26 thoughts on “5 Reasons Forgiveness Does Not Work

  • March 20, 2016 at 11:26 am

    My mother suffered with postpartum depression when I was born in 1948. There was no diagnosis or help for this condition, and she never acknowledged that she had it. She blamed me for her “moods” because my delivery and infancy were more difficult than she expected and was prepared to handle. Even though she often talked about that time, she never apologized because she never realized that she was ill and needed help that wasn’t available.
    I’ve forgiven her because she was never capable of accepting her condition. Her mother had been hospitalized for depression and put through torturous treatments–including electroshock. My mother could never allow herself to consider that she may be depressed after seeing what her mother endured.
    I don’t agree that an actual apology is necessary for forgiveness.

    • April 20, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      Marcia: I could not agree more. I had no relationship w/my parents for ten years and have recently reestablished ties. Both were very abusive to me growing up. I was the scapegoat. Before I broke all ties I went over some of the most hurtful offenses, face to face. My therapist said I spoke my truth. It was very cathartic. They acknowledged nothing then or now. During those 10 years I did a lot of work. I walked through the feelings I had not processed over the years. Memories of offenses I had stuffed away or simply did not remember surfaced. I do agree w/Janice that forgiveness isn’t the be all and end all. But, in my 50+ years of experience an apology is not necessary. My parents are incapable of acknowledging the myriad of pain they inflicted on me. I think they are in complete denial. I am glad to have a relationship w/them again and I have forgiven them.

  • March 20, 2016 at 11:32 am

    Thank you so much for this article. I can’t tell you how many times people have tried to shame me for the path I chose…to divorce myself from my toxic, violent parents many years ago. After confronting them, as well as my two sisters, via a letter where I stated that unless they were willing to be honest about their behavior, apologize, and change their behavior, they would not be in my life or my children’s lives. They just couldn’t or wouldn’t do it. My two sisters could not leave the enmeshed unit. They tried for years to pull me back into that sick mess, but I refused. Eventually, we didn’t speak, and haven’t for more than 25 years. It has been difficult and awkward when people ask about family. But it was the best thing for me and my two children. I am so thankful that we are healthy and happy, and they have gone on to be successful adults. My mother passed away about 10 years ago, and my father just recently. To be honest, all I felt was relief. I had mourned the loss of my parents many, many years ago. Again, thank you for the article.

    • March 20, 2016 at 1:19 pm

      Thank you for your post. I also have family members whose toxicity was too much to deal with so the relationship is over. I’ve struggled a lot with guilt over this. But as time goes on, the more I learn, and the better I feel about the circumstances. I appreciate your post, reminding me there are other troubled families like mine. I believe you are very brave and strong. Stick to your principles. Youre better for it

  • March 20, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    This article could not have come at a better time! My mother violently abused me emotionally and physically when she was in one of her rages. We never knew what would set her off. The rest of the time, she was checked out: either sleeping or drunk. She presented a delightful veneer to the outside world. We lived in a nice, middle class house and nobody would have ever guessed the kind of hell we lived in there. Recently, I told her how those times (threatening to burn down the house, extreme verbal/physical abuse) affected me. She called me hateful and toxic and said she wants to sever her relationship with me. Frankly, I’m relieved. This is the best display of her true colors I’ve ever seen. My sister says she forgives our mother. To me, it’s clear my mother is in warped denial. She is unable to acknowledge or account for the actions she took – and these were actions repeated over YEARS. I plan on taking her at her word in severing our relationship, and I think it’s the healthiest thing I can do for me and my family. I’m working with a therapist, and hope I can mourn the mother I never had, and mourn the one who cannot account for herself.

  • March 20, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    My aunt suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, and unfortunately she doesn’t realize it because in her mind, she is perfect and its the rest of the family that has problems. She often cuts family members out of her life and then works them back in a year or so later. She has never apologized for anything she has said or done. Her behavior was always the result of something someone did to HER. I’ve decided that the last time she cut me out of her life, will be the very last time I accept her behavior. As much as I hate the idea of severing ties with family, I finally realize my own sanity is at stake too. I suffered much guilt about my overbearing aunt, but I’m learning to go easier on myself. It is her choice to stay unhealthy, which leads her to irrational behavior. It’s her decision to cut me out of her life for reasons she believes are valid. And when she starts reeling me back in, it will be her decision if the relationship gets repaired. This article helped me understand accountability, and that has been missing from my family for years. My new way of dealing with my aunt will be to let her know how her behavior hurts me and I feel I deserve an apology. Based on past behavior my aunt will refuse to apologize which will lead me to refuse a reconciliation. Until my aunt learns accountability I can’t have a relationship with her. And as this article mentions….one of my favorite quotes…living well is the best revenge!

  • March 20, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    I believe both my spouse and I are dealing with the effects of childhood neglect. Interestingly, I tend to be able to forgive on a dime and she holds a grudge like no other. Needless to say this is not a good combination and when it’s combined with two very strong personalities,her tendency to blame criticize and my tendency to become oppositionally defiant when I’m feeling attacked, there is little to no forgiveness and never resolution or reconciliation. Subsequently 15 years of this has had its toll and we are getting divorced. In fact are planning on telling the 4 kids tonight (Ages 9-15). I appreciate your chapters in your book “Running on Empty” on telling the kids. We are using that as a template for what we will say.

  • March 20, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    I appreciate the effort that is put into bringing clarity of thought to the issue… It’s so easy to do nothing as a result of not being clear what could have been done. I might suggest, however, that what you’re discussing is reconciliation, not forgiveness. Reconciliation takes two people, but forgiveness only takes one. That is what is behind the quote about being a prisoner, I believe. Possibly, using the words forgiveness and reconciliation interchangeably is what leads many to resume relating with someone who has injured them though that person won’t take responsibility. We need to forgive, because that frees us. But we need to require accountability during reconciliation or we’ll end up positioned again in an unsafe relationship.

    • March 21, 2016 at 2:03 am

      I think that you have hit the nail on the head. Reconciliation is what we yearn for,at least for a time. But forgiveness is a gift to the self whether there is reconciliation or not. I think that it is a hard road that is worth travelling. Thank you for your insight.

    • March 21, 2016 at 1:39 pm

      Thank you for the distinction. Many do confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. The blog correctly points out that forgiveness is a process, however, tying in reconciliation as a condition only binds the wounded further. This keeps the offender in power. Most offenders either do not desire reconciliation or do not have the capacity to own their harmful behavior. Forgiveness is not excusing bad behavior, it is releasing the offender (if the behavior isn’t criminal) and the wounded’s desire for recompense to God. The consequences of the abuse/offense can then be dealt with by the wounded through emotional and spiritual growth, particularly in the context of healthy relationships.

  • March 20, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    Thank you, thank you Jonice for confirming what I have always felt to be true that for true forgiveness to happen those who caused the harm must be held accountable and apologize. I grew up with sociopathic parents and suffered horrific abuse as did my siblings. Your naming childhood emotional neglect as an actual disorder has given me hope and another avenue to explore for healing. You are a beacon of light to us all.

  • March 21, 2016 at 2:11 am

    I was raised in a household where expressing my true feelings was always met with aggression, and quite often with apathy. My mother would offer me a listening ear but after listening to my grief she would set out narrating her own life experiences, ignoring the fact that she was to address my feelings. My eldest sister was always aggressive towards me for reasons I could not assimilate then. My father was aloof from household events; talking to him about feelings or expressing myself openly was a far out thing. Later in my life I came to know, quite shockingly, that my father was against apologizing for any mistakes. In fact, he expects me to apologize for my mistakes but does not feel any compulsion to act similarly when he is at fault. I have not forgiven my parents, they haven’t realized nor will ever realize that they were really terrible at parenting. Their apathetic behaviors have caused much grief and depression in my life and, like this good article mentions, caused me to become bitter and vengeful. I hope that I will not be like them with my kids. To date I struggle to express my feelings or share my emotions openly with anyone, including my spouse. I am always fearful that they will be met with aggression, so might as well not go through the trouble.

  • March 21, 2016 at 7:46 am

    I loved this post, thank you. I am specially impressed by the part of “The Process of True Forgiveness” – because if the offender never acknowledge what he did, how can I ever forgive? This is a person within my family, and people give me a hard time for not talking to him, but I can’t, I hate him for what he did to me, but now of course, everything is turned upside down, with me being the bad one. This article has made it clear for me that I am doing what is right for ME. I am a good person, I don’t do bad things to others, but I will not be a person who take other peoples shit without it making a mark on me. Thanks again! I’m linking this article on my blog, if you don’t mind.
    Kindly, Marianne

  • March 21, 2016 at 9:58 am

    What about when the person is deceased or cannot be located? I think there should be a different word for the kind of forgiveness that takes place without any apology or even acknowledgement from the wrongdoer.

  • March 21, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Thank you. I beat myself up because I can’t forgive in full my mother or my sister & who is a sociopath who was 5 years older than me, so from the start of my life was intentionally cruel to me. My mom stopped the physical stuff early on, but she chose my sister over me always because she had created a story that sis was just “different” & needed my mom’s full attention & resources.
    I took care of my mom while she was dying, & my sister turned unbelievable cruelty & bad behavior on both of us (& also had the family pets put down). My mom realized at the end how awful my sister was behaving. She sort of apologized to me, & honestly I always loved my mom despite her huge flaws, because she also had many good qualities. So I’m conflicted & hurt. I have no contact with my sister & never will. I can have oodles of compassion for both of them – my sister because she didn’t chose to be mentally ill, my mom because she had hard things in her life (my dad committed suicide when I was 11). The one I totally love & forgive is my father because he always gave me unconditional love & enjoyed spending time with me. An aneurysm changed his brain function ( this was the 60’s), he became severely depressed & alcholic. I understood his pain, & while I naturally had anger because he left me, I have forgiven him everything, love him & miss him to this day.

  • March 22, 2016 at 6:16 am

    Thank you for this article. I have had trouble with this all my life with my family. I have forgiven them over and over for the cruelty they have inflicted on me. I will still struggle with my 90 year old Mom. I had removed myself from the family for 3 years then decided to forgive them. Mom recently fractured her hip & 2 ribs. I was at the hospital with her every day because all my siblings work & I am on disability. One day, about a week in the hospital, she looked at me and told me to leave and never come back (for no reason). She called me a few weeks later & was out of the hospital. I asked her why she said what she did and she replied “Oh, let’s not talk about that.” I told her I had nothing to say. Since then, I have not heard from her or my siblings who were not even there when she said it. This is common of them. She would never dream of treating them that way. My oldest sister is a narcissist and has always hated me. The rest of the family follows her lies and fabrications about me. I just have to live with it. I envy other families who love each other.

  • March 22, 2016 at 9:46 am

    Jonice, thank you for this post. It couldn’t have come into my life at a better time.

    I recently broke all ties with my former employer who is a sociopath. I have a lot of hatred and anger toward him for the way he treated me, and for ‘punishing’ me whenever I called him out on his BS.

    However, I have learned something very important in dealing face to face with a sociopath. A sociopath can’t help but be who they are. They simply don’t have empathy. They don’t have a conscience. Nor do they feel guilt. The man I dealt with would completely disrespect me one day, and carry on the next day as if nothing had happened. He really did not see anything wrong with his behavior and decisions. Everything they do must in some way benefit them. They also won’t go out of their way to help someone else unless there is something in it for them.

    They are also egocentric, and they derive their self-esteem from having control over others which to them is a sense of power. I personally believe they feel they must act in this way in order to thrive and survive. If a person has no self-esteem, I don’t think she can have the will to live, or at the very least, feel she deserves a decent life.

    So the conclusion I have come to is this. When it comes to people who simply don’t have the ability to care, for whatever the reason, the best thing to do is to know what your boundaries are and to protect them. Do this only if you must have a relationship with that person. However, if you have the choice (and sometimes, the courage), avoid them or break all ties with them. I think it is our expectations (justified or not) of how we should be treated by others that really hurt us when we deal with sociopaths, narcissists, traumatized, etc. I also believe we could do ourselves a huge favor by realizing that our expectations aren’t very realistic when it comes to these types of people. It’s like being in the African wilderness and expecting a group of lions to not eat you. It probably won’t happen.

    Unless someone realizes he has a problem, he won’t do anything to change it. My father is a narcissist and an alcoholic, and I really limit my contact with him. He is extremely toxic and affects me quite negatively. I have tried to help him get over the drinking problem, but he won’t admit he has a problem. In fact we had a shouting match the last time I brought it up, and it became forever the last time. If he chooses to continue this path and deny he has a problem, then it is in my best interest to limit my contact with him. It’s in my best interest because I feel better and more positive. Therefore, I am able to be a better father and partner, and a better person in general.

    To those of you who have broken ties with family members for this reason, I cannot express enough how happy I am for you. I really do believe it’s the best thing you could have done for yourselves. It does take courage and of course there will be objections from other family members, but at the end of the day, you have to do what is right for you in order for you to be the best person you can be, and to be as happy as you can be, with harm to none. 🙂

  • March 22, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    I appreciate the article drawing attention to the complicated concept of forgiveness. I agree that forgiveness is a process, however, as a clinician, I have found clients get stuck on the concept of forgiveness when the focus is on the offending party. Most who have offended in the first place rarely have the capacity to fully acknowledge, or the humility, to address their offenses fully, if at all. For some, the offender(s) have died & that conversation will never take place. The realization that the process does not have to include the offender is a tremendous relief for clients. If we instead focus on relieving our suffering (resentment, erroneous instilled guilt, shame, and/or feelings of responsibility) that keep us chained to the original pain/event & the offender, energy can be freed up to focus on our present life with all it’s joys & challenges.
    When the focus turns inward, we learn to pay attention to what our emotions/bodies, are telling us, and subsequently can more effectively commit to the healthy boundaries that reduce/eliminate continued exposure to those who inflict us pain, as well as the erroneous beliefs that keep us suffering. If there is an eventual conversation or interaction with the offender, or a trigger to the original hurt, being grounded in this way helps one navigate back home much more effectively.

  • March 23, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    It’s nice that someone out there in the world of psychology changes old myths and puts to words what I have felt about forgiveness. I am about there are no negative emotions and self empowerment process helps me learn about myself. My abuser will never be confronted. But she will never be forgiven. She would not be the type to admit to anything. But she doesn’t get my hall pass. This is a refreshing post. It’s about times we stop this 12 step AA process that doesn’t work.

    • May 22, 2016 at 10:08 am

      I sincerely appreciate this article. I’ve been working for many years to move beyond resentment; therapy, friends, my pastor have all helped. My reality is I simply cannot forgive some things. After so many years of trying, with plenty of assistance, at some point you have to recognize that the one-size-fits-all philosophy of “forgiveness is the answer” simply does not apply to everyone in this world. And when people who cannot forgive–despite tremendous effort–continue to read that *only* through forgiveness will resentment and anger be resolved, they begin to blame themselves for not doing healing right…which is crazy. I know I’m not alone in this. I’ve talked with other people who have hit the same wall, where they try but simply cannot forgive. It’s not a choice; I would choose to forgive if I could, but in all honesty, I can’t. So where does that leave me, and others in the same boat? They psych community is doing a serious disservice to the general population by continually harping on forgiveness being the only road to mental health where anger and resentment are concerned. It’s clearly one path that works for many, but insisting it is the only road, and that by not taking it (because it’s impossible), the sufferer is somehow keeping himself ill, is tantamount to blaming the victim. Thank you for writing this article. The problem of resolving resentment is far larger than can be covered by this singular paradigm. My guess is there isn’t more written about other strategies because none are known…which, sadly, is also probably why so many jump on the forgiveness bandwagon.

  • March 24, 2016 at 3:53 am

    Thank you Dr Jonice for your clear explanation on CEN. Reading your blog allows me to see through the issues that have been bothering me for years! Now I can the real problems clearly and start to manage my emotions more effectively. I’ve been thinking about what is the right thing to do to move on. I thought things would change since I have forgiven my parents, but apparently I just swept things under the carpet. Hence I became the victim over and over again. What you said really makes sense & it is time for me to heal and take care of myself first.

  • March 26, 2016 at 8:18 am

    I have thought several of your articles to be brilliant, but this one tops them all. I’ve often told people who asked why I refused to forgive a sibling who caused me a great deal of grief. I always answered that I could not simply turn my back on the lessons that life had me. They never understood, not really. But you nailed just about everything I’ve thought. Thank you. It is interesting to one’s thoughts reflected in another mind. At least they seem less strange.

  • April 8, 2016 at 7:07 am

    Maybe we should all learn the “Art” of forgiveness. My former tendency of nursing grievances, ended up with such a weight of baggage that it often made me very dysfunctional. At the time I did not know the primer fuse was a subliminal CEN and PTSD issue racked up in an early childhood blanked by the latter. When I realised what had happened then all hell was let loose about the unfairness of it all, especially when the protagonists were all dead and gone so there wasn’t any real recourse, other than to sit down and work out how to help the only living participant left, me. Course I got it wrong several times because I hadn’t realised the divisive nature of my condition where the adult me kept rationalising the process instead of allowing my infantile anger issues to participate in it and vent the grief.
    So cue TA and a wary peace and non aggression pact between the adult and the inner child…mutual acceptance. understanding and the adoption of mutual interests…like lets get the hell out of this way of life which is full of shit. Mistakes aplenty, but there is something about moving which generates hope even if the compass is a bit wonky. So several years down the line and bloodied but unbowed I do wake up in the morning feeling pretty much Ok.
    I know certain things could be better, but do not avail myself of the finger wagging parent factor.
    “We” i.e. the adult/child are Ok and by sealing that pact to get rid of those irecconcilable historic grievances by forgiveness, no choice in my case actually, then I guess together we created a brave new world.
    Interestingly, it was only after a lot of self help work that the MBTI profiling began to work in a reasonably consistent way E or INFP which does explain my enigmatic oscillation in temperament. Maybe I should have profiled myself as Ziggy, but that might be just for today, tomorrow could require zags… I frequently get em mixed up…Lol

  • April 20, 2016 at 5:20 pm

    I really enjoyed this article and the comments. In my experience with very abusive parents I came to realize I had every reason to be furious, but I felt I owed it to myself to work through this anger. I ended our relationship 10+ years ago and frankly never believed I’d ever go back. During these away years I worked through the feelings – tons of feelings. I believe now I had to separate myself from them in order to heal and to not be re-offended – real or imagined, since my wounds were so raw I was very sensitive. My parents are old now, my mother is in a lot of pain. They are so grateful to be back in my life and I too am grateful to be back. They did some very good things – even in the worst years. A very wise woman I was sharing with this week said, “A person’s actions are not the totality of who they are”.

  • May 22, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    When you realize no wrong-doing ever took place, the need for forgiveness disappears. I know this to be true and I sometimes forget. So instead of focusing my efforts on forgiveness, I focus on healing, learning and becoming stronger, in spite of the damage done to me as a child. Just focus on where you want to go…. another thing I sometimes forget to do.

  • November 16, 2016 at 11:28 pm

    Hi. I really like your articles. But in this point, you seem to be wrong. True forgiveness does not have to include reconciliation. The last issue is not always possible, but it is always possible to give up anger towards the offender. To forgive, is to give up ones judgement of the offender, and to give up the recentment and anger towards the offender, to put the offence behind you. The definition of forgiveness actually comes from the bible, and includes to give the right to judge over to a righteous God, Who loves both parts. After true forgiveness though, the offence can have the consequences of distance etc., to avoid new offences.


Join the Conversation!

We invite you to share your thoughts and tell us what you think in this public forum. Before posting, please read our blog moderation guidelines. A first name or pseudonym is required and will be displayed with your comment. Your email address is also required, but will be kept private. (Please note that we use gravatars here, which are tied to your email address.) A website/blog/twitter address is optional.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *