A new year is always a time when we hear and think about starting with a clean slate. It’s always such a tempting thought, but of course none of us can ever start with a completely clean slate. We always carry with us the results of our decisions and backgrounds. Our children, and perhaps we, carry our past trauma and adverse experiences. Yet, there is a way to get close to a clean slate, and that is to learn the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a complicated concept, but I have been seeing research recently showing that it is a powerful tool for overcoming adversity. One systematic review of various mental health studies found that adolescent victims of bullying and cyberbullying are better able to resist bullying when they practice forgiveness. Other studies indicate that developing forgiveness generally makes people happier and improves mental health. There is evidence that one way to help our children overcome their trauma would be to help them learn how to exercise forgiveness.
Before we go down that road, however, we need to figure out exactly what “forgiveness” entails. I have seen child abuse victims receive a lot of pressure from family members to forgive the perpetrator, often (coincidentally, I’m sure) just before parole board hearings or motions for new trials. Forgiveness does not require us to help people avoid the consequences of their bad decisions. In fact, it’s counterproductive all the way around. There is some research showing that when people forgive spouses who continue to treat them badly, the relationship and the forgiving person’s mental health both suffer.
Similarly, forgiveness does not require one to turn back the clock and reinstate the relationship. “Forgive and forget” is a catchy phrase, but it’s not a healthy practice. Actions have consequences, and healthy relationships have strong boundaries. Forgiving someone does not require us to lower our boundaries and pretend that nothing happened. Sometimes we can reinstate the relationship, but sometimes it’s simply not emotionally or physically safe to do that.
So if forgiveness isn’t something that wipes the slate clean, then what is it? Dr. Karen Swartz at the John Hopkins Hospital provides an excellent definition, “It is an active process in which you make a conscious decision to let go of negative feelings whether the person deserves it or not.” Psychology Today defines it as “the release of resentment or anger.” In other words, it’s an affirmative decision we make about our emotions and our view of events. It is a way of doing what we often recommend to our children, i.e., controlling the things that we can control.
Learning to forgive people or teaching our children healthy forgiveness is a complicated process. There are several programs for the process, such as the Enright model and REACH model. All of them, however, involve a decision to let go of grievances, even valid complaints, and find a way forward.
Developing forgiveness definitely is not a one-and-done trait. It’s a skill that we have to practice repeatedly. The good news is that, at least according to the bullying review, encouragement from parents is important to helping teenagers develop forgiveness skills. If we can model the process for our kids and help them find healthy ways to learn to forgive the people who have wronged them, then we help increase their odds of recovering from their past adverse experiences. It will be the closest that we ever will get to having a clean slate for the future.