Forgiveness and Psychotherapy

I’ve been reading Fromm-Reichmann’s writings this weekend. She was a radical interpersonal psychoanalyst who was a trailblazer in the psychoanalytic treatment of schizophrenia. In one of her papers, she argued that it is mandatory that psychotherapists disabuse themselves of notions of social conformity or adjustment as being necessary for the psychotic individual’s recovery. She claims that the patient should have the right to choose to live the life they want and should not be forced to conform to society. In other words, she understood that the psychoanalyst ought to stay outside of the realm of ethics or social normalization precisely because it strips the patient of self-determination.

The amoral posture of psychoanalysis got me thinking about a notion that has long troubled me in my work as a psychologist, namely, forgiveness. I should clarify how I define forgiveness. From my perspective, forgiveness means the acceptance of the past event and the relinquishing of the negative affects (particularly rage and resentment) that accompany those memories. Generally, forgiveness also implies that the offended person expresses their forgiveness to the offender. As I’ve written elsewhere, a majority of my patients have experienced childhood adversity (neglect, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, etc.). [Parenthetically, I’ve become more and more convinced that the primary cause of mental illness is interpersonal trauma, which is unfortunately radical in this day and age of the brain.] Anyway, as the traumatized patient and I begin to delve into the trauma history the question of forgiveness invariably emerges. “Should I forgive him?”

Now, the moralist (read superego) enters the room with his common-sense notions that forgiveness is absolutely indispensable for therapeutic recovery. “You just gotta let go. Forgiveness is not about forgetting, it’s about letting go. Life’s too short to be pissed off all the time. Forgiveness is more about you and less about them, etc.” All of these folk-wisdom sayings have to be addressed in therapy as the patient considers these questions. I’ve even heard some psychologists say, ‘you have to help the patient realize that his abuser’s troubled past is what motivated the abuse.”

The more I’ve grown as a psychologist and psychoanalytic thinker the more suspicious I’ve become of all of these ideas. First, the notion that one can just “let go” and “forgive” someone who chronically tortured them as a child is insulting. These individuals struggle with rage and anger that could annihilate the entire world. Unfortunately, the rage has never had an outlet and often leads the person to suicide or self-mutilating behaviors. It’s not that easy to simply “let go”. Second, the idea that recovery is predicated on forgiveness strikes me as questionable. I’ll say more about this later on. Third, I am deeply skeptical about trying to explain the presumed reason behind the abuser’s actions. For instance, “they must have been really sick or crazy or mistreated when they were children.” This idea never made any sense to me. Of course, trauma is transmitted across generations and people who are abused are likely to repeat the abuse as adults. However, if you think about it more deeply, someone who has experienced abuse (and thus aware of its devastating psychological consequences) should be even more strongly motivated to avoid inflicting the trauma on another innocent child. After all, they’re experts on how awful trauma can be for children. I refuse to rationalize the specific abuser’s actions because I don’t know why THAT adult chose to abuse THAT child. More broadly, the belief that the abuser was abused strikes me as way to explain away suffering in a meaningless world. Nothing like childhood abuse makes one realize how meaningless suffering is (what Simone Weil called “affliction”). I think we want to live in a world where evil behavior comes from an evil place. It’s terrifying to think that people with “healthy” childhoods can end up being abusive. Fourth, aren’t certain actions beyond forgiveness? Can one really forgive the sadist who tortures a child with no remorse? There’s a reason God created Hell.

I want to close with two ideas that are valuable for any conversation about forgiveness and psychotherapy. I’ll start with a short case example. Recently a patient asked me “why would my grandmother have allowed me to be molested and then called me a liar when I brought it to her attention? How can I forgive her?” Interestingly enough, the betrayal and abandonment of the non-abusive caretaker is often more devastating than the actual abuse. My response was simple: “I personally don’t care what you choose to do with your relationship with your grandmother. It’s up to you if you want to cut her out of your life or if you want to forgive her. What’s important to me is that you no longer allow her to control your life.” She said more recently that she’s tired of these experiences controlling her and that she wants to be free of her abusers. For me, this is the aim when working with trauma survivors: increasing their sense of control and power. Traumatized children are not allowed to have control over their body or mind as they are violated and exploited. Of course, the forgiveness advocates will argue that the only way to take back control is through forgiveness. However, I want to argue that the ultimate goal is not the relinquishing of rage but the achievement of indifference. In psychoanalytic terms, we want the patient to de-cathect their libidinal and aggressive investment in the internalized abusive and abandoning objects. In English, we want the patient to no longer be psychologically attached to the abusers within. I even like to think of the goal as achieving an apathetic disdain of the abuser. I would like the abuse survivor to have gained enough psychic distance so that when they think of the abuser all that comes to mind is a casual “fuck off.”

Second, I think the entire conversation around forgiveness distracts from the real problem: the abuse survivor’s inability to forgive herself. That is a forgiveness that I will absolutely advocate for. Self-blame is one of the most damning legacies of childhood abuse. When I confront patient’s who minimize the abuse, I tend to conceptualize this as the individual’s identification with the aggressor and challenge the rationalizations.

11 Responses to “Forgiveness and Psychotherapy”

  1. Aaron Says:

    Thank you.

  2. Aric Says:

    “increasing their sense of control and power”

    Herein lies the difficulty: The abused’ strongest reference to control and power will most always be abuse. If the therapist’s objective is to promote a sense of control within the patient, the way that control and power is often appropriated is unfortunately through some new channel of abuse, whether it be directed at the abuser, the self, or at a brand-new victim.

    The solution isn’t then to decrease their sense of control and power directly, but rather to decrease their faith in control and power as necessary resources. The aim becomes not to make them feel powerless, but to help them understand power as something arbitrary, to become, as you said, apathetic, but not apathetic towards the abuser: apathetic towards human power itself.

    In a counterintuitive way, deconstructing notions of power and control actually allows for a robust and strengthened ego. When control is no longer seen as a necessity, it becomes attainable. When power is seen as a simple tool that anyone can use (or not use), it ceases to be threatening. Seeing both power and control as resources to be utilized instead of needs to be satiated frees the patient from the insurmountable anxiety over being required to somehow “take control of the situation.”

    When control and power can be understood as mere toys, the abuser can become something to roll your eyes at, as if he were a pathetic child grasping for attention with his rattles and dolls.

    So, I think even better than the casual “fuck off” is the exasperated sigh of pity.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Two things. First, what’s wrong with control and power? I have no idea what you mean by power. Power is an element in all human relationships. Why would we want someone who is abused to be apathetic towards power itself? It’s natural to want to have control and to feel powerful in life, especially when you have been denied those experiences as a child. People want to feel safe (i.e. in control) and efficacious (powerful). Maybe you would have preferred those terms since power seems to be unilaterally negative in your mind. I don’t know why you’ve pathologized control and power as if they can only be exercised in abusive ways.

    Second, do you work in the mental health field? You spoke about the process in the way I would imagine an academic thinks about how things work (deconstructing notions of power and control, etc.). Your argument really bugs me because I sense a moralism underlying it. For instance, the idea that the patient needs to arrive at your political notion that the exercise of power itself is to no longer necessary. I don’t presume this to be the case. That’s still imposing a moral framework, just like the idea that “forgiveness is good/necessary”. My argument is based on my clinical experiences of people who want to feel empowered and take control of their lives. Do I promise them absolute control and power and the illusion of never feeling anxiety again? Hell no. Do I pretend that those desires are pathological? Not at all.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Now that I think more about it, I also realize that I believe that human beings are naturally aggressive (following Melanie Klein). This is why I find your notion of becoming apathetic towards human power sentimental and unrealistic.

  5. Evan Says:

    I have a question about your first paragraph that’s probably easily dispatched… my very layman’s understanding of psychological diagnosis is that a disorder means one cannot function in daily life, which presumably has some level of social component to it. What you pull from Fromm-Reichmann here seems to challenge this standard. Of course functional daily life doesn’t need to require social conformity, but adjustment or some sort of coordination seems like it would be part of daily life in most cases. Is the difference I’m seeing here really present, or am I misrepresenting the place of social life in mainstream psychological diagnosis? What would Fromm-Reichmann say about the diagnosis of something like schizophrenia? Would her identification of a disorder depend solely on a lack of self-determination, or is there some component of coping/functioning in daily life as well?

  6. Jeremy Says:

    Of course, schizophrenia is causing major functional disturbances (sometimes basic hygiene, which is indispensable for social/occupational life). Most psychoanalytic thinkers acknowledge a combination of environmental and biological factors. What she’s concerned about is simply having the patient to submit and comply with the doctor’s orders, alienating them from their own drives/desires. Also, she claims that many individuals with psychosis were not allowed to be properly free to exercise power over their life because of early traumas. There’s no attempt here to minimize the suffering caused by psychosis. As Elyn Saks says, “psychosis is like a waking nightmare”.

    Social alienation comes at a real price. I would never want to downplay the suffering that comes about by feeling cut off from other people. In one of her last papers, she describes how individuals who have psychosis experience profound loneliness that is almost incommunicable.

  7. Jeremy Says:

    Evan, to be more succinct, adjustment ought to be individualized based on the unique traits of the individual’s personality. I think everyone wants to adjust but the patient’s view of adjustment should take priority over the therapist’s notion.

  8. david cl driedger Says:

    I assumed your use of the term hell was not a throwaway. Does hell function psychologically as precisely that limit that which cannot allow forgiveness (or at least forgiveness as reconciliation; i.e. rich man and Lazarus); or at least takes forgiveness off the table as something the abused should have to take on? Hell can be what leads the person to achieve the fuck-off (or the god-damned). Hell is that place where someone is not controlling the person’s life, where there is no need for even the most bare minimum of relational vulnerability. Is that at all accurate of what you are saying?
    I found your use of the term suggestive (theologically as well as pastorally) I was just not sure if you were mostly using it to emphasis a point (without introducing other theological baggage).

  9. Jeremy Says:

    I used hell mostly for rhetorical flourish. I suppose I was saying that certain sins and sinners are beyond the grace of God. I actually spend a lot of time talking about hell as a place where the abuser is in perpetual torment. Death is a cop-out. Eternal suffering is to be preferred.

  10. Jazz Feyer Salo Says:

    Interesting post. I have been sporadically think about the relationship between forgiveness, trauma, and neuroplasticity so this post brought many of those thoughts to the fore. I am not even remotely familiar with psychotherapy so my questions are coming from a deep naivete:

    (1) Does forgiveness *have* to result in moralism?

    It would appear by your initial definition that you do not think so: “[forgiveness is] the acceptance of the past event and the relinquishing of the negative affects (particularly rage and resentment) that accompany those memories”. However, to this definition you then apply an addendum: “Generally, forgiveness also implies that the offended person expresses their forgiveness to the offender”. While it is evident that in the remainder of the post you are addressing the latter, it remains unclear as to whether the former is implicated in the charges you bring to the latter.

    The post can thus be schematized around the question the traumatized patient poses: “Should I forgive him?” Can the *act* of forgiveness be separated from the *ought* of forgiveness? It is questionable as to whether your post resolves the question. For, while you rightly charge the moralist for relying on ” common-sense notions that forgiveness is absolutely indispensable for therapeutic recovery”, it is unclear how your alternative is any less moralist: “For me, this is the aim when working with trauma survivors: increasing their sense of control and power.” Is this not moralist, but simply of another stripe?

    (2) Is the “either forgiveness or indifference” option a false choice?

    ” “I personally don’t care what you choose to do with your relationship with your grandmother. It’s up to you if you want to cut her out of your life or if you want to forgive her. What’s important to me is that you no longer allow her to control your life.” ”

    In this quote I think we can see the persistence of ambiguity as to the definitions of forgiveness with which you are operating. Can not this patient simultaneously cease their relationship with their grandmother *and* forgive her? Can one forgive without the necessity to reinstate a prior relational harmony?

    If so it seems your problem is not *whether* to forgive but rather the *nature* of forgiveness. For, it would seem that your initial definition fits with your concluding prescriptions for post-forgiveness healing.

    Again, this is more a combination of my uneducated and sporadic thoughts on forgiveness and trauma and you reflections in this post. So Its in a spirit of learning that I ask these questions.

  11. Jeremy Says:

    You’re right to point out the ambiguity in terms. My concern is less with the act of forgiveness and more with the necessity of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an intrapsychic process and I believe that one can forgive someone who is no longer living.


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