Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When Common Misunderstandings of Forgiveness Get in the Way

Please enjoy this timely article by my colleague, Tara Watkins.
 When Common Misunderstandings of Forgiveness Get in the Way
By Tara Watkins, LICSW
As the High Holidays approach, many of us find ourselves reflecting on the concept of forgiveness. Unfortunately, too often, struggles with knowing exactly what our goals should be hinder our path. Are we accepting an apology, letting go of hurt or anger, and/or reestablishing a relationship?
In their book entitled Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit, Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal explore some of the common misunderstandings of forgiveness that may make the process of forgiving more difficult:
1) Forgiveness is the same as forgetting. This is not true. Sometimes we do forget, but if we choose to, we can forgive without forgetting. We are entitled to remember and it may even be wise to remember to try and protect ourselves from experiencing a similar hurt in the future.
2.) Forgiveness is the same as excusing or condoning. Definitely not. We can continue to find a person’s behavior inexcusable but still let go of the anger or hurt we feel when we think about it. We can separate our negative judgment about the action from our feelings of being personally injured.
3.) Forgiveness makes us vulnerable and weak. This is absolutely wrong! Forgiveness actually makes us stronger.  Unfortunately, some people fear that forgiving is “giving in,” and also that by forgiving they concede a battle and set themselves up to be hurt again.
According to Rabbi Harold Kushner, true forgiveness really happens only when we are strong enough to let go, when we are able to say, “you because of what you did to me, don’t deserve the power to be the ghost inside my head.” By taking this first step and acknowledging the “ghost,” we remove its power over us and begin to move forward on our path towards forgiveness.
4.) Forgiveness only occurs when there is acknowledgement of wrongful behavior. This belief gives the wrongdoer all the power! If we spent time thinking about what happened as objectively as we can, why do we need to wait for the other person to conclude that he or she was in the wrong? Perhaps it would add to our satisfaction and make reconciliation easier, but we do not need to be held back from our own internal process by the other’s disagreement or resistance.
So if forgiveness does not depend upon forgetting, excusing, reconciling, or apology, then how do we think about its essence? Psychologist Robert Enright says that forgiveness is “giving up the resentment to which you are entitled, and offering to the persons who hurt you friendlier attitudes to which they are not entitled.”
What an empowering statement. Through forgiveness we release ourselves from the forces that weigh us down. Feelings such as anger, resentment, and powerlessness as well as fantasies of revenge and preoccupations with the past no longer have a hold of us.  If we do not allow ourselves to let go of these negative emotions our energy becomes displaced, energy we need to move forward into the future.
Ultimately, when we allow negative feelings and preoccupations to fester within, it hurts only us, no one else, including the object of our resentment. In fact research has shown that long term holding onto resentment and other negative emotions may be detrimental to our physical health.  One unnamed person cited in Wise Aging describes the reasons for why we should strive to forgive as: “Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.”
I encourage all of us to try and clarify what is getting in the way of truly forgiving ourselves and others. Perhaps some of this article will help you on your path.  However, if you continue  to struggle with figuring out what is blocking you from forgiving someone in your life, or perhaps forgiving yourself for something in the past, I am available to help work through these challenges with you and also find resources and referrals in the community to help continue moving forward. Please call me at 401-331-1244 or email

Rose Murrin, LICSW, is the Kesher social worker at Congregation Beth Sholom.  Kesher is the congregational outreach program of Jewish Family Service of Rhode Island, funded by the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, and currently active at Congregation Agudas Achim, Temple Torat Yisrael, Temple Emanu-El  and Congregation Beth Sholom.  Tara may be reached at 401-331-1244 or

Cowan, R., Thal, L., (2015) Wise Aging: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit. Springfield, NJ: Behrman House, Inc.