You Don’t Owe Anyone Your Forgiveness

Photographed by Meg O'Donnell
It was June 2021. The weather was muggy. People were fed up and grieving after living through 18 months of trauma caused by a deadly pandemic. The then Health Secretary Matt Hancock apologised to the nation. He – the man who had overseen the Department of Health’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic – had been caught on camera kissing his aide, Gina Coladangelo, in a breach of coronavirus rules, his wedding vows and, potentially, the ministerial code of conduct because Coladangelo was a non-executive director at the Department of Health, which pointed to a possible conflict of interest
In a statement, Hancock said: "I accept that I breached the social distancing guidance in these circumstances. I have let people down and am very sorry."
According to The Sun, the video was from 6th May. Under Hancock’s own government’s unlocking timetable, intimate contact with people outside your own household was only permitted from 17th May. He had broken his own rules. The same rules that had kept families apart, starved single people of physical intimacy and prevented everyone in Britain from touching someone they love. But he was 'sorry'. 
Does that make it better? What does it really mean when someone says sorry? What does it really change? 
Sorry, they (well, Elton John) say, seems to be the hardest word. Apologies don’t come easily and sorry, therefore, is given special status – a lexical Gorilla Glue that works hard to do the impossible. It can put even the most broken relationships back together again, holding parts that no longer fit in place, glossing over cracks.
Apologies are supposed to be healing but in a world of meaningless sorrys from politicians, celebrities and men who have been #MeToo’d, they often feel glib. We live in an era of apology theatre and, given that a lot of people who have supposedly been cancelled for doing terrible things seem to be doing rather well, saying sorry is starting to seem like the emotional equivalent of putting a plaster on a broken leg. 
Forgiveness follows apology. Reconciliation is the supposed goal and forgiveness the path towards it, the adult version of kiss and make up. Women, in particular, are expected to be masters of forgiveness. There is a tacit judgement made when women don’t accept apologies – that they are 'bitter' – or extend forgiveness to those who have wronged them, particularly in intimate relationships.
But are we really always compelled to forgive those who hurt us? To grit our teeth and say "Oh, don’t worry about it" while silently adding "Fuck you"? And can you ever heal from a trauma – an argument, a break-up, a betrayal – without forgiving the other person involved?

Research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that in the aftermath of a conflict, forgiveness improves victims' wellbeing.

Dr Heather Sequeira is a consultant ​​psychologist who specialises in stress and trauma. "The problem with forgiveness is that it means such different things to different people," she explains. "Forgiveness," she continues, is "a term with unhelpful and sometimes damaging assumptions."
This is because the concept of forgiveness sets up what Heather calls a false duality: that there is only forgiveness, or else we have to live life in anger and bitterness. This is reductive and traps us in binary thinking.
"It is important to highlight that there are other ways to move through (and sometimes past) experiences to get to a place of peace and acceptance," Heather says. And so, while offering forgiveness can be important in the healing process after you've been wronged or hurt, Heather is clear that it is "not the only way for a person to heal".
There is, of course, a sliding scale of wrongdoing. And, you could argue that some things are unforgiveable. Nonetheless, both in my immediately personal relationships and in the wider context of social injustices – like those exposed by #MeToo – I’ve often felt caught in what feels like a forgiveness trap. In our society the notion, described by Heather, that you can’t move on without forgiving is pervasive. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the simultaneous power and pressure to grant it and wondered what it might mean for someone to authentically seek it via a genuinely meaningful apology. 
"It is important to make a distinction between what forgiveness actually is and making a concession that something which has happened was somehow okay when it wasn’t," Heather says. Too often, she adds, "assumptions are made about women who choose not to forgive people. There is this idea that they are somehow ‘creating’ or ‘maintaining’ their suffering when, in fact, they are just establishing a boundary and saying ‘No, I won’t be treated like that but thanks for your apology’.”
A few years ago I received an out-of-the-blue Facebook message containing a heartfelt apology. It was from someone I’d had a relationship with in my early 20s. It ended when I walked in on them at a house party having sex with my then best friend. At the time, this incident caused untold anguish for everyone involved. I am still not sure how I am supposed to respond to it. People change, of course, but years later I was okay with the fact that what happened that night was not okay. I didn't feel compelled to say otherwise but acknowledging that felt uncomfortable.
The science is clear. Holding a 'grudge' is not going to get you anywhere fast. In fact, it might literally weigh you down. Research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that in the aftermath of a conflict, forgiveness improves victims’ wellbeing and the victim–offender relationship. But there is a key difference between accepting that something bad has happened to you at the hands of another person, forgiving and releasing any feelings you may have about it and telling them that it is okay. You are no less of a person for thinking this and you are not obliged to extend any olive branches to anyone or, indeed, let someone who has hurt you back into your life.
"When forgiveness does happen, it is generally part of a joint process between the 'forgiver' and the 'perpetrator'," Heather explains. "The latter acknowledges the harm caused and can express real remorse and perhaps some attempt to make amends. It is also often a process in which the 'forgiver' can understand and feel some compassion to their own reactions in response to the wrongdoing; there is usually a lot of self-blame leading to suffering on top of the actual wrongdoing that was perpetrated against us." 
This is good if it can happen safely. But there are some situations where it won’t be possible. "Often," Heather adds, "when a person has been wronged, it is not safe to have this kind of discussion because the very power dynamics that were present during the wrongdoing are still present. The person who has been wronged, abused or perpetrated against, can be left feeling more victimised, confused and that they do not have the right to set appropriate boundaries about what is okay and not okay."

It is important to make a distinction between what forgiveness actually is and making a concession that something which has happened was somehow okay when it wasn't.

Dr Heather Sequeira
There is a deep psychological connection between saying sorry and unburdening. People say sorry when they’ve made a mistake. It is an acknowledgement but it is also a way to make themselves feel better. In apologising, they ask someone else to share the load of the burden they’ve been carrying. You can recognise that load but you don’t have to take it on. 
Even when someone is truly sorry and penitent. When they want to make amends, your forgiveness cannot and will not automatically undo a wrong. And reconciliation cannot be the expected outcome of forgiveness. Unfortunately, though, our conceptions of what the forgiveness that follows an apology looks like are limited. There are other ways of acknowledging yet moving past a moral transgression. 
Matt Hancock’s apology, like the Facebook message I received from someone I’d long forgotten about, might look like accountability but it cannot really offer any justice. 
You might spend your life waiting to hear those two syllables from those you feel have wronged you, for an apology that never comes from the ex who cheated on you, the friend who lied to you or the manager who bullied you. You might, equally, hear the word and find yourself feeling compelled to forgive something that you’re simply not okay with. That you’ve already dealt with and moved on from. Nobody is owed forgiveness but, at the same time, you don’t need to hear the word 'sorry' to move on. You are allowed to let yourself off the hook. 
Another way to think about forgiveness, Heather says, is to focus on our own responses, reactions and involvement in the wrongdoing that occurred. "Just to be clear," she notes, "it’s not that as the 'victim' we have done anything wrong, it's just that we blame ourselves anyway and this is part of what keeps us trapped. It is often the self-blame or the shame that prevents us moving on. We get stuck in a trap between blaming ourselves and blaming the other person. In my therapy with clients, I tend to talk about 'letting go of the struggle' rather than forgiveness. When we can let go of the struggle about blame and self-blame, we are free to take our lives forward in whichever direction we want to go."
This, Heather says, is a process of compassionate understanding "which allows us to stop struggling and unhook from some of the destructive emotions and behaviour patterns that might be keeping us trapped and not living the lives we want to live." And, she notes, in spite of the somewhat candy-covered and cliched, pop psychology notion of 'closure', we don’t necessarily have to talk to the person who has harmed us or even receive an apology to embark upon such a process and truly heal. 

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