Many people believe that forgiveness – complete, unconditional and true – is necessary for spiritual development and for stopping bullies. These people struggle so they can see all people as completely spiritual and good, they strive to love them unconditionally, and they aspire to rise above earthly concerns and values. That makes them feel very spiritual and virtuous.
However, much more often, I see the trap that “ineffective forgiveness” leads people into.
There’s a better way – “effective forgiveness.”
What I see are the many women and men who I’ve coached or who have written comments about their years of trying to love and forgive bullies who haven’t changed and who continue to harass and abuse them and their children. Ineffective forgiveness becomes a trap when:
- We don’t stop thinking about the incidents and we generate the same repeating cycle of strong emotions.
- We don’t take precautions so the bully repeatedly attacks us.
- We don’t learn how to avoid the same traps or how to stop bullying by toxic, selfish, narcissistic bullies’ sneaky manipulations, control, back-stabbing, or overt violence or threats of violence.
Ineffective forgiveness means that we hope the other person won’t be mean or nasty next time. We hope that our believing this bit of wishful thinking helps bullies become better. And to show that we’ve forgiven, we must put ourselves back into the same position in hopes bullies won’t take advantage of our good nature and kindness.
Almost all of the women who have interviewed me on radio and television were raised to be “nice girls.” Their mothers taught them to forgive the mean girls who tormented and terrorized them, because those girls must have had terrible home lives. They were taught that it was wrong to fight back and to protect themselves.
What do we try to gain by replaying incidents of bullying and abuse? Replaying is a motivational strategy. We’re trying to develop enough fear or pain, suffering or sorrow, isolation or depression, anger or rage so that we’ll finally take steps to protect ourselves. We’re trying to develop enough energy to act effectively.
Therefore, once we know that we’ll protect ourselves, we can stop the rehashing the incidents, stop regenerating the strong emotion in order to keep us suspicious and alert. Then we can forgive effectively.
What are the goals of effective forgiveness and what do we usually require to get there?
- The goal of effective forgiveness is simply to stop thinking about the other person so they occupy no space in our mental or emotional worlds.
- In order to relax our vigilance, either we have to know that the perpetrator won’t try bullying us again or that we’ll protect ourselves, naturally, automatically and easily, if they ever try again. Because we’ll stop them automatically, we don’t need to replay and re-analyze all the terrible incidents to keep us on guard and full of energy.
- Sometimes we’ll get bullies out of our environment, off our isle of song, but sometimes we’ll allow them to stay, although we’ll protect our personal space next time. Effective forgiveness does not mean that we must still relate to them in the way they want. Whoever tries to require continued interaction as evidence of “forgiveness,” is still trying to control us.
- Usually, we test a bully’s sincerity by requiring public apologies and amends. If they won’t do these, we correctly don’t trust them. Even if they do these, we still can choose to get them out of our space.
What if no apologies or amends are possible? I saw a program about the Amish in America, in which a portion was devoted to a young man who invaded an Amish school, sent all the boys out and started shooting all the girls. He killed five and seriously wounded more. Then he killed himself.
What can we say? There are no apologies or amends that would make that okay.
I’m saying that in such cases, the task of the Amish families is not to forget, but somehow to move on with the children who are alive and with each other. Whatever they can think and do to reduce this horror to a size that makes it only a part of life, to a size that still allows them to find joy, for the children to grow up and love and have their own children, whatever allows them to do that is effective. If they use the work “forgiveness,” that’s fine.
How can we forgive ourselves? Follow the same approach. Beating ourselves relentlessly; negative self-talk, self-bullying, self-doubt, self-questioning, perfectionism, blame, shame, guilt and self-flagellation are simply ways of continuing to remind ourselves to do better. But that’s a hard way to keep the reminder in mind. The price is pretty high – loss of confidence and self-esteem, loss of will and determination. When we change our way of being in the world, so we know we won’t act that way again, we won’t need the self-bullying. Or when we make ourselves into people who are so filled with the best of us that we won’t act that way next time, we won’t need the self-bullying to motivate us to stay on track.
The goal of effective forgiveness is always about behavior:
- We don’t waste our time and energy obsessing on the bullies.
- We recognize bullies, especially sneaky, narcissistic, manipulative ones.
- We protect ourselves.
No specific process is required or is the best, as long as we get to the goal. Whatever our explanations, psychological rationalizations, excuses or justifications are for bullies’ behavior or whatever make us feel good about forgiving them, the only criterion that really matters is that we get to the goals of effective forgiveness – we don’t waste our time and energy obsessing on the bullies and we protect ourselves.
Notice that I haven’t gone into abstract discussions about the existence of evil, or whether bullies are sinners or whether this world of pain and suffering, of joy and beauty is real or whether it’s a delusion to see through. Those considerations might be important to some people, but they’re irrelevant to learning how to stop bullies and to protect ourselves from their attacks.