There’s a ton of talk in wellness communities about the healing powers of forgiveness, including from chronic pain recovery specialists. And I can understand why.
Oxford Languages’ definition of forgiveness begins like this: “[To] stop feeling angry or resentful…”
Forgiveness is one route — and only one of many routes — to releasing anger. And anger, when kept inside, can perpetuate symptoms like anxiety, depression and chronic pain (more on that later.)
But in my experience, forgiveness is NOT the only route to healing. And if we feel pressured to forgive, it can have a very damaging effect on our recovery. For many of us, we absolutely need to take a different path.
Anger is a threat response. Its goal is to neutralize a threat and restore us to safety.
But the hierarchical culture that we live in has conditioned us to suppress our anger. We’ve been taught to turn the other cheek and accept boundary violations and injustices, big and small. We’ve been taught to do as we’re told, not as we feel. We’ve been taught that anger is bad and forgiveness is good. We’ve been taught that forgiveness is the only acceptable way to release anger. And I’m sorry-not-sorry, but this is just baloney.
When forgiveness comes naturally, it can be a wonderfully cleansing and healing experience for the forgiver. But when forgiveness is pushed as a way to get rid of anger, it becomes just another way of suppressing anger. And when healthy anger is habitually suppressed, it distorts into a destructive force that either eats us up inside and fuels chronic symptoms, or comes out in externally destructive forms that harm others and decrease the safety of our society as a whole.
By contrast, when anger is expressed in a constructive way, anger is capable of fueling life-serving and even life-saving actions. You know that story of a mother summoning super-human strength to lift a car and save her child? That is an epic example of what healthy anger can do. Anger, in its wholesome form, is a protector.
To heal from symptoms (and to heal as a society!) we need to reconnect with our anger in a healthy, life-serving way. And we need to practice healthy ways of expressing and releasing anger so that it doesn’t stay trapped inside of our bodies. We need to offer anger constructive ways to perform its intended purpose: to protect us from threats and restore us to safety.
Often, the reason we still feel angry is because we still feel under threat — from a person who’s still crossing our boundaries or an internalized belief that’s still harming us or an environment that’s not healthy for us.
And while we can’t always change the people or environment around us, we can turn towards establishing safety — within ourselves and our immediate social connections.
Forgiveness is not the only way to feel a sense of peace and release our grip on anger. Other ways include:
- Set firm, protective boundaries with people whose words and behaviors are harming us. This neutralizes the threat and restores us to safety and peace.
- Reject internalized beliefs that are self-blaming and replace them with beliefs that serve our well-being.
- Surround ourselves with people who have our best interests at heart. Engage their mutual support in protecting ourselves from those who wish to harm us.
- Recognize when our immediate environment or relationship is unsafe and get support in finding safer environments and relationships.
- Recognize when past stresses and traumas are distorting and diminishing our sense of our own agency in our current environment. If we are in an accepting environment, recognizing our own agency and speaking up for ourselves can make our environment feel safer!
What do you think? Does any of this resonate with you? Do you have a different perspective? I’d love to know!
Sending warmth, encouragement and infinite belief in you,