Just as forgiveness cannot be coerced, neither can apology or the admission of wrongdoing. It is hard to apologize or feel our concern when we are backed against the wall. A patient storms in furious at me for starting five minutes late. I'm selfish, only care about my needs, everything is on my schedule, I take off whenever I want and he has to comply. I ask if there was anyone else he felt was selfish, never there for him. His mother. He immediately sees that 80 percent of his anger relates to her. This awareness translates into a renewed warmth toward me, a warmth that clearly has a reparative quality to it. I may have done wrong, but I'm not a demon; I don't deserve trashing. I am at once hit with a wave of relief, as if my back is no longer against the wall. And for the first time since the session began, I want to tell him how sorry I am he felt uncared-for or disrespected by me and that I truly do want to be there for him.
We sometimes expect that an apology will take care of everything. The person should stop being angry and hurt. But apology is not always a cure. And sometimes the effect of what one has done is not so easy to erase. If you need relief from your own inner voices denouncing you for being bad, you may not find it in the person you've apologized to.
The capacity to repair our relationships by opening our hearts to forgive (or apologize) is an important measure of emotional development, but I am wary of making forgiveness a yardstick by which we can simplistically judge ourselves and others. Forgiveness can happen in an instant or it can take a lifetime. The struggle is very different if there is an apology than if there isn't. The capacity to forgive varies greatly according to the depth or absence of the relationship that preceded the offense. People's processes and creativity in this regard need to be respected. Even nursing a grudge, which is clearly anti-forgiveness and anti-self in most instances, may serve a vital purpose at certain times in certain lives. In short, I don't want to tell anybody—especially somebody I don't know—that forgiveness is the right path for them. Life is too complex for that.
Indeed, I think we need to remember that not forgiving ourselves, not forgiving others, is a part of who we are. It is as natural to us as our defenses, our repression, our dissociation, our denial. No one is able to look at themselves whole. No one is so evolved as to deal creatively with every loss and insult. No one is free from illusions about themselves, positive and negative. No one is immune to the joys of victimhood and revenge. We all have this in us. We are all enmeshed to some degree in our inner dramas and the unimaginable passions and loyalties they represent, which hold sway over us in ways not even we can know. If we can see some of this in ourselves, accept it, be concerned about it, it is less likely to control or overwhelm us. We will have a better chance to stay connected, to expand our zone of connection, to dissolve whatever scar tissue we can from a life of hurt and conflict, and move on to the goodness of love.
Adapted from Robert Karen's book, The Forgiving Self (Doubleday).
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