The magical relationship between anger and forgiveness

Anger is essential to true forgiveness

I wrote this piece in my book The Language of Emotions back in 2010, but I return to it a lot.

So much of what we’re told about forgiveness teaches us to avoid the powerful emotions that arise when we’ve been wounded or betrayed. But these powerful emotions are crucial to our ability to realize what happened, feel it, and heal from it. If we avoid our emotions, we avoid true healing.

The complex relationship between anger and forgiveness

Book and audiobook covers for The Language of EmotionsMost people have been taught to distrust anger – or even to hate it. This is a shame, because anger helps us identify what we value, and it helps us set clear boundaries for ourselves and others. Anger is crucial to healthy relationships and a healthy inner life.

But our distrust of anger has made many of us shove anger into the shadows while we glorify its supposed opposite: forgiveness. Though forgiveness may seem to be much nicer than anger (and it can be, if your anger is explosive or completely suppressed), forgiveness that avoids anger (and other powerful emotions) can actually trap us.

The simplified relationship between anger and forgiveness goes something like this: anger is bad and forgiveness is good. If you forgive someone who hurt or betrayed you, you’re good. If you’re angry at them, you’re bad. Forgive and forget, and you’ll be healed. Stay angry, and you’ll be sick.

So, forgiveness and anger are set up as opposing forces — good and bad, right and wrong, saintly and failed. However, if we look at the relationship between anger and forgiveness in a deeper way, we find something infinitely more complex.

Anger and forgiveness are partners

In reality, anger and forgiveness work together (and often at the same time) in any real healing process. Though anger and forgiveness may seem to be opposing forces, they are actually completely equal partners in the journey toward healing. Each one has its place, and each one can only proceed with the support of the other.

Forgiveness is not an emotion, and it can’t take the place of one. It’s a decision made by your whole self after your true emotional work has been done. You can’t move to forgiveness until your emotions move you consciously through the trouble, because your emotions are the only things in your psyche that can move energies, memories, and imbalances into your awareness. Your body can hold your pain, and your mind and spirit can remember your pain, but until you know how you feel about your pain, you won’t be able to unearth it and address it.

Real forgiveness isn’t a polite and teary gesture, made with a bowed head and demurely folded hands. Real forgiveness would never, ever say, “I see that you were doing the best you knew how, and I forgive you.” Hell no!

Real forgiveness has an entirely different take on the subject. Real forgiveness does not make excuses for other people’s improper or abusive behavior.

Real forgiveness says, “I see that you were doing what worked for you at the time, but it never, ever worked for me!”

Real forgiveness does not tell itself that everyone always does the best they know how, because that’s preposterous. Do you always do your best? Do I? Of course not!

We all make mistakes, and we all do things we’re not proud of. Real forgiveness knows this; it doesn’t set itself up as an advocate for the tormentors in your life. It doesn’t make excuses for the disruptive behavior of others— because that sort of nonsense only increases your pain.

Real forgiveness says, “I see that you were doing what worked for you at the time, but it never, ever worked for me!

Real forgiveness knows that real wounding took place; therefore, real fingers have to be pointed so that real movement through the process of suffering and healing can occur.

When that real movement has been made, real forgiveness raises you up off the ground, wipes off the spit, pulls the twigs out of your hair, and testifies, “You can’t hurt me anymore! It’s over and I’m free! You have no power in my life!”

Real forgiveness can reset your boundaries in healthy ways

Real forgiveness is a process that creates true separations from torment and tormentors, and true separations require the proper application of boundary-restoring anger, or they won’t mean a thing.

When your anger-supported boundaries are restored again, forgiveness will be as easy as falling off a log. Forgiveness naturally follows the honorable restoration of your sense of self. Anger and forgiveness are not opposing forces; they are completely equal partners in the true healing of your soul.

You’ll have identified the wounding, dealt with your emotional responses, and restored yourself to wholeness. The other person might not have changed, and the original situation might not have either, but you will have changed. Your anger will have completed the cycle and moved you into a new position of strength from which you truly can forgive.

However, if you try to move to forgiveness before your boundaries are restored, your forgiveness will be incomplete. You’ll still be walking around with holes in your psyche.

Forgiving before your boundaries have been restored will backfire, because it has to.

When forgiveness is an avoidance of anger

When people hear that forgiveness is good and anger is bad, they generally do that first kind of dainty, head-bowing forgiveness. It looks saintly on the outside, but it has very bad effects in the inner world. Forgiveness performed from obligation does two things: it excuses the behavior of others, and it reduces our ability to be conscious and present with the pain we truly feel.

When we rush to forgiveness, we lose our connection to our original wounds.

Forgiving before we’ve fully engaged with our wounding only short circuits the healing process. We tell ourselves we’re done because we’ve forgiven, but the wound and all of its associated emotions only moves into the shadow. The pain goes underground — and then it goes haywire.

I’ve seen, for example, people forgive their fathers out of a sense of obligation and then distrust all authority figures, or create dangerously close relationships with people who behave just as their fathers did. The anger moves off their father and then oozes through their lives.

I’ve seen people forgive their grandmothers before they’ve truly felt their anger and healed themselves, and then hate all women or all signs of the mature feminine, or enter into relationships and jobs that mimic exactly the emotional atmosphere of their early lives. Again, the grandmother is protected to a certain extent, but the individual and the world they inhabit becomes utterly toxic.

When we forgive before we’re done feeling the effects of our wounding experiences, we artificially remove our gaze from the actual event or person. We lose our connection to our emotional realities and to the wounds we carry, and then those wounds careen and lurch unchecked throughout our lives.

Forgiving before our wounds are healed creates nothing but more wounding.

Emotions are our healing power – and deep emotions can lead to deep healing 

Working with our deep emotions and learning their language restores our focus and our equilibrium. With the help of our emotions, our wounds aren’t never-ending tragedies; they’re specific portals through which we can discover our true resilience and strength.

This is especially true for people who were deeply wounded, especially in childhood. 

A striking solitary red flower against a black background.Jesus said that we should forgive seventy times seven times, and I don’t think he meant that we should find 490 people to transgress against us. I think Jesus was trying to tell us that deep wounds require more than just one pass through forgiveness before they are truly healed.

Forgiveness, then, becomes a practice in itself.

First, we might forgive after a bout of properly channeled fury, and we’ll get our boundaries back — our authentic and honored anger will help us rediscover our strength and separateness.

Next, we might forgive after a bout of consciously welcomed panic, and we’ll retrieve our life-saving instincts — our honest and welcomed panic will help us become safer and saner in each day.

Then, we might forgive after a bout of deep grief, and in awakening our crushed and broken hearts, we’ll become able to love again — even in spite of pain and betrayal.

I’ve seen this process unfold so many times in survivors of childhood trauma, whose wounds tend to wrap themselves throughout their psyches. I always suggest that these people go to the library and find books about the developmental processes that were occurring at the time of their traumas (such as the Your Two-Year-Old or Your Five-Year-Old books by Louise Ames and Frances Ilg). It’s fascinating reading, because early trauma insinuates itself into the learning and socialization processes of survivors.

Depending on their age at the time of the trauma, people might have trauma responses swirled into their language skills (as I did), their hand-eye coordination, their eating behaviors, or their ability to attach and belong. 

For childhood trauma survivors, the process of forgiveness can be quite lengthy (just as Jesus said it would be), because the trauma grows up with them. There’s not one decisive forgiveness episode; instead, forgiveness is a gradual process of strengthening and unwinding, strengthening and unwinding further, and so on.

This gradual process helps trauma survivors separate their essential selves from their traumatic behaviors. Their authentic emotions lead them into their true difficulties, and then help them restore themselves to wholeness. 

Real forgiveness is an intense journey toward healing

There are no shortcuts, no magical techniques, and no road maps to forgiveness. It is a soul-making and culture-healing process that requires the fullness of all of the emotions. Real forgiveness frees people and shoots them forward in consciousness, and it can’t exist without true anger, true grief, true panic, and full emotional integrity.

Working skillfully with our emotions allows us to arrive whole at the very center of our selves — and from that place of restored equilibrium, forgiveness is a natural and simple thing.

Anger and forgiveness are not bitterly warring enemies; they are essential and irreplaceable aspects of the process of fully healing and restoring the entire self, and this process can only be undertaken in a soulful (and therefore fully emotive) way.


9 Responses

  1. Doneth Miller
    | Reply

    Been searching for a long time to find someone who is real like me re Forgiveness. This is so interesting. Am going to purchase yr book. People need to be real and stop telling us u cannot be angry. Oh please. Psalms 95 vs 10 says God was angry with a generation for 40 years and swore they will not enter His Kingdom, so who is me to play bigger than God?. Oh please.
    Thanks for yr valuable instructions and yr realness. Love it.

  2. Jo
    | Reply

    Please say more about the language issues and how you addressed them. Thank you.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Jo,

      Speech therapy, some special education accommodations, and somatic trauma work such as Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing.

      However, I am dysgraphic and dysnomic, and I have many visual and auditory learning differences that I work around. These seem to be genetic.

  3. Cam
    | Reply

    Thank you for this article. It presented some real points I needed/need to consider more thoroughly.
    Can you comment on what makes anger cross over into unhealthy and non-productive?
    Also, from my own experiences, there are times we simply choose to hold on to anger instead of letting go to walk towards our own healing. How can we work on overcoming this?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Cam,

      I notice that anger does what it needs to, even if it doesn’t seem polite or something.

      If you need to be angry for a longer period of time than you’re “supposed” to, I’d say that your boundaries still need support.

      I find that it’s helpful to thank my anger (or whichever emotion it is), and study its purpose and message.

      What I’ve found is that emotions are always true — they’re always telling us about a true situation. However, they’re not always right (they may be assuming things that aren’t quite on point), so asking each emotion the specific emotion questions helps me get to the bottom of the situation.

      For anger, those questions are: What do I value? and What must be protected and restored?

      And even if the emotion wasn’t “right,” I thank it for telling me the truth about how I’m feeling in this emotionally-repressive world!

  4. Oke
    | Reply

    Hi Karla. Thank you so much for this. I’m curious – how does forgiveness work with resentment?

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Oke, yes!

      Resentment is a form of anger, so it’s a part of the process.

  5. kimi
    | Reply

    Hi Karla, can you help me understand why I feel like my ‘fuse’ is getting shorter and shorter each time I get angry. I used to be forgiving and could easily let go of anger, until triggers were repeated by a loved one (but NOT intentionally). Then I noticed that I no longer pause and slow down to think rationally anymore, and rush into anger immediately. I could not bring myself to really listen to their explanations and totally shut their side of the story off.

    Secondly, I could not stop myself from saying hurtful things while I am angry. I always regret my choice of words later on. It causes me to be in fear that if I do not resolve this issue, that it could damage my romantic relationship deeply.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hi Kimi,

      There’s likely another emotion involved: panic! When anger relies on any of the panic responses: fight, flee, freeze, or flock to safety, then panic is involved.

      In our community, we loving call this panger (panic + anger), and work to understand why the life-saving emotion has moved into a relationship with the boundary-setting emotion.

      Panic needs to move quickly, so too much thinking would unnecessarily slow it down, and if you’re moving to attack behaviors, then there’s something going on that feels life- or-self-threatening.

      The panic isn’t causing the problem; it’s responding to the problem.

      So the work is to understand the magnificent, lifesaving emotion of panic.

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