“Forgiveness” is a bit of a controversial issue in the abuse survivor community. Some survivors feel that forgiveness is a necessary part of the healing journey, while others adamantly feel that forgiveness should remain a personal choice, not a necessity. By no means am I underplaying the potential benefits of forgiveness, which include health benefits. I am not minimizing or invalidating the fact that forgiveness may serve as a healing balm for some survivors.
What I am countering is this idea that forgiveness is the one and only route of healing for all survivors, in all circumstances.
The traditional definition of forgiveness is “to give up resentment of,” to “cease to feel resentment against an offender,” or to “grant relief for a debt.” While it may not be healthy to hold onto resentment for long periods of time, it is just as, if not more unhealthy to repress feelings of anger, resentment and outrage – all emotions that arise naturally due to trauma – simply to please other people.
Trauma therapist Pete Walker says that acknowledging and confronting our feelings of anger is actually essential to the healing and grieving process. What complicates this scenario is that the survivor is often asked to “let it go” and “forgive and forget” prematurely – much earlier than they are ready or willing to do either.
Forgiveness – when it genuinely arises, not as a forced, premature act – can provide lovely, healing relief on one’s recovery journey. However, the type of forgiveness that benefits the survivor is usually granted by the survivor’s own free will and usually after processing much trauma. And we cannot deny the fact that some survivors are more empowered by their choice to not forgive, yet move forward regardless. Each journey is unique and different.
FOR SURVIVORS, FORGIVENESS IS OFTEN USED AS A WEAPON AGAINST THEM.
Spiritual philosophies often encourage forgiveness as an act of grace that promotes harmony, yet disregard that for some survivors, it can provide the abuser more relief than the abuse victim. While reconciliation is not a necessary part of forgiveness, there are survivors who do reconcile with their abusers after forgiving them in the abuse cycle. Yet a common refrain from those who push others to forgive prematurely is the idea that, “Forgiveness is not about the other person, it is about you.” If that is the case, survivors should be able to choose whether or not they want to forgive. After all, if it really is about the survivor, why police their journey or assume you know what is the best for them?
What those who preach “forgive and forget” often dismiss is how the concept of forgiveness has been used against abuse victims throughout the abuse cycle as a weapon to manipulate them into staying in the abusive relationship. They have already been guilted into forgiving the abuser against their will time and time again as they became increasingly traumatized by their abuser. They are then retraumatized by a society that urges them to show “compassion” for their abusers with no acknowledgement of the damaging effects of abuse.
We have to remember that resentment that arises from being mistreated is a legitimate emotion and that emotional flashbacks can retrigger the victim back into the same sense of powerlessness and helplessness they felt from so long ago. Many survivors struggling with PTSD or Complex PTSD are not afforded the choice to simply “let go” of their trauma or genuinely forgive their abusers. For many survivors, “forgiving” their abuser feels wrong and ultimately retraumatizing.
Forgiveness towards a perpetrator who is not remorseful in any way for his or her actions, sometimes even sadistically happy because of them, can also be retraumatizing. People disregard the fact that for some survivors, forgiveness cannot be granted without the other person genuinely expressing remorse for their transgressions and taking actions to actively repair what has occurred, to ensure that this behavior does not occur again. Most abusers, especially those on the malignant end of the spectrum, are not capable of or unwilling to commit to such long-term change.
Some survivors of sexual abuse, for example, benefit from being permitted not to forgive. Forgiveness is the survivor’s choice and should be on their timeline – if and when the survivor chooses to forgive.
FORGIVENESS AND SPIRITUAL FRAMEWORKS
Abusers may use religion and spiritual frameworks against their victims to gaslight them into believing that the abuse needs to be forgiven and that not forgiving the abuser is evidence of the victim’s lack of compassion. Nothing could be further from the truth – in the words of domestic violence survivor Brooke Axtell, if your compassion does not include self-compassion, it is ultimately incomplete. Spiritual abuse can warp our ideas of forgiveness, and get us stuck in FOG (fear, obligation, guilt) about holding our abusers accountable or leaving them for the sake of our own self-care. Abusers learn quickly that if we do believe in forgiveness, we may be more susceptible to allowing them back into our lives after abusive incidents.
Although people may say forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean that we condone the abuser’s actions, that is how abusers will twist forgiveness to fit their agenda, so they will continue to perpetuate the falsehood that forgiving and forgetting is a sign of our character or morality to ensure that the victim is ensnared into the traumatic cycle of abuse once more.
Even if the forgiveness is simply for ourselves, not our abusers, it should still be the survivor’s choice – because that is the point of it, right? To make the journey more liberating for the survivor – yet this form of release and relief cannot come without processing the trauma and it certainly will feel like a prison if it is seen as an obligation, rather than an act of free will. There are some survivors who benefit from forgiving authentically after doing much needed healing work, while other survivors heal without the need to forgive their abusers. Every survivor’s journey is different and should be respected, not policed.
Ultimately what many survivors find is that processing the trauma, with all of its authentic emotions, is far more healing than a fabricated forgiveness that only serves to sweep the trauma under the rug. If a survivor does choose to forgive, it must be by his or her own choice – a choice that is made not due to the scrutiny of a society that prefers abuse victims to remain silent and dissociate from their trauma, but through their own free will, with an understanding of how to actively validate the pain suffered and its effects.
OUR CHOICES SHOULD BE RESPECTED, NOT JUDGED.
Forgiveness can be a natural part of the healing process for a survivor after they’ve processed their emotions. But, it also doesn’t have to be, as each survivor is different, with different circumstances. And, it doesn’t make one a narcissist or lacking in compassion to not grant forgiveness – even those with great empathy, in horrific circumstances, may choose instead to not forgive, yet move forward peacefully with their lives. Constructive healing does not always have to include forgiveness.
IF WE DO CHOOSE TO FORGIVE, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
If you do choose to forgive, make sure your self-care is still a priority. Although the abuse cycle may have conditioned you to feel otherwise, forgiveness does not require reconciliation with our abusers. In fact, reconciliation along with forgiveness only serves to make survivors feel more powerless and anxious.
Forgiving someone also does not mean we cannot be proactive about gaining justice: it does not mean we cannot take legal action, stand up to our abusers or hold them accountable for their actions. We can’t allow perpetrators to get away with injustice because of a limited perspective of what forgiveness means or entails, as this limited point of view only serves to enable abusers and protect them from the legal consequences of their actions.
FORGIVENESS AND THERAPY
I have heard amazing stories from survivors who’ve had validating, trauma-informed therapists who informed them that forgiveness was their personal choice, not a necessity in the healing journey. However, you may have encountered a few professionals or so-called experts who think forgiveness is the only way to healing and may urge you to “let” your trauma go.
I think therapists who say these things verge on being unprofessional and unethical, as well as ill-informed on the effects of trauma. I find that there are unfortunately some therapists who simply do not get it and unintentionally retraumatize trauma victims in the process. There are even professionals who are narcissistic themselves or identify with the abuser in some way, so they will intentionally invalidate the victim to have more power and control over their clients. They may be projecting their own unprocessed trauma onto other victims, as a way to resolve their own internal chaos.
There are, however, thankfully many validating, trauma-informed professionals out there who do know not to ever compare one person’s journey to another and who know not to force forgiveness onto their clients…and every survivor deserves support such as this.
The bottom line? What is healing for one survivor may not be healing for another. It is everyone’s own journey to take and we should not micromanage another person’s journey. If forgiveness has helped you to move forward, all the more power to you. If forgiveness is not part of your healing journey, that is perfectly okay too. If you’re uncertain, embrace the uncertainty and know that what is important is learning to do what is best for you, while still validating your emotions and the trauma that you endured.
During the abuse cycle, your choices were taken away from you. This time, you get to make the choice – don’t let society, your abuser, or myths about what forgiveness means – take that away from you.
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