Blaming, Understanding and Forgiveness: Three Very Different Things

When I was an intern I worked in a community mental health center that treated primarily women with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). As many of you know, this can be a very difficult population with which to work, given the disorder’s remarkable ability to lash out in anger and fear with very little catalyst. And, given that approximately 75% of women with this condition have also been the victim of sexual abuse, male therapists can often bear the brunt of a client’s fury as she attempts to make sense of what has happened to her.

The treatment of choice for BPD involves both individual and group work. In the group treatment, skills are taught to help clients regulate their emotions and successfully navigate through the interpersonal chaos that dominates their lives. In essence, the group work is really more of a class than a therapy, designed to give the clients a psychological toolbox with which to deal with the world.

As co-leader of the group – you may remember in ‘Crazy’ that some groups use two facilitators – I began a discussion about interpersonal effectiveness. In a group with about 10 participants, there are often one or two who are extremely vocal and actively involved, another few who remain completely silent while the remainder vacillate between both ends of the spectrum. So when the topic of dealing with difficult people arose, one person had very strong opinions.

“These types of people, the ones in stores who give you a hard time at the register, remind me of my dad: uninvolved, disconnected. They don’t listen! They don’t want to help!”

Others nodded in agreement. This is usually reinforcing, so she continued.

“People need to be held accountable for their actions. They are supposed to be at your service when you’re there!”

Group work of this sort is rarely helpful when it becomes a forum for airing grievances, but at that of my training I wasn’t skilled enough at the art of subtly shutting down diatribes.

At that point other women began to chime in, drawing parallels between their current lives and the situations that lead up to them. This often produced intense anger toward the abusers in the women’s lives. However, this type of dialogue was discouraged in group; rather, it was meant to be saved for individual sessions, if for no other reason that it could trigger negative emotional reactions in other group members with no viable outlet to process the experience.

However, at that point my co-therapist and fellow intern spoke up, albeit with the same lack of wisdom and clinical skill I possessed at that time.

“Ladies, it’s important for us not to play the Blame Game here,” he said. “Not toward the cashier or toward your abuser. Mental health is about understanding, not blaming.”

At that point one of the women moved into the conversation in with an interesting point. “No. No matter what reasons my stepfather had for abusing me, or whatever bullshit excuse a store worker has for not helping me out, it’s not my job to accept it. They are both scumbags. I don’t have to forgive, and don’t think you can make me!”

Notwithstanding my colleague’s misguided attempt at restoring order in the group by opening up a new can of worms, what are the flaws in the woman’s position? She’s not wrong about forgiveness. Why should anyone be required to forgive such a heinous act like sex abuse? That’s not the issue. Her problem is that she is equating understanding with forgiveness. My colleague was right: mental health is, in fact, about understanding, both yourself and others. Without understanding, there is merely finger pointing and an endless parade of victimization. But that does not translate to accepting what others have done or not holding them accountable. The healthiest people around you are the ones who can say, “I get why he did such and such. He was a drunk, or depressed, or was abused himself as a kid, or even just fucking crazy. But that doesn’t excuse it, it doesn’t make it okay. I understand it and hate it, but that is how it was and how it will be. I now choose whether or not I want to forgive him.”

Far too many of us make an important cognitive error: we believe we are assigning a free pass for people who have wronged us if we take the time to understand the psychological underpinnings of their actions. It’s almost as if that person defeats us in some way by attempting to comprehend their behavior (“if I accept what he’s done, then he wins”). It’s actually the opposite: by psychologically turning away and simply labeling them as wicked, we are the ones who suffer more. The anger, anxiety and depression remain as strong as ever, and we often carry it over to other relationships. That’s never good.

It’s psychologically mandatory that we hold people accountable for what they do, lest we blame ourselves for every possible thing that goes wrong in our lives. But without that understanding, that ability to try to peek into the head of the other and say “why?,” you don’t grow. And when you can understand another person while still recognizing that accountability is present and forgiveness is not required, your mental health improves.

Tip of the day: don’t be that woman in the group. She never did understand what I’ve just described to you, and I can virtually guarantee that, unless something drastically changed, she is just as miserable now as she was almost 15 years ago.

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7 Responses to “Blaming, Understanding and Forgiveness: Three Very Different Things”

  1. Rach says:

    Thank You for this. I want to stop blaming him and move on, but that’s easier said than done. I’m bringing this up tomorrow in therapy.
    I think I needed to hear this.

  2. Just me says:

    Wow thankyou for explaining this! as it is a concept I struggle with all the time. Why should I forgive the people who abused me? But at the same time not forgiving them leaves me still letting them have some sort of control over me because I am letting them still cause me pain and suffering. Understanding them and then choosing if you can forgive them or not seems to be middle ground and the most healthy approach.

  3. Anonymous says:

    As a child, I was sexually abused by a family member. I do not have BPD. I have worked as a counselor in a group home with clients who had BPD. I’ve also facilitated support groups where some members had BPD. I agree 100% with the points you make in your closing paragraphs. That being said, I wish you had expanded a little bit more on why your colleague’s comment was so “misguided” as you put it. (I’d also add “insensitive” and “condescending”). If I had been in that group as a participant, I may have had few choice words for him too.

  4. Catherine says:

    This is so helpful – thank you!

    What if you don’t know the “why”? In the example of a store clerk, you may not know why he’s acting like a jerk. Do you just try to guess and it is the process of trying to understand that’s the most helpful?

  5. Misael says:

    It took years for me to realize this and it wasn’t easy. Once I was old enough to understand my father’s abusive nature and peel back its source my anger began to subside. My curiosity uncovered the years of abuse that aligned my father’s side of the family. You listen to the stories of other family members and ex-in laws battling similar wars, relatives with scars both internal and external. That was the hardest part of the process but with it came clarity.

  6. kapuku says:

    Nice post, Dr. Rob. Two thoughts:

    One – I wonder how many of the so-called Borderline Personality Disordered patients in actuality suffer from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I hope that, as time goes by, victims of trauma (like those described in your group) will someday find more compassion with respect to a diagnosis regarding what’s “wrong” with them – namely, that something bad happened to them, and their so-called “personality disorder” is really a typical, normal (if not devastating) response.

    Two – The realization that I didn’t need to forgive was a bit of a revelation for me in therapy. I had somehow gotten it into my head that it was a goal: a ribbon to run through with my arms up over my head, like the end of a marathon. As much as I understand the WHYs (and I do), I just could not get to a place where I could say I forgave. It was bothering me, and then my therapist pointed out that it was perfectly OK for me not to forgive – I could understand it and accept it, I could move forward from it, and I could grow to be at peace with it, but I did not ever have to forgive it. That was a relief.

    I also wanted to say that, in my opinion, the most important reason for striving to understand WHY someone did what they did is because it helps to relieve the guilt and shame of the victim/survivor; the belief that they are somehow to blame or bear responsibility for what happened to them, that they are inherently flawed or dysfunctional or unlovable, perhaps even loathsome. In a nutshell, it helps them to see that the issue lies outside themselves – that they did nothing wrong, that there is nothing wrong with them.

    Which brings us full circle, back to my original point. Being told that you have BPD is, I would imagine, stigmatizing. It puts the responsibility for what’s “wrong” with you right back into your own lap – after all, one may conclude, “Well, maybe that’s why I was abused in the first place, because there’s obviously something wrong with me. I’m not normal. I’m not like everyone else.” It confirms the victim’s worst fear: that they’re intangibly and unfixably broken – and thus, they will never feel better, or have the kind of life they want and deserve. It fuels the spiral of hopelessness.

  7. Lisa says:

    This was a very helpful post. As the child of an alcoholic mother who is now deceased, for years I have struggled with anger (directed at her and at myself), shame, sadness and subsequent depression. I have recently emerged from a depressive episode largely because of work I’ve been doing with my spiritual director, who has helped me go back to the time of my childhood to support, comfort and help the “little me.” I have also in these sessions confronted my mother and listened to her response. I feel I do understand why she behaved as she did. I am at the point where I am considering trying to forgive her. I wonder if it would be harder or easier to do this because she is dead. On the one hand, being dead, she can’t hear me actually forgive her. But on the other hand, because she is dead, I have control over the act of forgiving in a way I wouldn’t if she were alive. I feel like forgiving her is necessary for my own healing, and I’m going to explore this at my next session.

    Again Dr. Rob, thanks for an excellent post.