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Is Forgiveness REALLY Necessary? Healing without Forgiving

“Forgive and forget,”... “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” …   But is forgiveness the only key to moving on?  Is it possible to go forward without forgiveness?

What Is Forgiveness, Exactly?

What does it mean to forgive? Defining forgiveness can be tricky - but in general, experts see forgiveness as:

  • A decrease in hostile or angry feelings and thoughts and a reduced desire for harm to come to the perpetrator of a perceived wrong.
  • Some definitions include complete reconciliation and the establishment of a peaceful relationship. Other definitions specifically exclude reconciliation.1 2 3 4

Forgiveness Benefits

Differences in defining aside, most mental health advocates agree (and research supports) that forgiveness contributes to good emotional hygiene. Forgiveness has been associated with:

  • Better self-esteem.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Lower incidence of heart disease.
  • Other psychological and physical benefits.

But is forgiveness an essential prerequisite to moving on in life or in relationships?

Well, if you look back to the different definitions of forgiveness you can see that there are varying degrees of action and intensity in the many definitions of forgiveness. Some definitions demand reconciliation and some do not. Therefore, varying degrees of forgiveness must be acceptably effective in allowing one to “move forward” with a happy life and relationships.

When Forgiveness Is Necessary

When there is no forgiveness and you are consumed by thoughts of revenge, hoping for harm and hair-trigger anger, then pursuing any type of happy relationship might be difficult.

When a person's entire outlook on life and love and the future are all forestalled by this lack of forgiveness, then at least some forgiving, perhaps any amount, could be helpful.

When Forgiveness Isn't Necessary

What about complete reconciliation after abuse?

Of course, in cases of abuse (physical, sexual or emotional) the re-establishment of any relationship shouldn't be required; this could prove very damaging. Some people can 'change' but caution should be exercised. Few mental health professionals, if any, would ever advocate restoring an unhealthy relationship – and abuse definitely qualifies.

Is Some Forgiveness Enough?

So is there a middle ground?

Well, if a person is able to live in relative peace, with enough happiness and positive relationships to constitute a fulfilling life, then it would not seem that “more forgiveness” or “complete forgiveness” should be required. 

Can Anger Protect?

In fact, if a person feels it is necessary to hold on to a piece of anger, or to occasionally ruminate, an argument could be made that these thoughts can be protective in nature. Some may say that harboring any ill feelings is counter-productive, but what if remembering a small bit of anger or resentment keeps us from re-entering toxic relationships? Or what if those hostile thoughts remind us not to begin new relationships with persons enacting unhealthy behaviors? If we remember, for example, touching a hot stove and getting burned, but recall no pain at all, then how likely are we to avoid bare skin on a hot stove?

Moving beyond Forgiveness

Some say forgive but never forget.... but if the essence of forgiveness is a lessening of ill feelings, isn't that just forgetting a vital piece of it all?

Many people heal, feel better, and go on after a hurt though finding their own way. “Forgiveness” does not imply one definition will fit everyone, and it does not mean that “true forgiveness” is the only path to health.

What to Aim For

Living a happy and full life, not being consumed by bitterness or revenge and living with enough joy and positive relationships to feel “good” - these things should not hinge on the attainment of one valiant act of forgiveness. Instead, the ability to have the life we want, at the level of positivity we desire, despite our past hurts, might be enough of a goal, no matter the state of our forgiveness.

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From Victim Advocacy with survivors of abuse and violence, case management with senior citizens and their families, counseling with at-risk youth and their families, to therapy with adults fighting addiction - bereavement, depression, relationship issues, parenting issues, divorce, blended families, disability, career changes, life changes, my professional experience has encountered it all (so to speak). Fitness, health, coping with chronic illness, aging parents, raising children, job loss, job stress,.... and the list goes on!

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