A lot has been written about forgiveness and much more can be written. I think there is so much false forgiveness in our culture, it does more harm than good. There are people who say they have never experienced any anger, and when you get to know them, you see many acts of passive-aggression, showing that they do in fact have anger. But people think it is a spiritual stance not to have any anger, and I have known many people in the spiritual communities who are extremely angry. I also think that people are judged for feeling angry in our culture. I think the people who are angry judge others who openly express their anger and then feel one up. There are people who have been horribly wronged—of course they are angry! It’s interesting that our culture has so little tolerance for genuine and righteous anger, and yet we have such an angry culture. All we have to do is look at all the spiritual one-upmanship that abounds to know how much anger is around. I am of the belief that to really forgive, whatever one means by it, there needs to be some understanding and acknowledgment of the anger and hurt felt, and what was felt by the perpetrator. I do not think there is a “should” with forgiveness, but who wants to feel pain forever because there is an ongoing passionate hatred for someone, whether they deserved it or not?
In this blog I will write of a young woman who came first to genuine compassion and empathy and then forgiveness, and how she spread it around. I think this is someone who walked the walk, not just talked the talk.
When I taught Child Development at ColumbiaCollege many years ago, I of course had many young adults. Many of my students had been abused and been in foster care and many had experienced other hardships. As we covered psychological development, many students shared their stories with either me or the whole class, and many would cry, as they saw themselves in the context of bigger dynamics. It gave names to their feelings and drew them strongly into the human fold. While the class was not group therapy, I think it ended up serving some therapeutic purposes.
At one point in the class, I was teaching about projection and projective identification. Briefly, projectionis when you attribute a feeling of yours to someone else. You feel stupid and you think someone else thinks you’re stupid and you get offended. Projective identification is complicated and has different forms, but for the sake of this blog, it is when someone has a terrible feeling and has a need to replay it, hoping all the while things will be different. So, someone who feels always taken advantage of will always offer a lot and then get fed up and angry after giving more than intended. Someone who feels irresponsible will behave in a way that induces the other to get mad over the irresponsibility. Projective identification is a manipulation of someone else and the someone else feels it…and minds it. Let me give a personal example here to make it clear.
When I was in college as a freshman, my roommate was telling me one terrible thing after another about a female friend, pretty serious things. Finally, I said that this sounded like a horrible person and asked her why she didn't stay away from her. She responded with, “You’re horrible! How can you say that about someone else?” Now I didn’t know psychology as a freshman in college, but I felt this all right. I told my roommate that she made me feel all indignant about how this person wronged her over and over and then blamed me for the feeling she made me feel. When someone does this a lot, it means something that is not so good regarding their mental health. But the sad truth is, we have all done it and only by being committed to being aware of our own dynamics do we stop. It is one of our least noble behaviors, I think, but happens all the time. Imagine how hard it is to do couple’s therapy—no kidding! It is like unraveling a necklace with a lot of knots when both people do this.
Anyway, a young woman in my class at Columbia shared a lot with the class. She had been raised hard, and said that she had bruises behind her knees from her punishment and got a little teary once, although she still had a relationship with her parents and they loved each other. She lived in a different town than they did now. She also told us she had a roommate who was not paying her bills, doing her share of the cleaning, and not giving her her messages. She said angrily that her roommate was making her feel no control whatsoever and that she felt like hitting her, that she hated her, and that they had been having words. Shortly after I taught about projection and projective identification, she came to class with a story to share. She said that she had spoken to her roommate and that she realized she had her own issue of never feeling in control, that it wasn’t the roommate’s fault or intention or fault that she felt that way, that she carried that feeling with her and interpreted her roommate according to this feeling, maybe provoked here and there. She shared with the roommate and both cried. The roommate said that her family always called her irresponsible and that she could see that she was setting things up so that her roommate (my student) would see her as irresponsible, but instead my student was thinking her roommate was attacking her control. They both laughed and cried and saw that each fed into the other’s scenario and that no one could win. They made a decision not to feed in. As my friend Simone Cross pointed out, whether this was or was not forgiveness, learning some human dynamics gave my student and her roommate some compassion and acceptance for what had been going on, and the results were extremely powerful for both. My student said in a wondering way how she has been doing this her whole life and how she realized she could never really see anyone other than as an extension of her own internal issues. She was extremely moved. I do not know if this was forgiveness, but it was certainly an expression of compassion and empathy.
The forgiveness that then came was with my student’s mother. She went out of town to visit her family and spoke to her mother about how she used to hit her, leaving welts, and how her mother thought she was deliberately trying to drive her crazy when she was just being a child. She and her mother cried and her mother apologized, saying that she did in fact interpret her child’s behavior according to her own dynamics, and she was so sorry she had done this. My student said that her three siblings were visiting and they all talked about this, and that they felt a new-found closeness. She did not want all the adult children verbally attacking the mother, and felt overwhelmed by a feeling of protectiveness, of love and gentleness. She said she learned how her mother got that way from her childhood, and that she forgave her mother a million times, and that she was just so sorry for the hurt her mother had experienced in her life, which had been significant.
This was true forgiveness—not done to please society or to show she was a superior person, but the real thing. She learned about human dynamics, observed things in herself, saw the advantages this new awareness brought, and spread the word. When her mother responded as she did, her heart poured out love.
Sadly, not everyone gets an apology or even an admission, and that is certainly much harder to forgive. Maybe the highest form of forgiveness then is to just let go and move on with life, but this young woman was lucky in many ways. Whether you think of forgiveness as an outpouring of love or just letting go and moving on, understanding some things about human dynamics in order to better understand yourself and others is a powerful tool that aids in forgiveness. The forgiveness in this example was as authentic as the anger itself. While this is not the path of everyone, I think any kind of forgiveness, by any definition, relates to understanding that underlying the other person’s cruelty is pain, and that our interpretation of events will mix our own issues into it.
This young woman’s mother had visited her in Chicago and came to class with her. I met her… a sincere and hardworking woman. We talked after class and they shared a lot with me. At another time her fiancé came to visit, and he, too, came to class and we chatted. We joked about how she could end up with lots of psychologists in her family. She gave me a hug and kiss and a beautiful card the last day of class. I loved it. What I really loved is that this was the real thing, not a judgmental, smiling, secretly angry person pretending to forgive, but someone who was truly in touch with her feelings, making her much more amenable to growth than someone with layers of insincerity. Many years have gone by, but the last I heard this young woman was married and a mother, and was able to laugh as she told how she kept an eye on herself and how easy it was to contribute negativity. She became a person younger people came to for guidance. I think of her sometimes. I remember her telling me while still in her 20s that she felt old, referring to her wisdom. I remembering thinking this young woman would be a wonderful therapist, but when I asked her once if she had ever thought about it, she said she would “go crazy” pointing things out to people all the time, over and over and over, and that she would hate that job, reminding me that aptitude and a calling are not the same.
Aleta Edwards, Psy.D.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, with a strong interest in shame and perfectionism. I will periodically post my thoughts about these topics and other observations relating to emotional health.