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Clinical Meeting: On forgiveness and letting go

For November’s clinical meeting we had a special guest speaker: Robin Shohet, author of several books about supervision including Passionate Supervision and Supervision as Transformation, who came to talk to us about forgiveness. This is a subject he admits to having a personal fascination with, and which he has researched and talked about extensively.

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Image by Karen Lever

For the art-making part of the session Robin asked us to think about the saying “forgiveness is letting go of a better past”, which in the deeper sense means accepting the present and letting go of “should haves” and “would haves” we often hold on to. This led to very interesting images being produced and a group discussion which touched on psychic wounds, healing and reparation, authentic and non-authentic forgiveness, the personal journeys we experience before arriving at a resolution, and the ability to forgive ourselves before we can truly forgive others.

Several images, like the one above, had a sense of forgiveness as a healing energy which emanates from the core of our being. We explored the moment when anger dissipates and gives way to acceptance; while it can be sudden, like deflating a balloon, working on ourselves and our own ability to “accept what is” is the groundwork which allows for such transformations.

Many of these themes were addressed by Robin in his talk, which focused on the notion of revenge in order to understand the stumbling blocks to forgiveness. He identified the following motivations for vengeful feelings:

  • Building a victim identity
  • The need to be right, which is paradoxical; self-righteousness gives us a relief from the dreaded feelings of being wrong. In Jungian terms, we seek others to carry our shadow. Robin quoted A. Solzhenitskin:
    “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
  • Shame: it makes us feel powerless and threatens our identity.
  • Unresolved grief
  • Shock: if we think about shock as the body’s way of holding itself together, it is also what revenge is – frozen in time to something that had happened in the past.
  • Betrayal and self betrayal: Robin cited James Hillman’s article on the five responses to betrayal, which are: revenge, denial (“s/he was never that important to me”), cynicism (“I won’t trust again”), self betrayal (“how could I have been so stupid?”). And, finally, paranoia. The paper asks us to recognise the experience of betraying and being betrayed as part of the human condition.
  • Projective Identification: e.g. “I will show you how it feels”
  • A sense of entitlement, which goes with a lack of compassion: “I deserve something back for what you’d done to me” (as seen in the ever increasing amount of personal litigations).
  • Revenge fantasies are often so strong that they might be addictive; moving to forgiveness, compassion and acceptance mean undoing bad thinking habits on a fundamental level.

As he talked, Robin posited the questions: can we be more compassionate towards ourselves and therefore to others? Can we ask ourselves if we might have ever done what we have felt the other has done to us? At the end, he suggested, all forgiveness is self forgiveness: seeing that we are each other and accepting the mistakes we all make: “by embracing the shadow we lessen its power over us.”

Robin told us a story: several years ago, a friend suggested they write a book about revenge together. As time passed, his friend did not contribute to the project and their relationship had turned sour. When Robin finally confronted him, he realised that his friend had changed and being angry with him was like being angry with a ghost. Faced with this realisation, Robin moved from feeling vengeful into suggesting they give a conference on forgiveness together. Thinking about the process of moving from revenge to forgiveness, he ended the talk with a quote by T.S. Eliot:

“Ah but we die to each other daily
What we know of other people
Is only the memory of the moments
During which we knew them
And they have changed since then.”

More information about Robin’s work and publications can be found on

Posted by Nili Sigal, art therapist &
clinical meetings coordinator

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