Forgiveness: Not Always Necessary, Often Helpful

How do we show and offer forgiveness? As stated by Melissa Dahl, New York Magazine:

There are different kinds of forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is largely external; it’s a change in the way you behave toward someone who’s wronged you, even though you may still feel negatively toward the person. Emotional forgiveness, on the other hand, is an internal change in the way you feel toward this person — resentment giving way to positive emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion, and even love. That’s the real kind of forgiveness; the other one is the much more common playacting variety.

This very much reminds me of the work of clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, author of the 2004 How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To. Her revolutionary wisdom and advice is right there in the subtitle: forget what others are going to tell you, not only is forgiveness not easy but it’s also not necessary if it seems an unreasonable option for you.

In a nutshell, she describes four different kinds of forgiveness:

  1. cheap forgiveness
  2. refusal to forgive
  3. acceptance
  4. genuine forgiveness

Cheap forgiveness is the type we probably do most often. When engaging in this conflict-avoiding sucking-it-up kind of attitude, we might as well be saying “You haven’t earned it, but you’re forgiven anyway.” Although this guarantees a reconciliation of sorts, negative consequences often eventually ensue.

On the other hand, while the second type, being unwilling to forgive, often seems understandable based on the specific circumstances, it usually doesn’t help anyone in the long run and in fact often leads to further pain.

Conscious acceptance, though, does lead to healing—at least for the accepter. “Acceptance is a healing alternative that asks nothing of the offender. When the offender is not sorry, or is not physically available — when he or she is unable or unwilling to make meaningful repairs — it is not the job of the hurt party to forgive. But it is the job of the hurt party to rise above the violation and heal him or herself” (Spring, Huffington Post). Her book provides 10 steps towards achieving this goal.

Genuine forgiveness also involves certain steps, in this case leading to exchanges that are transformative for each party. It’s actually the only type of forgiveness that necessitates work on the part of the offender as well as the forgiver. “…(B)oth parties negotiate a process during which the hurt person expresses his or her pain, and the offender apologizes and takes responsibility for his or her poor behavior” (Publishers Weekly).

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