FORGIVE AND FORGET is often said to be the best way to deal with someone who’s wronged you. Sometimes, though, you might be tempted (or even pressured) to say you’ll forgive someone even when you still feel hurt or haven’t gotten the closure you need. This practice is referred to as “toxic forgiveness.”
“Toxic forgiveness may be given because someone wants to keep the peace or avoid conflict, or because they simply feel like they are supposed to forgive and forget,” says Andrea Brognano, LMHC, LPC, NCC, a therapist at Choosing Therapy. “Toxic forgiveness is an agreement to forgive a person even though they haven’t acknowledged their hurtful behavior, or they aren’t truly sorry.”
While it’s understandable that you want to put a painful experience behind you, not going through the process to truly forgive means you’re not properly dealing with the pain. This can cause trauma and erode your mental health, Brognano says.
“Toxic forgiveness” has gotten lots of buzz on social media lately. The concept was popularized by therapist Nedra Tawwab on an episode of “Red Table Talk” that aired in October, where she said people sometimes pretend to forget about situations where they were treated badly and agree to grant forgiveness.
But, some psychologists dislike the term. Robert Enright, Ph.D., an expert in forgiveness science and professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says “toxic forgiveness” is a “misunderstanding of what forgiving another person actually is.”
“Forgiveness properly understood and practiced is never toxic,” he explains. “The distortion of the meaning of forgiveness can give forgiveness an unwarranted bad reputation.”
Why ‘Toxic Forgiveness’ Isn’t Really Forgiveness
People do often say they’re forgiving someone to keep the peace or to avoid further conflict, but Enright, who’s studied forgiveness for nearly 40 years, says doing so is “appeasement rather than forgiveness.”
What’s described as toxic forgiveness is “about letting go of what happened, so the other doesn’t get angry,” he says. “Forgiveness has nothing to do with letting go of a situation.”
Enright calls forgiveness a “moral virtue to be good to others for the other’s sake.” It’s about bringing justice to the situation. Forgiveness really isn’t about you; it’s for the other person, but you reap the benefits, he explains.
When you forgive, you strive to get rid of the resentment toward someone else and offer something good, like compassion or kindness. Forgiveness should be person-centered, not situation-centered, Enright emphasizes.
“You don’t excuse what the other did, because what they did was unfair, is unfair, and will always be unfair,” he says. “You don’t forget, but you remember it in new ways without the feelings that can really bring you down.”
Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll reconcile with the other person. You may not get an apology or anything else from the other person. It’s about learning to deal with the situation and view it in a different light, so you’re not “abandoning your quest for justice,” Enright says.
Have You Practiced ‘Toxic Forgiveness’?
Any time you forgive someone because you feel like you have to, you’re engaging in toxic forgiveness, Brognano says. Maybe you do it because you want to avoid conflict, feel the need to appease someone, or feel shame or guilt around the situation.
“A person may have engaged in toxic forgiveness if they feel that they have told someone that they forgive them but are still feeling pain inside,” she says.
You also might start to convince yourself that whatever happened is your fault and invalidate your own feelings.
People often engage in toxic forgiveness without realizing it. The reason, Enright says, is that they don’t understand forgiveness (check out the previous section if you missed it!).
How Not Really Forgiving Affects Your Mental Health
When you agree to forgive someone just because you feel like you should, it’s harmful to your mental health and relationships.
“You’re causing pain to yourself and holding onto feelings you have not come to terms with yet,” Brognano says. “Each time this happens, you are adding heat to a boiling pot which eventually will steam up. You are pushing away inner peace in yourself.”
You might also feel that you don’t have the ability to speak your mind when you’re pressured to forgive, she adds. This might cause you to isolate yourself from others and create relationship problems.
Being deeply hurt by someone can cause trauma and anger, which can lead to depression and anxiety. It can diminish self-esteem, too, because people sometimes think of themselves as worthless when they’ve been treated unfairly, Enright says.
“When people equate forgiveness with just moving on, just forgetting it or letting it go, they are setting themselves up to continue being open to the abuse that is harming them,” he adds.
How to Truly Forgive Someone
True forgiveness takes time. It’s a process that involves getting rid of resentment and offering something positive (literally or abstractly) to the other person.
It’s a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional if your emotional pain is interfering with your daily functioning or you’re experiencing anxiety or depression.
But, you can use these tips to start to forgive someone:
Recognize the Injustice
Denial is common when you’ve been hurt, especially when it involves someone you’re close to. But, Enright says recognizing that an injustice has been committed against you is a crucial first step in forgiveness. You also need to examine how the situation is affecting you.
Decide You Want to Forgive
Choosing to forgive and understanding what forgiveness means puts you on the right path, Enright says. It’s important to accept that you’re not excusing or forgetting what happened or necessarily attempting to reconcile with someone. You’re just working towards deliberately being good to the person who’s not good to you.
Reframe How You Think About the Other Person
When you’ve been treated badly, you often define the person who wronged you by the injustice, Enright says. “What we try to do in forgiveness is extend the story by seeing the person in different ways.” That means trying to recognize the other person’s own wounds and unique personhood.
Broadening the story enables you to show compassion toward them. “That’s when we ask the person who’s getting stronger now to bear the pain of what happened, so you don’t throw the pain back to the other,” Enright says. “That’s when your own self-image starts to improve: I’m stronger than I thought I was.”
Express Goodness to the Other Person
It may sound outrageous, but giving to the other person for their sake helps you heal, Enright says. This “gift” might be a phone call or email, if you feel comfortable having direct contact with the person. If not, write them a letter that you don’t send, donate to charity in their name, or just send positive thoughts their way.
“The paradox is, as you start giving to the other, you yourself begin to be healed of the anger, of the anxiety, of the depression, of the hopelessness, of the not liking yourself,” he explains.
You’ll start to learn to deal with the resentment, and it becomes more manageable. But, it’s not about moving on or forgetting.
“Forgiveness is not for you,” Enright says. “You do it for the other. Then, you have the consequence of being released from the emotional prison.”
Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.