Forgiving someone who has wronged you, can be a beautiful way to heal yourself. Of course, that's only if we really mean it. There's such a difference between forgiving someone after you've had time to reflect and talk it out, versus forgiving someone in order to avoid the problem or be the bigger person. The latter is what we like to call toxic forgiveness, a term coined by therapist Nedra Tawaab, MSW, LCSW on Red Table Talk.
"Toxic forgiveness is an unhealthy way people pretend to be unharmed, over it or forgetful of an offense in order to “keep the peace” or avoid being labeled “bitter”, “scorned” or someone who “holds a grudge”."
The desire to forgive without being ready has a lot to do with societal expectations that have deemed it the moral high ground. To forgive and forget, has become the norm. But what is this behavior really doing for us? Well, it's pretty counterproductive:
"Forgiveness necessitates understanding and acknowledging the harm that was done, and making an active choice to continue in some form of relationship with the person who hurt you...If we truly do forget, then we're still trying to be in a relationship with a version of this person that never did any harm—and that's not the person with whom we’re really staying in a relationship.” - Peter Schmitt, LMHC
Pretending to forgive and forget is the opposite of genuine communication. You're not giving the other person the chance to redeem themselves, and thus, your relationship can be built on dishonesty. We need to take the time to process our pain, so we don't become resentful. We're betraying ourselves by not being real.
Why toxic forgiveness holds us back
When you move on before you're ready, you pass on an opportunity for reflection aka personal development, which we happen to think is VERY IMPORTANT. You gotta feel your truth! Recognize what you need to move on--to heal. Space? Compassion? Comfort? Do you need to feel angry? Whatever it is, if you accept someone's apology without taking this important step, there's not going to be a way to move forward.
To be honest, toxic forgiveness is a lot like grief. I recently went through a traumatic loss. And it haunted me. All I wanted was to let go of my pain, move on. But my therapist told me I needed to grieve. I needed to sit with it, feel it, confront it head on. And so I did. And it was uncomfortable, depressing, and yet, liberating. I needed to confront it in order to accept it, and hopefully, eventually...move on.
Forgiveness needs to come to you. You need to believe it before you express it.
Are you gaslighting yourself?
When you feel obligated to forgive, it can create a shame spiral. You convince yourself that you're being sensitive or that you're the guilty party. Maybe you were hurt by someone you really care for, so you tell yourself it's your fault, and effectively, gaslight yourself. Maybe blaming yourself is easier than confronting it.
This doesn't erase the hurt. It temporarily protects it, until it creeps back up again.
And so yeah, maybe you move on. Or...maybe you start being passive aggressive towards your loved one, unintentionally acting out because you're actually still upset.
How to practice genuine forgiveness
It all starts with loving and accepting ourselves. And this means, establishing some serious boundaries. Give yourself time and space away from the person. Sometimes, that's all you need.
Practice introspection! It's important to ask yourself, "What does this relationship mean to me and what do I want from it?" If it's a relationship you value, you'll allow yourself time to process your feelings. And even if the relationship has run its course, time will help you to realize that.
The point of this process is to find a way forward!
Tawwab's solution to toxic forgiveness is what she calls an "unforgiveness revolution" -- meaning to forgive at your own pace. She says, "A healthier version of forgiveness looks like acceptance of the event, learning to let go of some of the anger, and feeling less consumed by it. Just because we don't forgive a person, we can still be kind, we can be pleasant. We believe that unforgiveness is being mean to people. You can be kind and not like people."
In the end, forgiveness is up to you and you alone. Go at your own pace! And be true to yourself. And don't forget, we're here for you.