One of Amanda Gregory’s warmest childhood memories is a game that she played with her two brothers. They called it “cockroach hunt.”

It involved racing into the kitchen at night, flicking on the lights and trying to smash cockroaches with their bare feet before the bugs could scatter.

Neither her mother nor her father bothered to clean, she recalled, leaving the house filthy – floors thick with grime and carpets reeking of cat urine. And they rarely spoke to their children.

One day, she injured her knee, and her parents seemed more annoyed than concerned, she said. Eventually she learned to live with the pain. Decades later, Gregory found out that bone chips were left floating in her joint, a problem that required surgery.

When she was growing up, none of this seemed unusual. It wasn’t until much later in life, after becoming a trauma therapist in Chicago, that Gregory realised to what extent her parents’ physical and emotional neglect had affected her. In the course of her own therapy, she began to wonder: “Do I need to forgive to make more progress in my recovery?”

She is one of several therapists, writers and scholars questioning the conventional wisdom that it’s always better to forgive. In the process, they are redefining forgiveness, while also erasing the pressure to do it.


Typically, forgiveness has been understood as “replacing ill will towards the offender with good will,” said Tyler J VanderWeele, the director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science.

Some scholars, such as Robert Enright, have taken it a step further, saying that forgiveness is the choice to give goodness to those who have not been good to you. And although it may be undeserved, he once wrote, forgiveness can foster “qualities of compassion, generosity and even love” toward the person who wronged you.

“Imagine saying that to a trauma survivor,” Gregory said. “That’s a tough sell.”

Others, like Frederic Luskin, a researcher and the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, view forgiveness as a path toward relinquishing revenge, hatred or grievance without the need for positive feelings – neutral ones are okay. The eventual goal, he said, is “to be at peace with your life.”

But is it true, as the Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu of South Africa once said, that “without forgiveness, without reconciliation, we have no future”? Is forgiveness necessary to avoid bitterness and resentment?


Much has been written about why forgiveness is good for us. In many religions, it is considered a virtue. Some studies suggest that forgiveness has mental health benefits, helping to improve depression and anxiety. Other studies have found that forgiveness can lower stress, improve physical health and support sound sleep.

“Forgiveness is almost always helpful, but that is different from necessary,” Dr VanderWeele said.

It’s a topic that Gregory tackles in her book, out next year: You Don’t Need to Forgive: Trauma Recovery On Your Own Terms.

In it, she defines forgiveness as an emotional process rather than an endpoint. It is through this undertaking that people may experience fewer negative emotions or thoughts about the person who wronged them.

But she is quick to emphasisethat this is not the same as reconciliation. And it doesn’t require having any positive feelings toward the person who hurt you.

“You can forgive someone and have nothing to do with them,” she said.


As far back as 2002, Sharon Lamb, a professor of counsellingpsychology at UMass Boston, has challenged the idea that forgiveness is therapeutic in the long run, asking whether there are some cases in which it could even be harmful.

“I want people to feel their feelings and explore their feelings,” she said. “It takes time to work on that.”

Rosenna Bakari, an empowerment coach who experienced childhood sexual abuse, said that pursuing forgiveness was not the way for her to heal. Instead, she added, it was more helpful to allow herself to feel angry and unforgiving after staying quiet about the abuse for 40 years.

“If you’re asking the question about whether or not you forgive, move away from the question and ask, ‘What do I need to work on to free myself?’” said Dr Bakari, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology.

Gregory said some of her clients never pursue forgiveness and “make a ton of progress in recovery.” Others tell her they have forgiven and say it feels great.

“I just don’t feel like it needs to be a goal,” she said.


Susan Shapiro, an author and writing teacher in New York City, said that after she fell out with her longtime therapist and mentor, she was haunted by one question: How do people move on without getting the apology and the closure that they crave?

For her 2021 book, The Forgiveness Tour, she interviewed religious leaders and doctors, and she asked 12 other people how they had managed to move on after being wronged. (Examples included a woman whose pastor pressured her to forgive her father after he raped her when she was 13.)

“There’s sort of this blanket forgiveness industry that just tells you you’re supposed to forgive everybody,” Shapiro said, referring to the numerous self-help books and TED talks that praise forgiveness. “And, interestingly, I found that sometimes it could be very self-destructive and dangerous to forgive.”

In Shapiro’s case, however, she decided to reconcile with her former mentor when he finally expressed remorse over their conflict. “It just was so liberating,” she said.

Forgiveness, however it is achieved, does not happen immediately, Dr Luskin said. People need time to grieve and “sit in the muck of unhappiness and suffering,” he added.

After grappling with the question for years, Gregory has not yet forgiven her father. She sees her mother as a product of her own difficult upbringing, and, though they are not close, the two continue to attend family therapy together.

Sometimes, she added, there’s a great deal of emotional work that needs to happen before forgiveness is considered. “The thing about forgiveness is it’s messy,” Ms. Gregory said.

By Christina Caron © The New York Times Company

The article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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