Thursday 17 May 2012


I’ve been catching up on my Dr. Phil and something caught my attention which has always bugged me.  He was talking about the need to forgive when something bad happens to you.  He went on with the standard caveat that forgiveness didn’t mean saying what happened was okay but rather a letting go of the pain.

I don’t like the term “forgiveness” because I think it does imply absolution.  If you always have to explain that it doesn’t mean what happened was okay, then we need a new word for the psychological action necessary.

I like “letting go” and “accepting” because I think they’re better descriptions.  You can’t forgive someone for beating you up for years, but you can accept that it happened and let go of your hatred and shame.

People get caught up in the “what if” game when they’re trapped by their past.  It may start off healthily enough as a way to see what mistakes happened so that you can avoid them in the future.  But once you have that information, going back again and again, telling yourself what you or others should have done to avoid the situation isn’t helpful.  No one can change the past, no matter how many fantasy, sci-fi or comic stories they read or watch. 

Being trapped by your past is a horrible thing.  Dr. Phil describes it neatly as “taking poison every day and hoping the other person dies.”  The person who perpetrated the original offence is long gone but you keep on reliving it, which keeps you under their power.  It’s necessary to sever that connection, otherwise it’s going to bleed you dry.

But psychologists should stop using the word “forgiveness” to describe it.  Forgiveness is a religious term and all the explanations in the world doesn’t change the fact that it usually means to absolve and then forget, behaving as if the offence never happened in the first place.

Trauma can’t be forgotten.  And urging people to behave as if it never happened actually keeps them trapped because they feel like they are the only ones who can understand what happened.  They need to keep it alive because otherwise it’s meaningless.   If it never happened, then the pain they suffered didn’t mean anything.

To me, accepting is a better description, especially since you can break it down into multiple parts.  You can accept that what happened to you can’t be changed now.  You can accept that it was horrible.  You can accept that you or others couldn’t or didn’t take the steps necessary to prevent or stop it.  You can accept that it will always be part of your life, the psychic equivalent of a scar.  It’s all simple to say, but each of these steps can take a lot of work.

Then you can start letting go.  Letting go of the hate, the shame, whatever emotion is holding you in the past.  I think the accepting makes it easier to let go.  You can start to understand the necessity of breaking free at a gut level.

Pain isn’t a measure of love and joy isn’t a betrayal of loss (another Dr. Phil classic).  Understanding these truths is a necessary step of healing.  I just think it would be a lot easier for people to do without the expectation of dismissing their pain.

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