let go- gone- and be thankful for those friends I have inward if but just a few because many are passing away which is another lesson to remind me just to learn how to breathe to stay & arrive alive and each bountiful harvest of air in thanksgiving and out and let it go saying goodbye and usually the opponent gets it – just leave- as the air goes out of my mouth .
I solved most of it by breathing in goes the new air out goes thIs bad air naming the person , event, place as a noun of reference not ephemeral as a gas but a solid to see the reality this here and now is bad. Just fire that person out of my life & living . Getting the air down into the stomach and feeling the expansion oh this feels so good to me to keep me let AND go the not me s go .Am I different yes!
How? I am becoming more caring to those in real need as in need not taking my good breath away . Just breathe to get your me first inward and the exhaust pipe the fumes of the not me and move forward never in reverse to suck in the bad you just exhausted yourself into a new state of exhaustion. Then like a dog you chase your own tail incessantly.Break the circle and move forward in your chosen direction …and breathe.

Ty - October 13, 2019 Reply

There is one person that may need forgiveness, yourself.

Many people who were raised emotionally neglected were also the young victim of a malignant narcissist or sociopath. In that case there will be no accountability and therefore no forgiveness for them. As hard as it is no contact is the ultimate answer.

In your young mind the blame for your unhappiness had probably already been shifted from them to you. Because children can’t conceive that their own parents would ever wish them pain for no reason they think “I must have done something really evil to be treated this way.”

As an adult, when we seek help, we are often presented with list of personality disorders that need to be treated further cementing in the idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with us that needs to be fixed.

Now some therapists know that first order of the day is to say “It is not your fault Someone did this to you when you were a child.” Child abusers are evil people. That’s not a controversial opinion.

You must begin to forgive yourself for believing that you were the cause of your misery as you and your therapist work to reverse the damage done to you.

After a young life of physical, sexual and emotional abuse I spent my life learning and finally believing this simple fact. One thing I learned was that I was supposed to be angry and sad in those times. That that actually was the behavior of emotionally healthy child.

Today skilled therapists know so much more about how malleable your brain really is. Through hard work and lots of repetition you literally thicken the good pathway in your brain while allowing the old one to wither.

Took me a lifetime to learn but was worth it.

Carl - October 13, 2019 Reply

Jonice, thank you. This is one of the best articles I’ve read from you.

Blind forgiveness is something I’ve always felt was a little off and unhealthy but could never put into words why, and you’ve done just that for me in such a clear way. You describe a process and end goal that feels “right”. You’ve had an impact on me today.

Linda - October 13, 2019 Reply

This is excellent! I appreciate this perspective, as I’m weary of all the “Frivolous Forgiveness” we hear today! I pause to work dear if there is even long-lasting authentic heart work…being realized. We all have to practice this principle, however, I want fruit that remains…ThankYou for seeing deeper and sharing it with us..

Catherine - October 13, 2019 Reply

I like this article as I’ve never thought forgiveness was a very good way to forgive.
In the case of my mother however, she has done so many things to hurt me, I’ve never been able to hold her accountable, and I’ve simply lost interest. I don’t care what she says and does anymore, I just observe her and try to avoid her as much as possible. I can’t see any pattern or reason for her behaviour so I’ve given up and become indifferent.

Mark - October 13, 2019 Reply

Great article and insights. The most difficult aspect of forgiveness is perhaps in dealing with one afflicted with mental illness and is unaware of the damage they have done, twisting the truth to “work” in their favor.
Thank you!

Donna Thompson - October 13, 2019 Reply

Thank you so much x your posts keep me well x

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