What to do when you can’t forgive

Forgiveness, we’re told, is a wonderful thing. It sets us free and supports good health. All spiritual texts agree, forgiveness is the way forward. Yet quite frankly, forgiveness can sometimes feel impossible. And the effort expended in attempting to forgive can be mentally exhausting. And often futile. So, what to do when you can’t forgive?

A number of academic studies acknowledge how difficult forgiveness can be. Many suggest there could be an evolutionary urge to harbour resentment to the wrongdoer, as a way of protecting ourselves from future hurt.

In an article from Psychology Today, Tina Gilbertson states that for forgiveness to be granted, three conditions must be met. A good apology, a good outcome and an end to the offending behaviour. Forgiveness is rarely as simple as sending white light to those who’ve wronged us. Or simply deciding we’re willing to forgive and expecting the feelings to follow.

The danger of forced forgiveness

If you feel unable to forgive, then acceptance of that fact can be freeing. Sometimes forgiveness really is too much to ask. Member of the House of Lords, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered by six white youths for being black, told the Daily Mail, “They will always be at the back of my mind. I don’t forgive them, no. You can only forgive somebody when they have shown remorse and accepted what they have done – and they haven’t.”

Heaping shame on yourself for a perceived failure of forgiveness, will only heighten already difficult emotions. And forcing the idea of forgiveness on a person who isn’t ready to consider it yet, is likely to make them believe they are at fault. That they are somehow less spiritual, less empathic and more bitter than others.

If not forgiveness, then what?

Forgiveness may not be an option, but hanging on to resentful feelings is damaging to your own mental health. Here are three tips to help healing:

  1. If you find yourself ruminating, planning revenge or seeking retribution then speak to a counsellor.
    Even without forgiveness, the future can still be brighter, better and easier for you. Exploring the worst of your feelings with a trained professional, and then focusing on the life you wish to create for yourself will help with mental wellness, and feeling less burdened by heavy feelings.

2. Accept how you feel about that person or incident and don’t pressure yourself to feel differently
One of the reasons why Acceptance Commitment Therapy works so well is because it allows people to stop judging their emotions. Sometimes people do evil things, and if you have been impacted please don’t think you’re at fault for feeling unable to forgive. In her memoir The Beauty of Living Twice Sharon Stone reveals her struggle to forgive her ex husband when he gained primary custody of their son. Sharon saw a spiritual healer, who advised her to put the unforgiveable in a mental cage, and never visit.

3. Be aware of thrill of bad feelings and how you’re keeping yourself attached to the situation
For example, if your ex husband lied or cheated on you and you’re unable to forgive him, then that’s okay. But if you find yourself looking at his Facebook page, looking at his girlfriend’s Instagram page and digging for information from mutual friends, then this is not so good. In fact it could be harmful to your mental health and impinge on your ability to move on. Discussing these feelings with a trained mental health professional may help you uncover what’s at the root of them and support you in working towards a better future. Because, in the words of George Herbert,

Living well is the best revenge.

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