Or is the pressure to forgive a form of spiritual bypassing?
Have you heard the term “thought-terminating cliché”?
I first learned it when I read Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell, though it was coined by psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton in the 1960s. Montell writes, “[The term ‘thought-terminating cliché’] refers to catchphrases aimed at halting an argument from moving forward by discouraging critical thought.” She also calls thought-terminating clichés “semantic stop signs.”
As everyday examples, she cites the phrases “It is what it is,” “Boys will be boys,” and “Everything happens for a reason.”
It’s so true, right? Whenever you hear someone use one of the above phrases, nothing at all meaningful has been said, but the conversation has still somehow come to a conclusion.
I bring this up because for many of us I believe the single word “forgive” activates an unspoken thought-terminating cliché: “Forgiveness is good.”
We think good spiritual people do it. We think it heals us. We think it’s a helpful spiritual goal in general.
But what is forgiveness exactly? And how do you go about doing it? And what’s so great about it actually?
To begin to reclaim our critical thinking skills on the subject, let’s look to Merriam-Webster, where we find to forgive defined as “to cease to feel resentment against.”
Hmm. Most times I’ve felt resentment in the past, I’ve eventually ceased to feel it. So there you go: forgiveness! It happened. I forgave.
But…Did I do it because I decided to do it, or because it was a good and noble thing to do? Or did I do it because the resentment just sort of faded away and I moved on to other things?
I think it’s the latter. I’m pretty sure I’ve never legitimately ceased to feel resentment on cue. Even though there were times when I earnestly believed that I had.
Many of you are aware that my former stepfather molested me when I was an adolescent. When I was in my late twenties or early thirties, he messaged me out of the blue to say hi and generally act like nothing weird happened. (Maybe on MySpace? I can’t remember now.) I won’t go into all the details that unfolded after that, but I will say that receiving that message inspired me to finally tell my mom about the abuse, which I had been intentionally keeping from her so as to protect her feelings. (And the award for Codependent Daughter of the Year goes to…)
After that, you should have seen me. I was a forgiveness freight train. I was covering so much ground, delivering forgiveness to everyone everywhere. Resentment? Of course not. Not toward my former stepfather for abusing me and not toward my mother for inviting him into our home. I had so much momentum going, I just went ahead and forgave all pedophiles and abusers on earth.
Isn’t that amazing? Wasn’t I such a great new agey person?
A few years later, it dawned on my that I was angry. Really fucking angry. And can you guess what’s way more liberating than pretending to forgive? Actually feeling angry.
Once I admitted my anger, I could finally let those emotions move. Because they had been seriously stuck. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had been turning all that anger on myself, which manifested as feelings of unease and low self-worth as well as stubborn health issues.
It turns out emotions don’t actually disappear on command. Getting clear on my rage helped me to feel healthier on all levels, and to begin to do the actual work of healing. I could finally say, “Hey! I didn’t deserve to be treated that way!”
Spiritual bypassing is a term psychotherapist John Welwood coined in the 80s. He defined it as the “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” And yeah, I would definitely say that what I thought was forgiveness in the above case was not forgiveness, but spiritual bypassing.
I subscribe to the spiritual perspective that we’re all one. We’re one with the infinite. We’re one with each other. There is no separation. You may even say, like (I think?) Wayne Dyer did, that we are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience.
But here’s the thing: that human experience feels pretty real. For all intents and purposes, it is real. You must admit that if we pretend our day-to-day human concerns are not real, we will run into some serious problems with things like cavities and getting hit by cars and not keeping up with the electric bill.
What’s more, in this human experience, sometimes we get hurt. And sometimes that hurt is a result of something someone else did. Perhaps your spouse abused you. Perhaps your close friend betrayed you. Perhaps your mother unwittingly married a pedophile who sexually abused you and all the while she didn’t notice anything odd was happening. If you in turn felt resentment after such an injury, it would be perfectly normal and understandable. In fact, if you were to claim you didn’t feel resentment (see the time I did exactly that above), no self-respecting therapist would believe you for a second.
No, we can’t release resentment on command. But what we can do is feel that resentment, and feel compassion with ourselves for feeling that resentment. We can take care of ourselves with love. We can take baths. We can get enough sleep. We can go for walks in nature. We can go see a therapist. We can tell ourselves that we understand why we feel the way we do and let our hearts break for our own painful experience.
Once you’ve done this for a while, you can even – when and if it feels helpful and authentic (do not force this!) – extend your compassion to everyone concerned. Not to bypass your feelings or to say it’s alright for people to abuse you, but to take a step back and acknowledge that no one is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and we’re all learning as we go.
I’m not saying this practice will make the resentment cease (i.e. help you forgive – see Miriam Webster). But it may.
Whether it does or doesn’t, what it will do is empower you, heal you, enrich you, and bring you greater peace.
Here’s a short video in which I paraphrase the main points of this article: