Potential Space

by Suzanne Stambaugh, Psy.D., Impulse Staff Writer

The holiday season, which has just passed, is a time when many people wrestle with the idea of forgiveness, either because of external social pressure to achieve some ideal of family harmony or due to the internal rhetoric of personal growth. In many cultures, the turning of the calendar year also represents a time of atonement, when the debts and transgressions of the previous cycle of time are ritually processed, so that a new cycle may begin. How might these ideas show up in clinical work?

Forgiveness in psychoanalytic thought is related to the process of mourning, and to the drive towards repairing a disrupted relationship. Forgiveness is, in some ways, a fantasied ideal of mutual recognition: a moment when two subjects transcend the cycle of projection-introjection in order to find a transient union in the ability to see and be seen by one another. Forgiveness can also be seen as an alchemical process, in which the base metals (so to speak) of hatred, envy, and resentment are transformed in the cauldron of intersubjectivity into the pure gold of grace and psychic freedom.

The mechanism by which forgiveness works is in taking responsibility for one's actions. Forgiveness, to be distinguished from mere acceptance, must be a dialectic, and therefore involves the will and consent of at least two people. Acceptance can be practiced within one's own psyche without the participation of another. One may cultivate acceptance of the hurtful, damaging, selfish, or downright evil behavior of others, and in that way attain some freedom from the tyranny of internal conflict. However, in the absence of one who owns the transgressive action, and expresses the desire to make reparation, forgiveness is merely an empty form.

This means that forgiveness is not always an option. Although a client may strive to "forgive" a family member, say, who has hurt them, their efforts will be frustrated if the other party is not amenable to acknowledging responsibility and also willing to take reparative action. Sometimes the work of mourning may have to include that acceptance is the best that can be hoped for in a given situation. Helping clients to be discriminating in their post-holiday efforts at intrapsychic and interpersonal harmony and growth may be a small but meaningful clinical gift. This means steering them towards acceptance in situations where the dynamic and dialectic of forgiveness is impossible.