The idea of forgiveness – asking for it and offering of it – is deeply rooted in many societies and faiths and is often seen as a universal panacea to release otherwise apparently unresolvable resentment, anger or pain. It’s understandable that people are attracted to the idea when it appears to offer a solution of this kind, the release from difficult feelings or inertia. Especially when there seems no other route to peace or reconciliation.

But does it actually work?

We are told by teachers, religious leaders and spiritual guides that forgiveness is the ‘right’ or the ‘good’ thing to do. We are even told that if we forgive others God will forgive us in turn. Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”  This kind of judgement hangs over those who are struggling to forgive and often wounds them again, making them feel more inadequate. The social pressure to forgive also often allows the perpetrator an escape from their responsibility and guilt. When the cost of their actions is excluded someone else will pay the price. 

People hope that they can ‘forgive and forget’, whether it’s their parents, their enemies, their partners or themselves. However, it is rarely as simple as that and forgiving can cause confusion, resentment and inertia in individuals, families and organisations. Resolution usually requires something more nuanced and more respectful.

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“When someone says to another ‘I forgive you’ he is in that moment pronouncing the other guilty. He raises himself above the other and degrades them. This suspends the human relationship of equal to equal. It endangers the relationship instead of rescuing it.”

Bert Hellinger

A fresh perspective on familiar patterns

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