Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

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Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

Forgiveness – Why Should I Forgive Them? Why Won’t They Forgive Me?

Forgiveness – Why Should I Forgive Them? Why Won’t They Forgive Me?

“We learn our lessons; we get hurt; we want revenge.
Then we realize that actually, happiness and forgiving people is the best revenge.”

~ Madonna

There’s a lot to say about forgiving and forgiveness, and a number of ways to look at it. There’s the view where you are the injured party, and the perspective of you being the one who injured someone else, whether you meant to or not.

Let’s start with you being the injured party. How do you feel about that? I’m betting you’re pretty pissed off and full of resentment. Maybe you think you’re past it, but many of the people who come to talk to me eventually get around to talking about how they’ve been hurt in the past, by family, friends, significant others. Maybe you were treated badly by your parents. Maybe you were bullied by kids at school. Maybe your true love, the one you thought you’d be with forever, cheated on you. Or simply dumped you. Or your best friend stole the person you were in love with. What if you were swindled by some con artist. I’m willing to bet you’re still angry about it.

Stop. Before you keep reading, think about that last paragraph. What are the three most important words in it? Don’t keep reading. Reread that paragraph and then tell me what the three most important words are that are keeping you full of anger, bitterness, rage, with all kinds of ideas of revenge. Maybe you’re not thinking about revenge, but you tell me you’re stuck – you can’t move forward in your life. Have you come up with those three words? Here they are:

“In the past.” All of the things you’re stewing about occurred in the past, and there is nothing you can do to change that. If you come from a dysfunctional family, an alcoholic and/or abusive parent, or one who simply neglected you, or belittled every achievement, or compared you unfavorably to a sibling. You might have a sibling who treated you badly. (And maybe still does.) How that must have hurt! And I’m betting it still hurts, even if you don’t think about it every day, or ever. But I’m betting somewhere inside, those feelings are roiling around, and making you get in your own way.

The problem is you can’t change the past. The past is the past. You’ll never have the family you always wanted. The loving mother, the involved father, the people who should have supported your dreams. Some part of you still wishes you could go back and change that, and choices you make in the present run counter to achieving your goals, because your anger and resentment still get in the way. You can’t make up for what you didn’t get in the past. And the same runs true for the other scenarios – being dumped by your true love, being betrayed in a relationship, being passed over for a promotion. Anything. You fill in the blank.

So the question becomes, now what. How do you get past that and be able to move on? A good first step is to forgive the wrongs done to you. How will that help, you ask. Well, for openers, it will improve both your physical and mental health. Being bottled up with anger and resentment is proven to raise blood pressure, interfere with sleep, lower your immune system, give you migraines, heartburn, or back pain. Worse yet is the emotional toll it takes on you: stress is the over-arching term we can use, but let’s not rule out depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, a persistent feeling of negativity towards the world.

Well, alright. Maybe you’re right, you’re thinking. But am I supposed to forget about it? No, not necessarily. What matters more is stopping it from interfering with your life today, in the present. Forgiving doesn’t have to mean forgetting. I’m not suggesting it’s easy, particularly if the hurts your suffered occurred and reoccurred over a long period of time. So, you say, you want revenge. Not the best solution. There’s a saying: “living well is the best revenge,” attributed to George Herbert in the 17th century. Let’s look at forgiving instead of revenge.

To forgive takes a concerted conscious effort to rewrite the story. WHAT? Pretend it didn’t happen? I didn’t say that. I’m thinking more in terms of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, and understanding what happened from their perspective. Be honest with yourself. If you’re truly honest about the narrative, you may begin to recognize a little embellishment here, a little change in the details there, to justify the extent of your anger and resentment. It’s not about pretending it didn’t happen, or saying it was ok for it to happen, or ok for it to happen again.

But you can begin to incorporate compassion into your thinking, and look at the wrongs from a less jaundiced point of view. Allow it to take up less bandwidth, less of your energy. Remember, our energy is finite, and if you use a significant portion of it revisiting these past hurts, you’re depriving yourself of the opportunity to free it up for more positive feelings that will allow you to make better choices for your future.

You can’t change the past, you can’t change other people, you can’t make someone apologize, you can’t rewrite your history. All you have control over is yourself, and your reactions to what was done to you. So if you choose to forgive, only positive things will come of it. It’s hard, I know. Really hard. But it’s worth the effort to let it go. Let go of the part of it that’s keeping you mired in self-pity, and preventing you from having the life you want. Or, you can choose to be a life-long grievance collector, who holds onto grudges forever. Who would you rather be?

Final point – (and this is really, really important). If you can forgive and let go, you take away the power the offender has had over you all this time. Yes, that person has been controlling you forever. You probably never thought of it that way, but do so now. Want that to be your story – the offender still having power over you? Up to you.

The people who did you wrong or who didn’t quite know how to show up, you forgive them.
And forgiving them allows you to forgive yourself too.

~Jane Fonda

Let’s now take a look at the other side of the same story. What if you were the one who committed some unkind act, uttered mean (and possibly false) words to someone. What should you do about that? First and foremost is to admit it to yourself. Recognize, acknowledge, admit that what you did was wrong, to whatever degree on the dial is realistic. But you don’t need to beat yourself up about it for the rest of your life, either. Remember compassion? You can have compassion for yourself, too.

A good next step is to muster up the courage to apologize to the person you wronged. Not overdoing it and creating a big drama. But saying something along the lines of “you know, when I said….., I shouldn’t have done so, and I’m sorry if my words hurt you.” They may not react as you’d like them to. You can’t force someone to forgive you, but you can do your best to repair the injury, and to forgive yourself for having done it in the first place. Compassion for yourself. Think about where it came from, possibly express that, and think seriously about how you don’t want it to happen again. Make yourself a promise to be a more compassionate and respectful person. You only get in your own way by hurting others, deliberately or inadvertently.

If you can do that, over time you’re likely to see a rise in your own self-esteem – you’re a better person for adopting a more compassionate stance in your interpersonal relationships. You will achieve a deeper sense of inner peace, with yourself and with the world.

Just as refusing to forgive what was done to you damages your physical and emotional health, the same is true when you have committed the offense . Being mean, negative, and angry takes the same toll on your health as it does when you’re the one holding the grudge against wrongs done to you. You will reduce overall stress if you can forgive yourself, and resolve to repair damage (to the extent it’s possible – it isn’t always) done to others. Your relationships with people will be better, you are likely to feel happier and achieve more of what you hope to have in life.

We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.
He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. 

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

5 comments on “Forgiveness – Why Should I Forgive Them? Why Won’t They Forgive Me?”

  1. Foregiveness is hard. Although I think I can tell myself I forgive someone or even tell the person they are forgiven, I sometimes keep the memory of the wrong I feel was done to me for years, sometimes decades. Likewise, I remember and regret hurtful actions I did in the past. Knowing it’s pointless doesn’t always help—my mind just goes there sometimes. Maybe that’s normal, but I am working on living more in the present and thinking more about today and tomorrow rather than yesterday.

  2. Very informative, Katherine. Per our phone call earlier today discussing this matter and others.

  3. This topic is topical. NPR has been covering men who were flying high and then brought down with the Me-too movement. A chef who, 10 months later, says he is ashamed of his sexually predatory past and has learned and changed. He just opened a new restaurant. I wouldn’t go. As one of his ex-employees said, “he’s a salesmen; he can convince you of anything”

    • Thank you, Judy, for your thoughtful comment. The Harvey Weinstein episode opened the floodgates. Thousands of people now feel free to unburden themselves of the weight they’ve been carrying for years if not decades. Fearful of losoing their livelihoods, they had to keep quiet. No longer. In this area, at least, the world is changing for the better. A collective consciousness is opening wide and showing a whole new generation that this type of behavior is simply not ok. Thanks for weighing in. Katherine

  4. Thank you, Katherine. Your essay has led me to look into this more. Forgiveness, for me, can be best after consulting, not only my personal world, but the greater world – to see the personal in context. 2 quotes:

    We have to stop forgiving terrible men by Rebecca Reidt 12 May 2018

    As long as we continue to forgive the kinds of men who hurt or abuse women, that discouragement just doesn’t stack up. We’re sending an ongoing message that abuse is pretty much okay, as long as you act like you’re sorry afterwards.

    Commentary: I’ll take my time forgiving Amber Guyger, the off-duty white police officer who shot and killed an innocent black man By CHRISTEN A. JOHNSON. CHICAGO TRIBUNE | OCT 04, 2019
    … “selfless acts of compassion” by empathetic black people can be mistaken for absolving America’s wrongs against African Americans…..Not only do we have to endure injustices, we then have to turn around and forgive the injustice when that same luxury is rarely, at best, offered back to us. That feels like a double whammy. Forgiving, then, doesn’t become a tool for healing, but another burden we are plagued with.


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