Last week’s column I discussed cheap forgiveness. This week I will turn my attention to the issue of refusing to forgive.
Why refuse to forgive? Actually, there are many reasons why we may refuse to forgive. We may refuse to forgive as a very effective means of punishing an unremorseful offender. After all, he isn’t sorry, so why should you forgive? Or, we may refuse to forgive because we associate forgiveness with reconciliation or compassion, neither of which do you wish to offer, at least not at the moment (maybe in the distant future, but maybe not).
Another reason we might choose to not forgive is that it serves as effective retaliatory rage to protest a violation. In such cases, forgiveness is too conciliatory and may even feel like weakness. “How could I forgive someone who has treated me so badly?” Also, by choosing to not forgive we can feel powerful, especially if the offender is begging for your forgiveness. It’s as if you hold their emotional health in your hands. What power!
By refusing to forgive, we not only exert considerable power over the offender, there are several important gains for you. Think about it. (1) Refusing to forgive can make us feel invulnerable. As long as we don’t forgive, we con ourselves into believing that the offender can’t get to us emotionally. (2) Refusing to forgive affords you the opportunity to blame others for our own failures. “It’s their fault, not mine.” (3) Refusal to forgive replaces the emptiness inside you with a surge of elation. “I’m hurting them back.” (4) Not forgiving cuts you off from any dialogue with the offender and any positive resolution of the conflict. “I don’t have to deal with this. I can keep my distance.” (5) By not forgiving we may restore our pride. “That will teach him to treat me this way.”
Of course, there are many more reasons that individuals refuse to forgive, reasons in addition to the five I have mentioned that make refusing to forgive seem like a worthy option. But, this simply isn’t true. Not forgiving doesn’t work, not for you, not for your relationships. Although not forgiving may make you feel less empty, it poisons you physically and emotionally and cuts you off from life. The toll of not forgiving finds full-force in our day to day lives by making us more vulnerable to both physical and mental illness. In addition, choosing not to forgive cuts you off from an opportunity for personal growth and understanding, in other words, your chance at becoming a healthy functioning person.
Do you have problems with forgiveness? Ask yourself: Do I get insulted and offended too easily? Do I have too many confrontations with people? Do I jump to conclusions, take what people say or do too personally, and react with arrogance or indignation? Do I tend to harbor grudges forever? Do I cut myself off from those who hurt me without wrestling with the truth about what actually happened? Do I find that an apology is never good enough to warrant my letting go of an offense? Do I take comfort in the role of victim and fail to see that an injury wasn’t simply something done to me but something I may have been partly responsible for. Do I dream of ways of crushing my opponent? Do I fill my time with retaliatory fantasies that make me feel powerful, superior, and in control?
There are better choices than refusing to forgive. In the next two columns I’ll look at two better options: the choice to forgive and the choice to accept.