Can Forgiveness Ever Be Unhealthy? (DE Wave)

All the holiday talk of good cheer and good will sounds great, but the fact remains that certain transgressions or betrayals can be impossible to forgive and forget.  People often ask me if it is unhealthy to just NOT forgive – or maybe even hate – somebody for an unforgivable offense.

I respond that if this unhappiness comes from things that you can’t change, then the resulting anger or hate can certainly be detrimental to your psychological health. But hate can also be valid, and even necessary, if it means passing deserved judgment on evil or something that deserves contempt. For example, I hate terrorists and mass murderers. I don’t dwell on it or make it my primary motive, but I make the judgment and move on. It would be unhealthy to deny the reality of their evil, but if I let the emotion overcome me, then I’m allowing them to defeat me in a different way.

The same applies to situations that might be difficult to ignore over a holiday period with increased social interaction. Maybe you have an ex-spouse who treated you in an abusive way. Or maybe a parent abused you and never showed remorse. Are you supposed to love them anyway and welcome them into your home? The resulting emotional conflict (called “dissonance”) of playing make-believe is not good for your emotional health. Pretending that someone’s nature is something other than it really is can be damaging and unhealthy. In my experience, a lot of dysfunction, including alcohol and drug abuse, starts with the refusal to face up to the reality of wrongdoing in a family. We need to acknowledge legitimate negative emotions toward any person who severely wronged us.

Psychotherapists are trained to avoid moral judgments when working with clients. But the reality is that many clients come to therapy seeking resolutions to ethical dilemmas. For example: “Am I bad to hate my father for molesting me and never admitting it?” Or, “Should I not hate the man who murdered my daughter?” Or, “Is it wrong to want nothing to do with my ex-wife who cheated on me?”

I reply to such questions with logic. Forgiving someone requires that they are truly sorry for what they did. If a person isn’t sorry, then there’s nothing to forgive. People who are really and truly sorry show their regret through behavioral change, not just words. Nothing less will do. This is important, because people can be overcome with unnecessary guilt if they rightly refuse to forgive someone who simply isn’t sorry. I would never advise anyone to forgive when the wrongdoer doesn’t care enough to show remorse. This is classic denial, and the long-term damage from the resentment and frustration would be immeasurable.

Some might use the “holiday spirit” to make a case for unconditional forgiveness by saying things like, “Carrying a grudge solves nothing.” Or, “Holding on to your anger is unhealthy.” These are certainly reasonable points if the anger is over something you can’t control. But you don’t have to go through life resentfully in order to accept the truth about something. If, for example, your ex-spouse was horrible, you will feel contempt when you think of him or her – but then you tuck it away. You don’t pretend it didn’t happen, but you don’t paralyze your life over it either. This might not be easy, and I’m certainly not trying to minimize the pain caused by awful people. But it is a worthy goal. And you do not have to welcome them into your home; holidays or not. Why do that to yourself?

Some people buy into the false concept that it’s wrong to judge at all. Not so. Without objective judgment we have no way of separating the good from the bad and the deadly from the benign. Encouraging people not to judge does nothing more than enable them to excuse away horrible things like abuse. But the feeling, if not acknowledged, never goes away. Rational judgment empowers us to acknowledge reality, accept our feelings and then get on with our lives.

The old saying is true: “The best revenge is living well.” And living well means enjoying peace of mind and never having to pretend. The holidays will be happier and healthier for those who allow themselves to accept that.

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