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What is toxic forgiveness?

Did you know that there are times when forgiveness is unhealthy and, possibly, detrimental to your well-being?

14 March 2023 | By Monwabisi Mhlophe

Toxic forgiveness. Two words that don’t seem to belong next to each other, right? After all, isn’t forgiveness a good thing – the thing we are encouraged to do when we’ve been hurt or disappointed? It is, actually; research shows that there are many benefits to practising forgiveness, including improving your physical health. But did you know, there are times when forgiveness can be toxic?

What is toxic forgiveness?

Clinical psychologist Taryn McGowan describes toxic forgiveness as “an agreement to forgive a person even when they have not acknowledged their damaging behaviour or expressed that they are sorry”. 

For example, you could be hurt by the actions of a dear friend but, to avoid the conflict and potential negative fallout that may unfold in response to expressing your feelings, you forgive to maintain the peace. Or it could be that your significant other lets you down but you forgive and move on from the incident before you are ready to, because you think it’s the right thing to do.

Why toxic forgiveness is toxic

“Toxic forgiveness should be avoided because it could be characteristic of a co-dependent relationship or even an emotionally abusive one,” explains McGowan. “When you forgive before you are ready, you risk lowering your self esteem and you may actually find yourself in the same place in a short matter of time”. 

Dontea’ Mitchell-Hunter, a US-based marriage and family therapist, considers toxic forgiveness problematic because it can be a form of self-betrayal. It can also leave you with trauma and feelings of anger, depression and/or anxiety.

Forgiveness, the healthy way

According to Prof. Robert Enright, a leading researcher on the scientific study of forgiveness and author of 8 Keys to Forgiveness, there are eight steps to help you along this important, but difficult, journey:

1. Know what forgiveness is and why it matters
2. Become “forgivingly fit”
3. Address your inner pain
4. Develop a forgiving mind through empathy
5. Find meaning in your suffering
6. When forgiveness is hard, call upon other strengths
7. Forgive yourself
8. Develop a forgiving heart

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com