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Michael Bader: Forgiveness is overrated

When I entered the word “forgiveness” in the “books” category on the Amazon search bar, I got over 14,000 “results.” There is a veritable self-help industry urging us to forgive those we resent or who have hurt us. We are encouraged to “let go” of these grievances, take responsibility for our part in their creation, and cultivate feelings of altruism and compassion instead of anger. Whether grounded in Christian, Jewish, or Buddhist teachings, the importance of forgiveness is promoted everywhere in our culture today.

In my clinical experience, forgiveness is overrated, especially when it comes to someone’s relationship with his or her parents, parents who might have neglected, rejected, failed to understand, exploited or otherwise abused their children. Too often, forgiveness is a rationalization for compliance and self-blame. Time and time again, I hear people talk about how the ideal end point of the process of working through the conflicts of their childhood is some form of reconciliation with those who hurt them. It is apparently okay to be angry with our parents, but a healthy person is supposed to eventually grow up, let go of these resentments, and find a way back to some kind of equanimity. At worst, we might reasonably dislike being with one or both parents, but the ideal internal relationship with them should involve acceptance and compassion.

The problem with forgiveness is that it inadvertently echoes a childhood injunction against really facing up to the damage that parental mistreatment and abuse can inflict. And, unfortunately, such abuse is ubiquitous. Parents have an awesome and terrifying power to shape their children. Parents’ anger, neglect, self-centeredness, neediness, depression, and rejection all have a larger than life effect on a helpless, unformed, and dependent child. But that child is highly motivated to adapt to the parents’ harmful behavior in order to maintain some relationship because it’s a universal fact of human attachment that some relationship, even a bad one, is better than no relationship at all. So, children will usually take on responsibility and blame for the pain they feel and for the harmful actions of their parents. This enables them to remain attached to parents and keep hope alive that love will eventually come their way. In other words, children are already self-destructively primed to forgive their parents for the latter’s abusive treatment. Forgiveness becomes a child’s way of not fully confronting the ways that a beloved caretaker might not have that child’s best interests at heart. The child complies with bad caretaking by growing up to feel like a bad and underserving person.

There is a saying that a child would rather be “a sinner in heaven than a saint in hell.” This means that children have a universal need to believe in the ultimate goodness of their parents and an aversion of seeing them as bad. The way that most children accomplish this is by taking responsibility for their own suffering, thereby exonerating parents and keeping alive the wishful fantasy that the latter are really good or could become good if only their children were different, or better.

Anger and resentment are a child’s defense against internalizing blame. They counteract the tendency to deny a painful emotional reality and, instead, keep this reality squarely in his or her crosshairs. It is a way of pushing back against compliance.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are good things. Understanding that our parents were victims themselves and might have been doing the best they can bring a certain peace to one’s heart and soul. But facing the reality of the damage that these same parents inflicted can also bring peace — the peace of coming to terms with reality. Moreover, such a process can open the door to self-forgiveness and self-compassion, feelings whose importance cannot be overrated.

Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com.


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