Matthew T. Rippeyoung, M.A., C. Psych. -
No Secrets Here


This week’s episode of Masters of Sex (television drama about legendary sex researchers Masters and Johnson…NOT one of those XXX flicks on the upper channels of cable) has really had my mind chewing about the idea of forgiveness.  In a scene where Bill Masters is talking with his mother about their interactions with Bill’s younger brother, Frank--a recovering alcoholic and AA member--they comment somewhat disdainfully about Frank’s way of being since he has become sober.  I don’t think any AA members are going to nominate the show for an Emmy based on the portrayal of AA, but Bill and Frank’s mother, Estabrook, says with contained emotion, “It’s like an accusation, dressed up as an apology,” when she speaks of Frank trying to make his amends to her.  Similarly on the flip side, Frank repeatedly says to Bill “I forgive you,” right before he starts punching him in the face.  Both sides of the forgiveness coin are difficult. 
This phrase and dynamic has been with me ever since I heard it.  The whole process of seeking forgiveness is wrapped up in the idea that holding on to resentments hurts at least one person in the interaction, if not both.  Forgiveness is healing.  It releases us from the grip of anger and hurt.  Certainly, it’s a place I encourage my clients to get to so that they feel better and move on with their lives, collecting the wisdom from their experiences.
However—and this is the tricky part—what if despite wanting to be in that forgiveness place SO BADLY, we’re still not really ready for forgiveness?  Certainly when accusations come dressed up like apologies, we are not really in a place where we are seeking or able to give forgiveness.  Many people come to me trapped in that particular vortex—wanting the relief of forgiveness so badly, but not quite yet finished processing whatever has happened.  We are in such a rush to get away from those bad feelings of being angry, resentful, hurt, guilty and ashamed.  And for good reason.  These are painful feelings.  When you put your hand on the hot burner of the stove, the impulse is to move it back as quickly as you can.
I often focus my energy in these sessions on helping people figure out what isn’t quite finished for them, so that they can seek or give forgiveness more freely.  This can be a frustrating process, as there is so much that we do that has very specific steps to it, and the emotional life is less straightforward.  I try to get people to reflect on how the current situation may be related to other life events and experiences from their past.  I encourage reflection about what hidden and not-so-obvious benefit there may be to the person to stay in the current situation of being stuck.  It’s surprising when we delve into our inner motivations, as sometimes we find things we didn’t expect.  Sometimes we find that the forgiveness has to start from within—forgiving ourselves for our role in whatever calamity we’ve found ourselves in with someone else.  There’s always a reason we aren’t able to move on or get to the forgiveness place.
Another phrase is with me when I think about this dynamic, this one from Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet, “They stumble that run fast.”  We can’t rush the process.  Try as we might, we have to stop, breathe, feel the feelings, process the thoughts, examine (and maybe even change) our behaviours, and come to a new understanding.  I find this process SO much easier when I’m in the therapist’s chair, than when I have to apply it to my own life.  But sometimes being still allows us to figure out the block so we can get to that forgiveness place sooner, rather than later. 

The good news and the bad news is the same: the process is the process.  It can’t be rushed, and it can’t be forced.  But real forgiveness can come; not just with time and distance, but as a result of opening ourselves to understanding what’s really going on for us in these painful moments, and having enough compassion for ourselves to begin the process of forgiveness, internally.  It’s our own forgiveness—and release from our own judgment—that seems to make the greatest difference in being able to move on to the next station.        

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Absolutely agree with each word! I am a fan of Masters of Sex as well and it is a great show about human feelings.
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