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Why you don’t “need” or “have to” forgive anyone if you don’t want or feel ready to.

Why you don’t “need” or “have to” forgive anyone if you don’t want or feel ready to. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

“I don’t know what happened between you two but you NEED to forgive him!”

“You’ll feel so much better if ONLY you can find forgiveness in your heart.”

“The Bible teaches us we need to forgive. Why can’t YOU do that with her?”

Why you don’t “need” or “have to” forgive anyone if you don’t want or feel ready to. | Annie Wright, LMFT | www.anniewright.com

Why you don’t “need” or “have to” forgive anyone if you don’t want or feel ready to.

“Don’t you WANT to forgive and forget? It will make you the bigger person.”

Does any of this sound familiar? Have you ever been at the receiving end of comments like this? Or maybe have you ever told anyone else something to this effect? If so, today’s blog post is for you.

You see, in my work as a psychotherapist and as a fellow human doing this whole life thing, there’s a subtle but pervasive pattern I see that happens in families and social groups all too often: forcing or shaming or blaming someone else into forgiveness before they feel truly ready to forgive.

I call this Forgiveness Shaming and Blaming and I think we need to talk about it.

Today I want to share with you what I think Forgiveness Shaming and Blaming is, how this happens, why this can be destructive, and why you actually don’t “need” or “have to” forgive anyone or anything if you truly don’t want or feel ready to. 

What exactly *is* Forgiveness Shaming and Blaming?

Forgiveness Shaming and Blaming can look like any message you receive from someone that explicitly or implicitly asks or insists that you abandon your experience and act in a way that they find more preferable — in this case, practicing forgiveness when you don’t really feel ready or want to.

(The statements in this blog post’s intro are good examples of it.)

Forgiveness blaming and shaming can be subtle or overt and it can often be hard to see, particularly if you’re part of a family, community, religious group, or any other collective that all buys into the same belief: that you should forgive someone.

But why is this such a bad thing? Isn’t forgiveness a good thing?

Please understand I’m not at all devaluing forgiveness. I think forgiveness can be a beautiful process that can have a multitude of physiological and psychological benefits for the person who is self-directedly working towards and practicing it.

What I find troubling is when individuals, families, or groups send the message to a person who has suffered that they should or have to experience forgiveness before they’ve fully worked through all of the painful feelings of the event or events that may have happened to them. 

In these cases, asking/insisting that someone forgive before or even if they genuinely want and feel capable of doing so sends a message to those who’ve been hurt that they should, essentially, self-abandon and feel something other than what they genuinely feel. And this — pressure to self-abandon by rushing to forgiveness — is usually the very last thing victims of abuse, trauma, or painful life circumstances need.

The reality is that forgiveness often requires a deep process of grieving and healing that looks and feels different for everyone. There is no prescribed timeframe, no generalized benchmark for the forgiveness process. It takes as long as it takes. And what’s more, some people may never get to the point where they feel like they can or want to forgive someone who has hurt them. And that’s okay, too.

But when individuals, families or groups send the message that forgiveness is the end goal and something someone should or must do, it can, in my opinion, often be detrimental and further emotionally damaging to people in pain.

Why do people shame and blame others into forgiveness?

In my experience as a psychotherapist, the reasons why some individuals, families, and groups shame or blame others into forgiveness are complex and varied.

  • Perhaps it’s about “keeping the family together.” After all it’s hard to pretend things are hunky dory when there’s a member of the family angry and hurting about the abuse he suffered at the hands of another family member…
  • Perhaps it’s because the person saying you “need” or “have to” forgive received those very same messages from her parents. Maybe this is all she knows to be true and is now projecting that belief onto you…
  • Perhaps it’s about a group staying comfortable. If victims step forward, speak out, and aren’t “forgiving” their abusers, institutions and groups may have to do the very hard work of self-reflection and systems change that led to the victimization in the first place…
  • Perhaps it’s hard and triggering for the other person to see you have your feelings of anger, grief, hurt. What does it bring up for them that you’re having these feelings and not willing/ready/able to forgive? What’s so intolerable about your feelings for them? 

There are a multitude of reasons why people may subtly or overtly, conscious or unconsciously shame or blame others into forgiveness and while it can be helpful to explore this, I think it’s far more important for you to be able to recognize when you’re personally being shamed, blamed or forced into forgiveness so that you can hold your boundaries, trust your own process, and heal according to your own timeline. If you need support in doing this, please be sure to explore my course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries.

So what can I do when someone starts to shame or blame me into forgiveness?

I think the most important thing you can “do” when someone starts to subtly shame or blame you into forgiveness is to remember this:

You have a right to feel your feelings. All of them. You have a right to not forgive someone or something that’s hurt you. Whatever you feel about that right now is okay. Your healing process is your own and you don’t have to be anywhere other than where you are. You are not responsible for making anyone else feel comfortable by feeling something other than what you feel. You get to have your experience.

The more you can check in with yourself, trust and honor your own process, and allow yourself to believe that you get to have your experience, the more empowered you may be to 1) recognize when your experience or boundaries are being dismissed or crossed and 2) advocate or educate the other person about this if that’s what you need/want. If you would like support in doing this, I encourage you to reach out here.

You know, in my experience, most people aren’t consciously or maliciously intending to shame or blame others into forgiveness. They simply don’t know what they don’t know and, in many cases, simply perpetuate the messages and beliefs that they themselves have received.

Finally, I want you to remember this: Even if you reach a place of forgiveness with someone, that doesn’t mean you have to allow them into your life. And what’s more, if you never reach a place of forgiveness with someone or something, that’s okay, too.

Now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below: Have you ever experienced being shamed or blamed into forgiveness? How did you handle that? What messages or beliefs have you received about forgiveness from your own family and communities? Leave me a message in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.

And until next time, take very good care of yourself.  

Warmly, Annie

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  1. Carol on  

    Hi Annie, thank you for this brilliant post! Again you’ve written about a topic that is prevalent in my own life. ” So something happened in your childhood, get over it! “, ” Be the bigger person. ” “She’s an old lady “, are just a few of the comments I’ve heard recently. It’s easy to feel like a bad person when everyone else is forgiving or just pretending the sadistic abuse didn’t happen. It IS okay to choose not to forgive, isn’t it? Thank you for validating my feelings on this subject. I love your posts and look forward to reading every one.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Carol,

      Thank you so much for sharing how this post resonated with you. I’m sorry you’ve been at the receiving end of Forgiveness Shaming and Blaming. I imagine it was really painful for you.

      And I think you’re right: it can be easy to doubt your own experience when all or most people around you are sending shaming or blaming messages. But you *do* get to have your feelings – all of them – and only you get to decide when and if you feel capable of forgiving.

      I hope you’ll continue to honor your own experience and your own unique healing journey. And thank you so much for stopping by to comment.

      Warmly, Annie

  2. Erin on  

    Going through a recent breakup where it was taking longer to get out of my living situation than I would have liked, I experienced this with my ex. He seemed to expect that we would quickly transition to being friends, like our breakup was no big deal. He had some notions that we were both “evolved, conscious, non-attached” beings and that looked like an absence of suffering and instant forgiveness. My process of grief included a lot of feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and exhilaration. And I’ve really learned how to honor my own process without first trying to keep those around me comfortable. I know I’ll reach that peace in the future, but I’m riding these tough emotions first. Thanks so much for your always comforting and gentle words, Annie!!!

    • Annie on  

      Hi Erin,

      I’m so glad to hear from you and to also hear in your words that you really allowed yourself to trust your own process even when someone else was giving you the message that it would be more “evolved” to move through your process faster. I think often in many spiritual and even personal growth communities there’s a thing called “spiritual bypass” which encourages (or shames or blames) others into not having some of the harder, maybe more painful feelings like grief, anger, sadness. I’m not saying this is what happened for you, but I know this can be true for many.

      At the end of the day, loss and grief is complex and takes as long as it takes before (if ever) we feel resolved and ready to forgive. I think it’s so important and self-loving that you’re trusting your own process around this.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience, Erin.

      Warmly, Annie

  3. Regina on  

    I want to thank you for this, I finally feel validated in my feelings! Being told that ” she made the best choice she could at the time” doesn’t make me feel like my mom did what was best for me. I struggle with anger issues, I’ve read about forgiveness and a part of me wants to, but I just can’t!

    • Annie on  

      Hi Regina,

      I’m so glad this post helped you feel validated in your feelings.

      You know, I think that phrase “she made the best choice she could at the time” (or any iteration or other version of a kind of “excusing” type message) may be true AND you still get to have your feelings about it. It’s paradoxical, meaning both things can be true. She could have done the best she knew how to, and you still get to have all your feeling and process about it, too.

      I’m glad you stopped by to share. Thank you. And I wish you ease and peace.

      Warmly, Annie

  4. Alan fine on  

    I appreciate this post particularly as this challenge to forgive is so much of what I am facing right now. The thing is I know I will have to do it for my own good, if I am to bring my full power and inner resources into moving my life forward. I feel myself refusing to do so (forgive) and spend so much time and energy ruminating about how I’ve been wronged and how I wish I had made different choices earlier and how much I wish this person would suffer for how he treated me. I think when friends tell me I need to forgive it is not shaming but a recognition that I am hurting myself for holding onto something I cannot change. And I have done plenty of grieving and written the letters and thought and felt my way into it a million times.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Alan,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share how this blog post resonated with you. It sounds like you’re moving through your own forgiveness journey and are able to consider the intent of your friends and track your own feelings and thoughts about your process. I hope you get all the support you need to continue to move through this journey and I wish you ease and peace along the way.

      Take very good care of yourself.

      Warmly, Annie

  5. Seth Schoenfeld on  

    I have been shamed into forgiving. The end result is that my lack of forgiveness had become cemented and we all lost as we drifted apart.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Seth,

      I’m sorry you had the experience of being shamed into forgiveness – that sounds really hard.

      I hope that this article can serve as a reminder for you that your process is your own and you get to move at your own pace when and if you ever feel called to forgive again.

      Take very good care of yourself.

      Warmly, Annie

    • MJ on  

      Seth,
      I understand, I am experiencing the same right now. I have to choose myself over someone else’s rigid forgiveness edict. It is certainly in no way necessary to heal. I am using the experience to weed therapists that are rigid in their practice. Using the harmful experience to improve my own life.

  6. Cynthia Gill on  

    Hi Annie,
    I agree with much of what you wrote! You articulated very well the shaming and blaming that goes on. As a Christian I am horrified at the church telling people too soon that they have to “forgive and forget”, and thus re-victimizing the victim.
    The way I always explain it is this:

    There are two parts to your brain: the cognitive part and the
    emotional part. The cognitive part can CHOOSE to let go of the hurt,
    to not hurt the person back. But the emotional part has to process the
    hurt first, maybe for a while, before they can forgive emotionally.
    Sometimes, depending on the hurt (abuse, etc) it might take a year or
    more.
    One distinction we need to make is to define what forgiveness is NOT.
    It is NOT trusting the person again. Trust is earned; it is behavior
    over time. Some people are not trustworthy, and we can never trust
    them again. Also, it doesn’t always mean reconciliation. A person can
    forgive without being reconciled: by choosing to give up the right to
    hurt the person back.

    I differ with you because you doesn’t articulate the
    difference between the cognitive part of the brain and the emotional
    part of the brain, thus concluding the “we don’t have to forgive if we
    aren’t ready”. It’s true, we don’t HAVE to forgive, but the
    consequences are dire. Not only do we cut ourselves off from God’s
    forgiveness, but there are ramifications in our body and soul. Who
    wants to be a bitter soul?

    I’ve found that one of the reasons people don’t forgive is that they
    don’t understand the definition of forgiveness; (they think it means
    trusting again or reconciling). It is a GOAL to forgive emotionally,
    and it might take a while.

    So, anyway, thanks for a pretty good blog!
    Sincerely,
    Cynthia

    • Annie on  

      Hi Cynthia,

      Thank you so much for stopping by to share your perspective. I appreciate what you wrote about distinguishing between the cognitive and emotional parts of our brain and also the distinction you made about how forgiveness does not equate to having (or even being able to trust again).

      And again, I think working towards the process of forgives is beautiful and can have profound physiological and psychological benefits when and if a person chooses and feels ready and able to. And this is so complex and can look different for everyone – as you identified, too.

      So thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and please do feel free to link to my blog.

      Warmly, Annie

    • Jeanette on  

      I respectfully disagree with your position that God’s forgiveness hinges on the extent we forgive. As a person who holds a different spiritual position, I have been subject d this thin disguise of shaming / blaming the victim into forgiving…the Lord’s Prayer reinforces this by including the phrase forgive is our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Implication of this is that I am not forgiven for my sins unless I forgive the perpetrator….this fear of dying in sin motivates the person to forgive prematurely. Annie’s blog gives comfort to those who are working through their pain alone, she offers validation for their feelings. Validation from others is key to the healing process.

      • MJ on  

        Thank you!
        Forgiveness thumpers have been extremely detrimental to me. The result has been that if they have to thump it and not allow others their own choices, their thinking and beliefs are far too rigid for my comfort.
        It just isn’t healthy at all.
        So, I have decided that it WON”T become part of me or my healing at all. I am using it as a screening tool. If “forgiveness” is forced, shamed, blamed, I RUN!
        I can process trauma and move on in a healthy way WITHOUT the forgiveness edict.

  7. Liz on  

    For me personally, I am finding that I also like to think about things in life as events, or processes with a set beginning and end. We will one day have forgiven this person, or we have forgiven this person. Sometimes it is helpful to think of things in packets like this, but in reality, these types of processes in life are much more messy and nebulous. I may feel like I have forgiven someone one day, or one moment, and the next feel like I have not. Part of the process of loss, sadness, and anger is that it goes up and down, cycles around, and does not necessarily follow a set order. Sometimes it is hard to accept this, because often we want to feel we have definite closure, or for things to have an end. Most times in life, we must simply let ourselves be, and find a way to manage or support ourselves and our emotions rather than find an end to them 🙂

    • Annie on  

      Hi Liz,

      I really love your share because you’re articulating the nonlinear nature of forgiveness, or grief, or many more of the major emotional processes we can go through as humans. I absolutely agree with you that this nonlinear, all-over-the-place process can feel hard to accept at times and to allow because, at least in my own experience, I want to hurry up and reach resolve. But the reality is our soul and feelings don’t work like that. Our process takes as long as it takes. As one of my dearest mentors from Esalen would say (and still says to me) “Trust the Process.” This is a mantra I invite for you, me, and everyone else.

      Thank you again for stopping by to share, Liz. I love what you wrote.

      Warmly, Annie

  8. Chupacabra on  

    My hope for all of us is that we’d pursue friendships in our messes. That we wouldn’t wait to reach out until we have it all together. When you welcome someone over to your dirty house, I guarantee it’ll make that friend feel even more loved to know you trust her with your real life stuff.

    • Annie on  

      Sergey,

      I agree with you: waiting to pursue relationship until we “have it all together” is a losing battle. That day will never come and it delays life into the someday-maybe-future. Life is messy, and so are all of us. And that doesn’t mean we can’t connect with each other in it.

      Thank you for taking the time to share.

      Warmly,

      Annie

  9. Heather on  

    Thanks for this article. No one is obligated to forgive. Pushing others to forgive just victimizes the victim all over again.

    • Annie on  

      Hi Heather,

      I’m glad you found this article helpful in some small way. And I agree with you: “No one is obligated to forgive.” It’s a message I don’t think we talk about often enough.

      Be well. Warmly, Annie

  10. Jon on  

    I can’t even begin to describe what a burden off my shoulders it was when I came to the realization that moving past my negative feelings about a wrong committed against me doesn’t require forgiveness. I’ve felt anger that’s festered for years dissipate almost completely overnight once I realized that I don’t have to forgive because I can’t forgive, and that’s perfectly fine.

    • Annie on  

      Jon,

      I’m so glad you gave your permission to actually have your experience and not feel forced or compelled to forgive if you don’t feel able to. You so get to have your experience however that looks. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

      Warmly, Annie

  11. Marie on  

    I’ve been overtly shamed to forgive and participate in ‘family inlaw’ functions with a group of unremorseful and unchanged abusers just to appease their enablers. When I mentioned how much pain these people had caused me and my marriage and children, and that none of them were really interested in resolving things and taking full responsibility and in fact continue with some patterns of abuse up to this day, I was met with radio silence by the enabler. This told me how selfish they truly were, and that it wasn’t really about genuine forgiveness and resolution, but demands for what they wanted with no consideration about the impact on me or the ones I love, hence revictimozing. I was (and am) just an object in that family which was one of the many reasons I cut ties for self-preservation.

    I guess my point is, that I notice in that in this society, we spend so much time blaming and shaming the victims into forgiveness, and not enough time shaming and blaming the abusers themselves! Perhaps if the focus was taken off the victim, and placed on the patterns of the abuser, there would be less comfortable spaces for people to continue to abuse others.

  12. Clare Lewandowski on  

    Thank you for this as the meme that forgiving is always good for us is a meme that is NOT good for all of us and all situations.

  13. Mina on  

    Thank you so much for this. I saw an account on IG saying we owed our abusers forgiveness, and was met with shaming when I told them I didn’t owe my abuser anything and I wouldn’t forgive him. You know, the whole “but you’ll be completely free” and “you can let go of the bitterness holding you back from being your best self.”

    Ironically, as someone often told to let things go prematurely growing up, refusing to forgive has been what was liberating in my healing process. I don’t owe my abuser anything–if he wants my forgiveness, he can do the mountain of work needed to earn it first. And in the meantime, I’m not bitter–I’m just putting myself first.

    • Annie on  

      Mina, I really, really appreciate your comment. And I want to wholeheartedly affirm what you already know to be true: you don’t owe your abuser anything and, very often, allowing ourselves to be in control of our emotions and when (if ever!) we feel ready to forgive is deeply healing. We’re in power when we do this, which, so often, is the opposite of what many of us experienced at the hands of abusers (aka: powerlessness). I support you in taking care of yourself and knowing what’s best and true and right for you beyond what others may say you “should” do. Warmly, Annie

  14. Shayri on  

    I suspect my situation is less traumatic than some commenters, here. Mine involves the deterioration of multiple sibling relationships after the death of the parents.

    Our words and actions…our behavior, have consequences. And, sometimes the consequence is the destruction of relationships.

    I don’t feel compelled to forgive people who are completely dismissive of my feelings or cannot take responsibility for how their words and actions impacted me/others.

    While it may seem cold or harsh to some, I don’t feel bad about it. Despite the “shaming,” I resolved my feelings without the element of foregiveness.

    Sometimes it’s okay, to just move on.

    • Annie on  

      Thank you so much for your comment, Shayri. I’m really glad the article resonated with you and I personally loved what you said: “I don’t feel compelled to forgive people who are completely dismissive of my feelings or cannot take responsibility for how their words and actions impacted me/others” – your perspective on not feeling compelled to forgive is absolutely on point. The choice of whether or not to forgive someone or something that’s hurt you is *always* yours to make, and I completely agree, you should never feel bad about whatever decision you settle on.

      Thank you again for taking the time to stop by and comment.

      Warmly, Annie

  15. Delisa R. on  

    Thank you for this. The “must forgive or will not heal” started off in a Chicken Soup for the Soul and caught fire. Now even doctors are shoving it on survivors. It is the magic wonder cure. Would we advocate a single form of treatment for every other wound??

    Forgiveness is a gift I can give – or not. It should be used to heal people, not hush them up.

    • Annie Wright on  

      Thank you for sharing your perspective, Delisa. In a lot of cases, forgiveness can often be used as a way to shame and blame survivors and those who have been hurt. It’s important to remember exactly what you said – Forgiveness is a gift you can give – or not. I trust when and if you forgive, it will be because you want to. Not because someone told you to.

      Thank you so much for writing in. Warmly, Annie

  16. LG on  

    I’m currently going through the same thing, and the perpetrator desperately wants to be a part of my life and my children’s lives, only to do even more damage and sadly, there are family members who are manipulated by her. They stand beside her, despite the hideous things she’s done to me and how she’s taken advantage of me and them. I feel like I don’t need this person in my life and she definitely should never be a part of my children’s lives. Also, I was tricked into forgiving although I never truly forgave. She is an evil person and evil is as evil does. I don’t want to spend my life depressed, while constantly trying to forgive. Deep down, I knew it was wrong to let her into my life and I felt really bad every time I was around her. Now I know I can only live happily if she is out of my life. Then I can put these things behind me and I don’t have to see the person who made my life into a living hell and remind me how different it might have gone if she was never a part of it. Only that way I can live in present and be sure that I’m doing everything for my children as well, so they don’t have to go through the same thing and suffer in the hands of this person. Right now I feel like I need to cut them all out, her puppets included. Those people haven’t opened their eyes and genuinely think she has helped me and is helping me, when in reality she has only sabotaged me in every possible way and is only doing a few things for me now and then to make it seem like she’s a good person. She is NOT! She is a monster. I’m happy to see it, firmly say no and let go of that chapter in my life.

    • Annie on  

      Hi there, thank you for your honesty and openness in sharing your experience. I’m so proud of you for identifying and validating your feelings and setting a boundary with that person to move on. I wish you all the best in your healing journey and hope you continue to make progress in ways that feel good and supportive to you. Warmly, Annie.

  17. Grace on  

    Hello. I needed to read this article. I struggle with guilt regarding forgiveness. My Dad is asking me to forgive and forget things of the past. The issue is that I have done so and he continually would say things that would put me right back into that feeling of the past. I do love the man but I despise who he is

    • Annie on  

      Hi Grace, I’m so pleased this post resonated with you. Navigating relationships with parents can be challenging, especially as we develop our own boundaries. You absolutely do not need to rush your healing or adopt any feelings that don’t feel true.

      If my online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, could be of support to you processing the impacts of your childhood, I’ll look forward to seeing you inside and working with you personally. In the meantime, please take such good care of yourself, you’re so worth it. Warmly, Annie

  18. Heather Colaizzi on  

    My entire life I have been guilt tripped into forgiving my mother over and over again. “Be there bigger person Heather, forgive and forget, move forward, she didn’t mean it…” My mother has let me down, never been there for me, gave me up when I was 2, never did one thing for me growing up… yet I’m expected to forgive her every single time she disappoints me and let’s me down. She’s told me “you’ve never been the daughter I wanted…” I’ve blocked her, deleted her, to only be guilt tripped into making uo with her again. I feel like I have some resentment towards my grandmother (who raised me) & my uncle because they seem to let all of this go. I feel like my feelings are not valid. I’ve distanced myself from them the last couple of years, which makes me sad, but I’m not sure what else to do. The last argument with my mother involved my oldest daughter. That was the last straw. My daughter said she didn’t want to have a relationship with her, and my Mom blames me. So she took it upon herself to write a 5 page letter telling me how much she hated me, how horrible I am, how she hopes I rot in hell… how I’m a horrible mother… etc. They know about it, told her she shouldn’t of wrote that, but of course still talk to her and see her every week. She tried to sabotage my relationship with them. She told my grandmother I said I didn’t want anything to do with them. For a moment, she called and questioned me…. Which made me mad, because she was believing her. I just don’t know how to handle this mess. I seem to distance myself, be short with my nana (whom is 90,) and I worry I’m going to end up with regrets. It’s just a hard situation. There’s so much more, but this is the basics here….

    • Annie on  

      Hi Heather, Thank you for honesty and vulnerability in sharing your story with all of us. I’m sorry about that letter, I can imagine that was a painful experience and unfortunate that your eldest daughter was involved. I’m so proud of you for setting boundaries with difficult family members, and want to remind you that you’re absolutely not alone in your experience. I know how challenging that task can feel.

      If my either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – could be of support to you as you progress and continue along with your grieving and sense-making journey, I’d love to be of support to you. In the meantime, please know I’m sending you my very best. Warmly, Annie

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