Forgiveness: Yes? No? Maybe?

“My step-father abused me, and my mother is always telling me to forgive and forget.” Jodie shook her head ruefully.

“And how is that going for you?” I ask.

“Not so good,” Jodie replies, “I’m not doing a good job at all.”

Alex shares, “My counselor told me if I don’t forgive my uncle for raping me, then I’m allowing him to live rent-free in my head.”

“And how is that going for you?” I ask.

“Not so good,” Alex cries, “I feel like I’m failing at recovery!”

Both Jodie and Alex — and countless other survivors I work with — have been instructed that to forgive and to forget is the road to real recovery. Yet both of them feel stuck. And, worse yet, they both feel it is their fault that they are unable to put the past behind them.

The wound of abuse can be so traumatic and pervasive that it often becomes “life’s core issue.” And despite a survivor’s best intentions to move on from the agony and the injury, the body never fails “to keep the score” of unresolved pain. 1, 2

What’s up with all this forgiveness?

Many religions teach that we become better people if we learn to turn the other cheek, to forgive, and not harbor resentment. Some believe that to NOT forgive allows the assailant the power to live on in our hearts, and self-help programs often counsel, “Anger is a luxury we cannot afford.”

Books on forgiveness exhort us to Forgive and Forget; Unconditional Forgiveness: A Simple and Proven Method to Forgive Everyone; Let It Go: Forgive So You Can Be Forgiven; I Forgive You: Why You Should Always Forgive; Do Yourself a Favor … Forgive; and The Power of Forgiveness: How to Quickly Get Over the Past.

Most of these books preach a “forgiveness formula” — that “forgiveness is a choice, forgiveness is a gift, and you should strive for total forgiveness.” And some even go so far as to declare: “Unforgiveness is a learned behavior that can become a cancer of the soul that metastasizes if gone unchecked.”

Forgiveness can indeed be part of recovery, but not forgiving can also be a valid position. No one can tell you there is one right way to handle an abuse experience. Everyone needs to create a personal road map of recovery.

For some people the outright assertion that you are not recovered unless you forgive your abuser can feel like a form of psychological bullying and coercion, pressuring you as to how you should think and feel. Just as the abuser pressured and forced you to do their bidding.

In The Courage to Heal, a manual about recovering from sexual abuse, the authors state, “The issue of forgiveness is one that will be pressed on you again and again by people who are uncomfortable with your rage… You should never let anyone talk you into trading in your anger for the ‘higher good’ of forgiveness.”3

This is not to say forgiveness is not possible, but forgiveness is not a black or white concept. It may include a range of alternatives — from a genuine feeling of pardon to the victimizer on one hand to absolutely never forgiving on the other, with a continuum in between. There are no rules, no schedules, no timelines for resolution. And your emotions may even change over time.

Organic Forgiveness 4

If survivors on their own, without outside pressure, can organically arrive at a place in their hearts to say, “I forgive you,” it may well serve as a step towards healing. But forgiveness should not be demanded as the main component of recovery.

The most necessary and vital ingredient in the process of recovery — and it is a process — has to do with mourning and grief. When we can feel sorrow for the pain we have suffered and grasp how deeply we have been hurt, then recovery and perhaps forgiveness may begin to emerge. To instantly forgive bypasses our anguish, and then causes us to contain the trauma within our heart and body as “frozen grief.” Frozen grief numbs us, keeps us stuck in addictions, destructive relationships, eating disorders, and anxiety. It can only be “melted” by expressing our losses, through the relief of crying, and developing self-compassion. Grieving is the solution to pain. We mourn our experiences, gradually shed the past, and reclaim the wholeness that is every person’s right. And it may (or may not) yield forgiveness.

Let’s also add that there is an important distinction between understanding and forgiving. You may understand the reasons and the dynamics of abusers and why they resorted to predatory acts. But this is not the same as forgiveness, because understanding someone’s behavior does not exonerate them. The popular slogan instructs, “To understand all is to forgive all.” To my mind, a more accurate version would be, “To understand all is merely to understand all.”

In response to a New York Times article, “On Forgiveness,” Susie eloquently writes, “As the victim of a serious crime, I am quite often annoyed by the ubiquitous notion that you must forgive to be “free” and get past things. The stream of advice on what ‘we’ need to do makes my blood boil with anger. I don’t want to be oppressed by some cultural mandate to change how I feel and ‘learn’ some moral lesson or higher purpose. I feel perfectly at peace, in fact happy, and justified in my resentment and disgust for the perpetrators…That for me is freedom — freedom from someone else’s moral, religious, or self-help ideas of how we need to think and be.”5

Chris Anderson, the executive director of MaleSurvivor.org, states, “I believe it is absolutely possible to be on the healing path without addressing whether or not we forgive those who have hurt us. If there is anyone that survivors need to be able to forgive it is ourselves. Many of us attack and blame ourselves for the dysfunction and destruction others brought into our lives. For those burdened by the pain of the past, it is a great challenge to live in the present. But it is by living in the present that we increase our chances of recovering. By living in the present we can better connect to people who give us more of what we need — hope and support — so that we can heal.”6

“Premature forgiveness” is a form of lip-service that does not lead to a genuine resolution of hurts and grievances. As a psychotherapist of 48 years, I have observed another reason why people rush to forgive their perpetrators: they cannot tolerate living with the powerful emotions of hurt and pain that threaten to overcome them. People want “closure” — in order to clean up their messy emotions — as if closure were simply a light switch you could just turn off and be done with it. In truth, it is hard to live with inner unresolved turmoil. Tanya explains it was easier to forgive her father for his sexual abuse than to live with anger and fear. “I do love my father,” she explained tearfully, “so why not forgive him?” Tanya harbored strong contradictory feelings to her father — love and outrage. Easier to say “I forgive” than contain and live with both emotions.

Yet, as the poet Walt Whitman stated, “Do I contradict myself? I contain multitudes!”

Containing multitudes of sometimes contradictory emotions is far more difficult than just automatically forgiving! May you find the unique and personal path that is right for you!

Notes:

  1. Dr. Richard Gartner, one of the founders of MaleSurvivor, declares that for those who have been sexually abused, “betrayal is …. life’s core issue.” Beyond Betrayal: Taking Charge of Your Life after Boyhood Sexual Abuse. Wiley & Sons, 2005.
  2. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. The Body Keeps the Score. Penguin, 2014.
  3. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. The Courage to Heal. Collins, 2008.
  4. I have coined this term “organic forgiveness” to indicate that forgiveness needs to evolve from within a person rather than being foisted on them from the outside.
  5. Response to New York Times “On Forgiveness” by Charles Griswold https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/on-forgiveness/?searchResultPosition=3
  6. Chris Anderson, former executive director of MaleSurvivor.org, personal correspondence, 9/20/2019.