Forgiving someone isn’t just a noble act in service of the other person; it has the potential to be deeply healing on a personal level, too. But that’s only if you forgive and really mean it. There’s a profound difference between forgiving someone after you’ve talked it out, come to terms with their actions, and allowed yourself the time and space to heal; and just forgiving someone to evade a conflict or “be the bigger person.” The latter is indicative of toxic forgiveness, a term popularized by therapist Nedra Tawwab, MSW, LCSW, on a recent episode of Red Table Talk.
The temptation to forgive without being ready is largely a product of how much moral pressure our society places on forgiveness. After all, we’re told that the best way to get over a conflict is to forgive and forget—but that notion isn’t necessarily the wisest, says psychotherapist Peter Schmitt, LMHC, associate clinical director at Kip Therapy. “Forgiveness necessitates understanding and acknowledging the harm that was done, and making an active choice to continue in some form of relationship with the person who hurt you,” he says. That process is the antithesis of forgetting. “If we truly do forget, then we’re still trying to be in a relationship with a version of this person that never did any harm—and that’s not the person with whom we’re really staying in a relationship.”
Of course, it’s not a good idea to constantly focus on the harm that was done or hold onto grudges, either. “This creates a sense of righteous indignation, as we recall the most negative aspects of a person and their most hurtful actions, while only considering the most virtuous aspects of ourselves,” says psychologist Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusion of Flawless Relationships. “The resulting ‘victim mindset’ can keep us stuck in our resentments.”
It’s for that reason that doing the opposite and forgiving someone typically gets such a good reputation: Once you forgive someone (for real, that is), “your body can feel lighter, your mind won’t feel as cluttered, and you may experience more emotional and bodily peace,” says Dontea’ Mitchell-Hunter, LMFT, a self-worth coach and therapist specializing in relationship healing. In fact, the act of forgiving has been shown to reduce stress and boost mental health in the forgiver.
“We don’t want to forgive too quickly without processing our pain or too slowly such that we stay suffering in our victim status for years.” —Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, psychologist
Again, that requires finding forgiveness in a genuine way—not because you’re succumbing to societal or personal pressure to let someone off the hook, but because you truly feel like you’ve accepted their wrongdoing and can move forward. “We don’t want to forgive too quickly without processing our pain or too slowly such that we stay suffering and stewing in our victim status for years,” says Dr. Nerenberg. While the latter might be the case for someone who can’t access forgiveness at all, the former reflects toxic forgiveness.
Why toxic forgiveness is problematic
At its core, toxic forgiveness can be a form of self-betrayal, says Mitchell-Hunter. “When you move on before you’re prepared to, you skip over the internal check-in that you need in order to feel all the complex feelings of hurt,” she says. By allowing yourself to feel what is true for you, she says, you can identify what you need to heal, whether that’s “stillness, comfort, care, connection, distance, or anger.” If you’re accepting an apology without having taken this step, you’re not setting yourself up to move forward.
Instead, you’re just “pushing the reality of the hurt out of your mind,” says Schmitt. By not effectively processing or addressing the pain caused, you also raise the risk that it’ll resurface again in the future. “When people try to get over things too quickly, the anger and resentment comes out later as they realize that they never properly grieved their pain,” says Dr. Nerenberg.
By the time that point arrives, it might not always be clear where the anger is coming from. “It typically comes out sideways in the form of passive-aggressive digs,” she adds. For example, consider a woman who rushed to forgive a partner for cheating, but deep down, wasn’t actually ready to do so. “When this person sees another attractive woman walk past her partner, she might make a sarcastic comment about how this woman must be their type,” says Dr. Nerenberg. This kind of behavior demonstrates that her initial forgiveness was not actually in earnest and that her concerns were brushed under the rug, where they’ve been allowed to fester even more.
How to tell if you’ve fallen into the trap of toxic forgiveness
Perhaps the strongest indicator that your forgiveness of another person isn’t actually serving you (or them) is the feeling that you just forgave them because you had to—that is, in order to avoid a conflict or because you just felt the need to appease them. This temptation often stems from feeling some degree of shame, guilt, or embarrassment that you’ve been hurt by their actions, says Mitchell-Hunter, so you attempt to assuage it by just pretending to be “over it.”
Sometimes, if a person has been very hurt by someone they really cared about, they can actually become convinced that it’s their own fault for getting so upset, says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder. “Maybe the person who hurt you manipulated you into feeling that way, or maybe blaming yourself makes the situation feel more within your control,” she says. In either case, though, taking the full blame might lead you to “forgive” someone else when, deep down, you’re still very much hurting as a result of their actions.
This might show up in the form of self-talk that invalidates your own feelings. If you find yourself thinking things like, “I shouldn’t be this mad,” or “I’m immature for letting this impact our relationship,” that’s a clear sign that you’re brushing aside your true feelings in service of faux forgiveness, says Schmitt. By doing so, you’re missing the important message that these feelings are communicating—namely, that you haven’t yet healed and that there’s more work to be done before your relationship can truly move forward, he says.
Similarly, if you find yourself making indirect digs at your partner, that may also be a sign that unresolved feelings are lurking beneath the surface. “When we’re hurting because of a deep wound, these kinds of comments can come out over seemingly innocuous things,” says Dr. Nerenberg. “Whenever we are highly reactive, it shows that we have not worked through our hurt feelings.” That is, no matter how many apologies we’ve claimed to accept.
How to move toward genuine forgiveness
Clearly, toxic forgiveness is forgiveness offered up too soon, before you’re really ready to accept an apology. If you catch yourself in this state, how can you progress toward the kind of acceptance required of real forgiveness?
That starts with practicing some genuine self-care, according to Dr. Daramus. In the immediate aftermath of being hurt by someone, it’s essential to manage your boundaries and give yourself the space you need from the person who hurt you to feel safe again. “True forgiveness may become possible when you genuinely feel that the threat to you, whether it’s physical or emotional or something else, is past,” she says.
In this phase, it’s also important to figure out “how you actually feel and what forgiveness in this relationship means to you without letting anyone else tell you how you should feel or when it’s time to forgive,” says Mitchell-Hunter. Allowing yourself the time you need to acknowledge your hurt and anger, rather than burying those feelings, “may hold the key to understanding how you can actually heal the relationship with the person who hurt you,” says Schmitt.
This kind of introspection can also help you figure out why you’re feeling so hurt in the first place—which may not just have to do with the actions of the perpetrator in question. Sometimes, deep wounds from childhood can be triggered by the behaviors of partners later in life. For example, if you feel rejected by your partner, you might ask yourself whether you’re really feeling angry at them or if, perhaps, the anger you’re feeling is actually directed at your parents for having abandoned you when you needed them, says Dr. Nerenberg. “It may be helpful to talk to a trusted friend or therapist to get to the root of your pain,” she says.
Still, the point of this exercise isn’t to give the current perpetrator a free pass; it’s more about personally finding a route forward with more understanding. And the same can be said about forgiving someone overall: It’s not about dismissing the fact that they hurt you, but coming to terms with the hurt such that you can offer them mercy, regardless, says Dr. Nerenberg. Perceiving forgiveness in this way can help you escape the toxic “forgive-and-forget” narrative and find the capacity to forgive someone, instead, from a place of honesty and acceptance.