Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Should You Forgive and Forget?

For all the psycho-talk about trauma and abuse, little attention has been paid to the question of forgiveness.

By implication this suggests that abusers are implicitly taken to be beyond forgiveness.

If you see the world in terms of crime and punishment, all abusers are near-criminals and none should be forgiven.

In truth, Elizabeth Bernstein reports in her column this morning, people who forgive tend to do better than those who don’t. Yet, in some cases it is not good to forgive.

Happily, that renders the complexity of a difficult question.

When someone has abused you or even traumatized you, ought you or ought you not to forgive and forget?

Which approach will help you to get over the trauma; which one will reinforce it?

Studying forgiveness contributes to our understanding of how people should process trauma. It shifts the focus away from the mental images of trauma toward the question of how they should deal with those who perpetrate the traumas.

The classical psychoanalytic approach to trauma  is purely introspective. Freud and Co. wanted to help patients to process trauma internally, first, by remembering it, and second, by integrating it into a new personal narrative.

When forgiveness is at issue the victim is in contact with his abuser and asks himself what he should do.

Strangely, Bernstein’s experts overlook a fundamental aspect of the question. They do not ask whether the abuser has asked for forgiveness. Has the person who perpetrated the trauma apologized sincerely and vowed never to do it again?

Without putting the question of forgiveness in context one risks getting lost in the theoretical weeds.

When someone offends you or insults you, you will feel anger toward him. Too many therapists recommend that you express the anger, though they must know by now that most intemperate expressions of anger are unhelpful.

If the person who has offended you does not know that he has offended you, the right expression of anger might bring it to his attention. But, a histrionic outburst will merely draw attention to your own intemperance, thereby making your abuser believe that he did nothing wrong.

When it comes to dissipating anger, you know from personal experience that if you are angry at someone and if the person apologizes sincerely for the offense, your anger will dissipate.

At that point, you are obliged to forgive and forget.

When your abuser does not apologize you need not and should not forgive. His failure to apologize means that he meant what he did and will be more than willing to do it again.

If you forgive him, you will be relieving your abuser of responsibility and punishing yourself for his offense.

He might consider you a better friend, but you will be acting like a patsy. Your self-esteem will surely suffer.

In extreme cases, cases that involve criminal abuse, one might say that an apology does not suffice.

Generally, we believe that criminals ought to be remanded to the police and the courts.

And yet, if a criminal shows contrition, a judge will often soften his punishment.

If you are the victim of a crime and the criminal apologizes openly and sincerely, you would probably do well to forgive him.

In most cases, you would also not want to continue to associate with him.

Apologizing is a step toward regaining trust. When someone is on his way to prison he will have few opportunities to rebuild trust.

Psychologists are correct to note that the question of whether or not to forgive depends on whether or not you will continue to have a relationship with the person.

If your abuser is someone you never knew before and with whom you are unlikely to have any future contact, then forgiveness does not have the same value as it would have if the abuser was someone near and dear.

If the person is someone you know well you will need to be able to tell whether the apology is sincere.

Here is one rule: if the apology tries to shift the blame, to you or to some force of nature, then it lacks sincerity.

A sincere apology involves taking full responsibility for the offense, no ifs, ands or buts.

When in doubt, give the benefit of the doubt to the person who is apologizing.

Psychologists believe that you should only forgive someone who you believe will not repeat the offense or the abuse.

Again, they would have done better to state that when someone apologizes he is stating that his act has no relation to his character. He is pledging, implicitly or explicitly never to do it again.

To forgive someone on the basis of a future probability feels difficult and complicated. Yet, there is an easy way to put him to the test.

If you forgive someone who has apologized for offending you and he repeats the same offense, his apology has been rendered null and void.

By his actions he has shown that he is not a man of his word.  If he repeats his offense and offers to apologize again, you do better to take his apology as insincere, even when that entails ceasing to associate with him.


Dragon Lady said...

You should move on, unless the particular abuse is so large that it requires criminal prosecution. Moving on sometimes looks like forgiveness, but it is not precisely the same. It is a neutral state that allows you to refocus attention, and not be emotionally dependent on the desire of the abuser to be forgiven. It ignores him.
You should never forget, because abusers will frequently do what they do as long as they can. Stay away. Cut ties.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, DL, but isn't the question the degree of abuse or offense.

Aside from that, it is always best to move on, whether that means forgiving or forgetting the abuse or forgetting the abuser.

BrianE said...

I've never had much success forgetting an offense, so I've always considered the forgive and forget motto problematic.

To me, forgiving someone means giving up the right to use the offense against them in the future. And sometimes I have to remind myself I've forgiven the person.

I do agree that you can't really forgive someone that hasn't sought forgiveness. That's probably the hardest circumstance, since moving past the offense is critical to a healthy future.

Here's where faith in God that there will be some future accounting and wrongs will be righted helps.

Anonymous said...

Very good and important discussion. One invisible aspect I've discovered is between guilt and shame, that is the idea of guilt being about behavior and shame about our being.
And a second hidden aspect is motive, poor behavior that is intentional acting out versus mere bad manners, or failure to understand how another person sees your actions, whether domineering, or threatening, disrespectful, or rude.

So that "facts" are not just what was done, but how it was perceived, and yet that perception itself is the responsiblity of the harmed person. So if the facts are agreeable, one can apologize and try to make amends.

But something else seems to happen when shame is involved. I can apologize for what I've done, and recognize the harm, but if an apology requires I "not do it again", then I have a right to better understand the perceptions of the victim, so I can try to take them account, but if a victim is so sensitive that the facts can't be questioned, then it is hopeless to expect the perpetrator to make any promises about future transgressions. So when there's shame involved, it seems there's some reversal, where the "victim" can become an abuser, and demand something (like "safety from future offense") that no one can promise.

I heard a New Dimensions program with Poet Robery Bly about shame, talked about the idea of "shame tanks" so when we're carrying around shame with us, and it explodes outward as soon as someone "wrongs" us somehow. It's like living in a lawless land where people are constantly violating the law, and suddenly you catch someone for littering, and they can't deny it, so now you throw all your rage at that little offense because it can't be denies, and have no idea why you need that person to suffer your rage, and that person, with an honest guilt at acting badly, wants to apologize and just pick it up, and yet suddenly has to defend himself from invisible things he can't identify.

So anyway, that's where the shame seems to be the real problem, and "not forgiving" may just be an excuse, to scapegoat someone else of admitting absolute guilt of their crimes against humanity.

And the opposite side, my thought is people who don't want to forgive also have a really tough time with apologizing, because then the shame is felt inside, and so my idea is that it is important not just point out a transgression, but offer a concrete action to make amends, so the issue can stay on responsibilty rather than shame.

Anonymous said...

In the case of someone you know, that person truly needs to commit to not doing that again in order for you to "move on."
I find this is too often not the real case, that the perpetrator continues to hold the victim accountable to forgive, while finding ways to inch toward the border to do "not exactly" the same thing again.
We are kept on our toes, blamed for not forgiving, when the perpetrator only made half-amends or half-promises of changing his/her future behaviors.
I guess you are right, though...
Shame on "us" for not saying 100% what would constitute "never again" from the very beginning, then following through from the very beginning...
The grey area eats away, manipulates us to the core...