Forgiveness as a Self-Healing Tool

Susie was 48 years old, and came for counseling for burnout in her highly responsible job. It took three sessions before she trusted me enough to tell me her story.

Thirty years before, a man had brutally raped her. She’d spent three weeks in hospital, and has physical handicaps from it to this day. The court hearing was even more traumatizing. He showed no remorse. His story was that she’d initiated contact, invited sex, then backed out at the last minute, hitting him and scratching his face, so he defended himself, and “um… went a little too far.” He was let off with a slap on the wrist.

Merely thinking of sex with a man made her feel nauseous. She was seriously overweight, which had affected her heart, and led to type 2 diabetes. Every time she reduced weight, some fellow started stalking her. I gently got her to tell me what “stalking” involved. It was things like asking her out to have a cup of coffee or a meal with him.

Here is a life wrecked in several ways due to horrid action from someone. How could she possibly forgive him?

We used one of the standard techniques for processing trauma: exposure therapy via age-regression hypnosis. After this, she could recall the event, feel herself listening to his lies in court, and could stay calm. Again under hypnosis, I asked her to imagine kissing a man. She managed it without revulsion, but afterward, she told me she was still uninterested “in the male species.” I encouraged her to be open to a romantic relationship with another woman, because I’ve seen the healing effect of that for many other rape survivors.

Then I said to her, “This fellow has ruled your life for thirty years. You’ve been carrying him around as a terrible load. It’s time to get rid of him.”

“Sounds good. How?”

“He has damaged you physically. But where does your psychological damage come from?”

“Are you saying that’s my fault?”

“No. Fault is not involved. You did the best you could, all the time. But that was then, way back then. Now is now. Yesterday, it felt to you as if he was still with you. At any moment, many things could trigger a flashback, disgust you, make you want to hide. Does it still feel like that?”

She thought, head hanging down. Then she looked me in the eyes. “No. And I was offered free therapy as a victim of crime, and didn’t take it up.”

She started to cry, then smiled through the tears. “Thank you. You’ve given me power, for the first time.”

“No, Susie. You’ve taken up the power you always had. I only showed you the path, and now you’ve chosen to walk on it. But let me tell you about Jewish ethics. If I have stolen something and never get found out, my punishment is inherent in the act: I am now a thief. If I do a secret good deed and never get found out, my reward is that now I am a benefactor. Apply that logic to this man.”

“Poor bastard!” We laughed together. A glow seemed to join us. We both spontaneously stood, and she gave me a big hug.

What this man did was horrendous. She didn’t need to forget it. She didn’t need to excuse his act, or pretend in the slightest that it was OK. But now she could feel sorry for him, so he no longer rode on her back. She had forgiven the person, while still holding him responsible for the action.

Our culture is stuck on punishment for misdeeds. This does nothing. When someone has done me wrong, the best way I can react is to lead this person out of the mindset that induced the evil deed. When that isn’t possible, then at least I can protect myself from further harm by refusing to carry the load of hate, anger, resentment, the victim mentality. The Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is picking up a hot coal to throw at somebody. It is your hand that gets burned.”

Forgiveness, in this sense, is a powerful tool of positive psychology. A good trick is to genuinely, honestly, from the heart, say this to yourself once a day:

  • If knowingly or unknowingly, accidentally or on purpose, I have harmed anyone, I ask for forgiveness.
  • If knowingly or unknowingly, accidentally or on purpose anyone has harmed me, I offer forgiveness.

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