Last Sunday I attended the Annual Fire Communion Service at my local church. In this ceremony, each congregant burns a piece of paper containing a brief description of something he or she most wishes to leave behind and lights a candle for one new hope for the coming year. I reflected on what I wanted to let go and wrote it down on a tiny piece of flash paper the church provided. I took my place in line as I watched others throw their paper into the fire. When I found myself next in line I slowly placed my paper close to the fire and as I did that, it instantly ignited and disappeared. Just like that, I felt the burden I had been carrying around for years, disappear.
Forgive or Not to Forgive?
Written on my piece of paper was something I had been carrying around for over 12 years. A very close family member had hurt me very badly many years ago. For my own health and happiness, I decided to completely forgive her by finding compassion for her. I understood why she did what she did and I forgave her – not because I felt what she did was right, I did it for me to let it go. But over the years, forgiveness offered me no relief and I began to question if forgiveness was the right thing to do in this case? This is when I started to dig deeper on the downside of forgiveness. I mean, is there any time when it does not make sense?
Now I know that the proposition that forgiveness can have negative consequences (gasp!) flies in the face of extensive research showing a plethora of positive effects of forgiveness. In fact, the dozens of studies done on forgiveness certainly give the impression that forgiveness is always the right answer for one’s well-being. But like any virtue, I believe the best use of it is in moderation. On one end of the scale, not having the ability to show any forgiveness can leave you isolated and cold, and on the other end of the scale, using forgiveness indiscriminately can leave you feeling like a doormat which can erode self respect and self-concept. The best use of forgiveness is to know how and when to use it.
Now I do not espouse to violence to resolve any issue, but I was intrigued by Michael McCullough’s discussion about revenge in his book, Beyond Revenge. He discusses that revenge is not a disease that needs to be eradicated, but rather it is a natural human behavior that has served an evolutionary purpose. McCullough asks “Why would a species such as Homo sapiens engage in costly behavior such as revenge unless it is associated with a benefit in the currency of fitness? …What could maintain revenge in humans’ behavioral repertoire?” McCullough puts forth three reasons:
- Deterring harm: If you harm me, a vengeful program in my mind is activated and I might want to hurt you back. This will make it less likely this person will harm me again.
- If I harm you and you harm me back, that sends a message in your community or group, “don’t mess with me, because I will harm you back.” This sets the tone for what is acceptable behavior in society.
- Revenge seems to be important for encouraging cooperation in human societies. How did we make civilization happen? If people punish selfish behavior, then you can get people to cooperate for the common good.
McCullough is not talking about revenge for satisfaction, but rather revenge in the form of imposing a consequence for people who commit violations. For example, the person who rides the subway for free is imposed a fine, or the woman who is being abused by her husband decides to leave the marriage and bars him from the benefits of the relationship by walking away. If we do not impose costs, what will stop the perpetrator from hurting again? So does the research give us some guidance on whether forgiveness or revenge is the answer?
In a study published in 2008, McNulty demonstrated that spouses who were more forgiving towards partners who rarely behaved negatively experienced more marital satisfaction in the first two years of marriage. But spouses who were more forgiving towards partners, who frequently behaved negatively, experienced sharper declines in marital satisfaction. This study showed that under some circumstances forgiveness yields negative consequences for the forgiver when their partners continually behaved negatively. Therefore, whether forgiving yields positive or negative consequences depends on the perpetrator’s subsequent behavior.
Exploring the Downsides of Forgiveness
Luchies, Finkel, McNulty and Kumashiro conducted further studies to explore the downside of forgiveness. In a number of longitudinal studies, they demonstrate that the effect of forgiveness on self-respect and self-concept clarity depends on the extent to which the perpetrator has acted in a manner that signals that the victim will be safe and valued in a continued relationship with the perpetrator.
Forgiving can bolster one’s self-respect and self concept clarity if the perpetrator’s behavior signals that the victim will be safe and valued in the relationship. For example, they make strong amends and promise not to behave that way again. They found that forgiving diminishes one’s self-respect and self-concept clarity if the perpetrator does not. Failing to stand up for oneself is likely to decrease one’s respect for oneself and one’s sense of self. They coin this “The Doormat Effect” and offer this piece of advice: if the relationship is safe and valuable for the victims, then forgive; if perpetrators do not signal that a continued relationship is safe and valuable for their victims, then do not forgive.
In my opinion, this is how abusive relationships continue. People forgive even when the abuse continues. I do not believe that retaliation is the answer, but rather people must stand up for themselves and impose reasonable non-violent consequences until their perpetrators see the light. Once the behavior is safe again, then forgiveness can be a powerful tool to let the transgressions from the past go and move on to more positive pursuits. Thus, it is important to maintain your self-respect when forgiving, to avoid feeling like a doormat.
When Does Forgiveness Increase Self-Respect?
To understand the conditions under which forgiving restores or further erodes self-respect and self-concept clarity, one must understand the factors involved in the decision to forgive. Just as revenge can serve a purpose, forgiveness is also important for the evolution and maintenance of social relationships that are important to human survival. If you want to have positive relationships in a group or team, you need to have a psychological mechanism that allows people to erase the ill will in order for relationships to evolve. You can’t get valuable relationships to stick if you can’t let past grievances go.
We are pre-wired for forgiveness, but according to McCullough, we need to know what the ingredients are that turn on the engine of forgiveness so that we can have more control over it. If we understand what activates revenge or forgiveness, then we can create environments that make it easier to put forgiveness into practice. According to McCullough, there are three things that activate the forgiveness instinct:
- Safety: People are naturally inclined to forgive people who they trust will not hurt them again.
- Value: When relationships look like they have long term value and we can see benefit of restoring relationships, then we are more likely to forgive.
- Compassion or Care: We tend to more easily forgive those we have compassion for or people who unintentionally hurt us.
If we can create this kind of environment at home, at work and in our communities, we will see forgiveness flourish. I have to say that forgiveness has always been the answer for me, with this one exception, and I am definitely happier for it. What I realized in this case is that I had forgiven someone who, over the years, continued to intentionally hurt me and who never attempted to make amends, despite my efforts for forgiveness and restoring the relationship. This had derogatory effects on my feelings of self-respect and self-concept. I was able to finally stand up for myself and declare that I would no longer accept such behavior in my life.
Forgiveness finally felt peaceful – but only after I had regained my self-respect.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the Forgiveness chapter of the book, Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life.
Luchies, Laura B., Finkel, Eli J., McNulty, James K., Kumashiro, Madoka, (2010). The Doormat Effect: When Forgiving Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98, 734–749.
McCullough, M.E., (2008). Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. Jossey Bass.
McCullough, M. E., Luna, L. R., Berry, J. W., Tabak, B. A., & Bono, G. (2010). On the form and function of forgiving: Modeling the time-forgiveness relationship and testing the valuable relationships hypothesis. Emotion, 10, 358-376.
McCullough, M. E., Kurzban, R., & Tabak, B. A. (2010). Evolved mechanisms for revenge and forgiveness. In P. R. Shaver and M. Mikulincer (eds.), Understanding and reducing aggression, violence, and their consequences (pp. 221-239). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
McCullough, M. E., Root, L. M., Tabak, B., & Witvliet, C. v. O. (2009). Forgiveness. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (Oxford Library of Psychology) (2nd ed.). (pp. 427-435). New York: Oxford.
McCullough, M. E., Bono, G., & Root, L. M. (2007). Rumination, emotion, and forgiveness: Three longitudinal studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 490-505.
McCullough, M. E. (2000). Forgiveness as human strength: Theory, measurement, and links to well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 43-55.
McNulty, J. K. (2008). Forgiveness in marriage: Putting the benefits into context. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 171-175. Abstract.