Why can’t we forgive even though we want to? What are the barriers to forgiveness?
These are the two questions we sometimes found ourselves asking ourselves as we live in a society where friends, family, and colleagues surround us. It’s obvious that interactions with them will cause positive and negative emotions in us, and in a sense, that’s what life is. In this context, we can define forgiveness as a simple act of accepting the shortcomings of others that cause negative emotions and grievances to us by simply giving them a second chance.
It is considered that in order to forgive someone, one has to have moral status. What’s interesting is that certain kinds of other conditions must also be met before this act of forgiveness. These conditions shape how forgiveness works in society. These conditions must be met either by the victim or the offender (or both). For example, If there are not any good kinds of reasons to forgive, but the victim anyway forgives, then the victim is considered to be bad by forgiving. We can say it is a kind of wrongdoer-dependent condition. If the wrongdoer does not apologize to the victim, then the victim does something morally impermissible (or bad, or blameworthy, etc.) by forgiving.
Technically, forgiveness involves three main elements: a hurt victim, a perceived or real indiscretion, and a transgressor or culprit. Forgiveness of others occurs when we believe that we have been wronged, therefore it involves culminating emotions such as hostility, anger and vengefulness. Whereas forgiveness of oneself occurs when we believe that we have offended, and hence it involves culminating emotions such as shame, guilt and self-recrimination.
Forgiveness also can be defined as a cathartic process that actually helps to let go of these negative emotions.
What’s so wrong about unforgiveness
Of course we can’t forgive everyone and sometimes the crime is too hideous to even consider forgiving and it’s completely okay to not forgive the culprit in these situations. But we also often find ourselves unforgiving in not so consequential situations too.
When we find ourselves in a state of unforgiveness, not only do negative emotions start to hinder our mental well-being, but also create a stress response with consequences for our physical health including effects on the autonomic nervous system, cardiovascular and vascular diseases, the immune system, potentially leading to chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, anxiety, and/or depression. Hence, forgiveness has implications not only for psychological well-being but physical well-being, too.
Unforgiveness in a way is focused on the past and anger associated with it can exhaust you. Hence, forgiveness comes as a choice where you focus on the future.
It’s crucial to understand that forgiveness is a choice made by the person who has been done wrong by others. But reaching this choice is a personal matter and does not have a specific time frame, since everyone has to sort through different personal factors which affect this decision. The main problem occurs when an individual actually understands that they have wished to make this choice but realize after a while, that even after trying to forgive the transgressor they actually can’t. So what’s stopping them?
Barriers to forgiveness:
After being wronged by anyone we usually undergo a process of sense-making. We find ourselves trying to understand the transgressor’s underlying motivations as well as our own feelings toward the transgressor. And these feelings might give birth to the following beliefs that work as barriers to everyday forgiveness:
- Forgiveness sacrifices justice : Well obviously the victim is hurt more than the transgressor. The feeling of justice is a natural thing to arise in such a situation. Now forgiveness might mean to the victim that they have to sacrifice their right to justice.
Surprisingly, forgiveness actually restores the need for power and status by creating value consensus because it symbolizes the victim’s faith and hope in the future instead of the past.
- Forgiveness condones the transgressor’s behavior: People who have repeatedly been on the receiving end of hurtful behavior do develop understandable fears that offering forgiveness will be misinterpreted by the offender as evidence that they can get away with the same behavior again.
Even though research suggests that transgressors would be more prosocial oriented toward forgiving victims than unforgiving victims, the present hurt and the uncertainty of the future makes it really hard for any victim to forgive someone.
- Forgiveness makes the victim appear weak: As a social being, we all have our social reputations and forgiveness can appear to the victim that their image got tarnished. We are motivated to prevent our social reputation so that we do not appear weak and vulnerable. Interestingly, victims sometimes can also gain a “sense of power or control” in relationships by unforgiveness and they might fear that forgiveness will take away that power.
These barriers may seem hard to tackle and sometimes they actually are. But obviously, and thankfully, there are different ways to work on these barriers. Two of them worth mentioning are: setting legitimate boundaries and re-strengthening self-worth.
Setting legitimate boundaries, is the right to set and enforce legitimate boundaries in a relationship. The important thing here is to understand that forgiveness does not necessarily mean that they need to continue their relationship with the other person. Simply letting go of toxic people with negative emotions by forgiving works perfectly.
Re-strengthening self-worth, we may need to re-strengthen our inner sense of self-worth and self-respect before forgiveness can be an option. Building a self-image that doesn’t get tainted by others’ negative opinions and behavior is obviously not an easy task but trusted friends and family members can help in building it. To learn more self-worth boosting activities click here.
Everybody has to seek and receive forgiveness in their life and sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s not. It takes a lot of practice, compassion, and self-introspection to achieve it. Understanding these specific belief barriers can help in generating and implementing strategies that can address these barriers skillfully. Everyone’s journey of forgiveness is a little unique and I hope you will be able to tackle any barrier that comes in your path.
Best of luck and happy journey!