Forgiveness is a selfish act

Drew Mendoza

I don’t know who first coined the expression but it rings true for me.

In my work with enterprising families I am astounded at the frequency with which past hurts have a tendency to continue to have a seat at the family table; sometimes long after the people involved are deceased .  Maybe it is because family firms tend to have great institutional memories.   Whatever the reason, forgiveness can be elusive in family firms.  And, more often than not, the thing that got in the way – the thoughtless act, the poor judgment, the words that can never be taken back – was probably not the root cause, just the straw.  The complexities and paradoxes inherent in multi-generational family business certainly explain the presence of the hurts.

And, sometimes it’s not a she, him or them we will not forgive.  Sometimes, and this I do see more often in founding entrepreneurs, it is ourselves.  Imagine this scenario:  An entrepreneur in the winter of her life.  She built a company from nothing that today feeds, clothes and insures almost a thousand employees and their families.  They have stopped outside competitors in their tracks from entering their markets.  Members of the community speak often of her generosity and what a great company it is to work for.  And yet – this same entrepreneur breaks down to tears because she listened to the wrong attorney and made an irrevocable gift of stock to someone she now wishes she hadn’t.  And, as a result, she has saddled the next generation, her children, with an owner who for all intents and purposes, should not have a seat at the table.  “I’ve spent my life to build this company and with that one stroke of the pen – I ruined everything!”

In 2005 the Journal of Personality reported research that demonstrated that those that forgive have an increase in cognitive flexibility, overall life satisfaction, positive emotions, and measurable decreases in anger, anxiety and depression.   The authors write that forgiveness increases self-esteem in the forgiver, personal hope, lifts the weight of psychological depression and reduces anxiety. 

Entrepreneurs are usually as hard on themselves as they are on others and, when it comes to self-forgiveness, I find them to be hardest of all which is ironic because business-owning families are, as a general rule, generous and forgiving; sometimes to a fault.

Speaking for myself, when I’m able to get over a personal hurt by forgiving the offending party – or forgiving myself for some stupidity, my back feels better.  The more upset I am, the more likely my back is going to go out. 

The funny thing about this particular blog posting?  A few days ago my 19 year old daughter came home with a tattoo on her shoulder:  Memento te esse morte (Remember, you are mortal).  I’m not sure how she managed to get to the tattoo parlor (she never has gas money let alone tattoo money).  Talk about irony!

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