WTF? When To Forgive

Inside a Therapist's Head

Shelley Shaffer, MS, LPCC | Shaffer Professional Services

WTF? When To Forgive?

In the many years that I have been providing mental health services, I’m often asked if someone “should” forgive another. When I began my career, back when we rode horses to work, I was part of “Apology Sessions” between adolescent males who had committed sexual offenses and those individual(s) whom they had harmed. This was all part of an extensive, residential treatment program and each Apology Session was carefully worked toward, with both my client (the one who did harm) and the therapist of the victim (the one harmed). We’d talk about progress, readiness, the probability of success, and safety. We would prepare for weeks, sometimes months, to even broach the subject with our respective clients. No one argued the importance or “need” for an Apology in this situation. However, not every one of my clients reached a degree of empathy, remorse, or ownership that allowed me to consider looking up the information for the other therapist. Does that mean that individual doesn’t get an apology? Does my client get “forgiven”?

Forgiveness often has a religious undertone and I’ll go with that for a second. I’m a Christian and I believe, wait, I KNOW, I am forgiven. But that doesn’t mean that I am absolved of all self-imposed guilt for things I have done in my past. I’ve harmed people. I’ve been hurtful with my acts, words, and by NOT doing what I know was the right thing to do. I have been selfish. I’m doing my best every day to repair harms, to guide others towards their “happy” and towards peace. But the big question hanging over all of these heads has to do with Forgiveness. Not from a religious standpoint, but from a hugely, draining, heavy, existential point of view. The weight of it is overbearing. It keeps us from moving forward, like we’re stuck in some “Land of the Lost” quicksand and the Sleestaks are right around the corner. (If you haven’t heard of “Land of the Lost”, YouTube it. Kids, that was our “CGI” back in our day…)

Spend any amount of time on any social media and you’ll find all sorts of wisdom placed beautifully in some random colored background. The short saying resonates with you, so you smile, cry, or whatever feeling comes up and you might even right-click it to save that image. Don’t get me wrong, my iCloud storage is filled with these images. One day, I’ll go back and review them and try and recall what it made me feel so deeply that I saved that saying. Was I hurting? Did I hurt someone else? It’s usually some sort of pain that was involved, if I’m trusting my memories correctly. So, here I am, a therapist. Aren’t I supposed to have all of my poops in a group? I “should”, right? I mean, people are paying me good money to “know” what to do to be better, so I should somehow have this magical perfect life, right? Guess what? I’ve got a great life. I’m extremely blessed, I know. But I’m not some Disney princess who wakes up singing, there are no birds making my bed, and I surely have stress in this life. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be loved or love others. Do we get angry at strangers? (Okay, those who drive in the left lane are excluded) Not really. Our emotional brain, hidden deep within our “which shoe goes on which foot” brain, is triggered by things/people that MEAN SOMETHING to us. Is the “my bad” or “sorry” that you say when you accidentally bump some random stranger in the mall the same as “I’m sorry” that you say to your spouse/partner/parent/child? I’m taking a guess here, but I’m thinking they are vastly different.

Have you ever said, “I’m sorry” and not meant it? I have. Too many times in my life. And it pains me to recall those instances. Someone was genuinely harmed by me and wanted, No, NEEDED, to feel that I owned my part in their feeling that way. Even if I didn’t think it was a “big deal”, they did. And I lied to them when they wanted me to really be genuine. Whether it was out of selfishness, pride, shame, whatnot, I did not give them what they wanted, needed, deserved. Two words. Two little words that would’ve made someone feel good and I couldn’t (more likely, “wouldn’t”) give that to someone. That’s giving me all the feels right now knowing that I probably caused more harm by not meaning it than if I hadn’t had said it to begin with. A fake apology is gross. We’ve all done it. Get caught taking your brother’s Lego’s? Mom pulls you to him and says, “Now Shelley, what do you say?” “I’m soooooooorry”. But you aren’t. But we’re trained to say it and saying it makes Mom go back to Momming Things and then you grin at your baby brother and take the Lego’s back. Now I’ve made him cry. But I love him so why would I do that? That’s messed up, (as is all of the other crap I did to you) and I’m really REALLY sorry, baby brother. I mean it, with every ounce of being I have inside of me. I DO love you and looking back, I’m amazed that you still even talk to me. You’ve either forgiven me or you’ve moved on. Regardless, I’m apologizing because you mean so much to me and I don’t want to endanger our relationship, even decades later. I love you.

So that just happened. I was sitting here, just typing away, thinking I’d get some snarkiness out by talking about old 70’s shows with quicksand. Yes, that is part of my formula for these blogs on some days. I’m thinking about Sleestaks and then I remember being hurtful, on many occasions, to someone I really don’t know what I’d do without. Do I deserve his forgiveness? Nope. Did I ask for forgiveness? Not that I remember. Did he expect an apology? Maybe 30, 40. 50 years ago but I’m sure this is a surprise. But my heart hurts, thinking he might still hold some hurt inside. I was a bad big sister. I was selfish and wanted Mom and Dad all to myself. There’s a reason your own kids mean the world to me and I try to be the best Aunt Bob ever – it’s my own way of trying to have a second chance to be a “good” big sister. So much so that I’ve adopted the Aunt Bob persona as a whole separate person. No, I’m not losing it, I LOVE being Aunt Bob and Shelley is the same person as Aunt Bob. I’m not dissociating here, really…Aunt Bob is kind, playful, fun, full of great advice/wisdom about “those things”, and she genuinely loves on the nieces and nephews. It’s what Shelley should have done as a big sister. I apologize for not recognizing that sooner.

One of those pretty pictures I saved says, “When a deep injury is done to us, we never heal until we forgive”. A very wise, strong, peaceful man said that. He’s one who has a gabazillion reasons to be angry, to be bitter, and to hide away from people forever based on how he was harmed. I think there’s nothing more badass or powerful than to show forgiveness and grace to those who don’t “deserve” it or ask for it. Well, Nelson Mandela said that quote. I’m thinking he forgave because he seemed so strong, badass, and at peace whenever I saw or heard him.

So, When To Forgive? Whenever you can genuinely do so. Not when someone asks for it so they can move on themselves. Definitely not just so you can get your phone ungrounded. Yes, when your mom has you in front of someone you hurt, because that’s the right thing to do – you’re learning how to be a nice person. Not because it’s part of a treatment program. Because a false apology leaves people hollow. You have not made them whole, you may have just harmed them again by not being REAL. “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” is truly meaningful when you say it and then? You do everything in your power to never do that again to another. You care about how others feel and you do not want to hurt another in any way. You wouldn’t want them to do that to you, would you? (Sorry, Mom voice came out in my head) That’s why many of my earlier clients didn’t ever “get” an Apology Session. They weren’t in a place where we couldn’t guarantee that no additional harm would be done. And we therapists all promise to “do no harm” when we graduate from how-t0-be-a-therapist school. So, if there’s a chance of harm? We aren’t going in. We have much better outcomes from our predictions if we practice that way than the bestest meteorologist. Ours told me it would be cold today but no one said anything about -21. Or maybe they did and I was too stubborn to hear it.

Do you deserve an apology? Sure. Depends. Of course. Maybe. Do you want someone to own their stuff for doing something that you’re still hanging on to? You betcha! You want them to never ever do that again to anyone else, right? Yup. Does that mean forgiveness is going to happen? Nope. We can hang onto past hurts forever and never get as much as an “oops”. What to do then?

Decide if you want to stay waiting in a line that person doesn’t even know exists. Forgiving someone doesn’t excuse what happened. It doesn’t give them a free pass to do it again. But it gives you insight. You know that the best predictors of future behaviors are past behaviors, right? (Said by one of my college professors who was probably quoting some extensive research study that I probably knew 35 years ago) Put that info in a file folder and file it away. If you lent your car to a friend and it came back trashed? File that in the “don’t lend my car to that person” file and clean it out. What good can come from you, (1) driving around angry (2) in a dirty car (3) when they don’t even think it’s that bad? Nada, nunca, zilcho. Giving them the silent treatment isn’t cleaning your car, is it? Decide which is more important – your friendship or a clean car on one day that it was dirty. Resentment and anger don’t have long arms – they can’t reach another person if they’re stewing inside of you. But forgiveness has really long arms to drape your entire self (and even someone else in this cold) in.

Wrap yourself in some forgiveness today. Be badass and forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it. Or don’t. You do you! Whether it’s forgiving someone for stepping on your shoe or for unspeakable hurts from years back, free yourself. And the rest will follow.

Be kind to yourself, you’ve earned it.

Be kind to yourself, you’ve earned it.


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