My thoughts on forgiveness are evolving and growing, thanks to survivors sharing their experiences, and wise clinicians empowering survivors to make the best decision for them. My thoughts on forgiveness a year and a half ago are still valid, thus I am letting them stand on their own. You can read more about the Myths and Realities of Forgiveness I wrote about here.
Healing from abuse, trauma, and injustice requires empowerment. You can choose to take the power back by forgiving, but if forgiving feels like relinquishing your importance and your power, maybe forgiveness should not on your healing agenda at this point. If you want to add it on later, you can. There is no "right time" to forgive. The "right time" is if and when you are ready and you want to.
I appreciate greatly the insights of Marilyn van Derber in her process of healing: "To the person who might say, 'You forgive him for yourself, not for him,' I reply, 'No, it would violate my sense of honor and integrity to forgive this lifelong behavior, but if your father sexually violated you, you may want to forgive him, for yourself, and I honor that decision. All I ask is that you not judge others because we may have different resolutions to our betrayal and pain'" (Miss America by Day p. 416). I highly recommend Marilyn's book Miss America by Day: Lessons Learned from Ultimate Betrayals and Unconditional Love, and the entire section she has devoted to the topic of forgiveness, which you will find on pp. 414-419.
Signs you may want to table forgiveness (for now or for always)
When you hear "forgive" what you feel/interpret is actually:
- I'm not important.
- Doing the "right" thing by forgiving is more important than my needs.
- Protecting the reputation of the abuser is more important than protecting and supporting me.
- No one recognizes the horror of what happened to me. They just want me to get over it.
- Other people feeling better is more important that addressing the injustice or supporting my healing.
If you are waiting for anger
If you haven't felt angry at your abuser or what happened, it may not be time to focus on forgiveness. Anger is not necessary to forgive, but is usually a part of the process - of recognizing the wrong that was done to you before you can choose whether you want to forgive that wrong.
If you're not ready
If you feel like you have to push yourself to forgive and you keep getting stuck on this and unable to move on, it's time to put forgiveness on the back burner. Rather than being a bad thing, this resistance can actually give you some important information about what else you may want to process in order to heal. If forgiveness presents itself to you later in the journey as an invitation to more freedom and healing, then take it at that point.
If the focus is off
Forgiveness is helpful if it gives you the power to sever the negative emotional tie you have with the abuser. But if by focusing on trying to forgive the abuser, your focus remains on him/her/them, leave it by the wayside for now.
If you feel like you don't have a choice
If you feel pressure to forgive in order to be a good person, do the right thing, or abide by your faith tradition's teachings. You always have the choice and you can choose to forgive later when and if you are ready.
If you feel responsible
It's common to feel shame/guilt/responsibility for the abuse. This is a normal reaction to many forms of abuse, especially sexual abuse, childhood abuse, and emotional/psychological abuse. You may need to focus on placing the responsibility and the shame on the perpetrator where it belongs first. Allow yourself to feel anger towards that person. Later, you can work on relinquishing anger if you find yourself stuck there.
Something to consider
If your abuser was someone so synonymous with evil as Hitler, would you still feel pressure to forgive?
What do I focus on instead?
There can be a lot of self-blame after abuse. "Healing depends on being able to forgive yourself, not on being able to forgive your molester...You don't try to forgive Hitler. You don't sit around and work on that" (Davis and Bass The Courage To Heal p. 152). I will be writing more on self-compassion in the future, so stayed tuned for more on this topic.
Grieving the losses associated with the trauma.
Maybe you need to grieve the loss of a version of yourself that will never exist anymore, the loss of someone important to you, the loss of a future you hoped for, the loss of hopes and dreams.
Placing responsibility accurately for what happened.
You are only responsible for your feelings, choices, and actions. Upcoming posts will address accurately placing responsibility in greater depth. You are not responsible for what your abuser did. The abuse is never your fault. Never.
Reducing the intensity of traumatic memories and related triggers
The traumatic memories may include the abusive events, but may also include the aftermath of the abuse. The trauma of not being believed and supported can be just as traumatic as the actual event. Sometimes talk therapy is effective enough to process and reduce the emotional intensity of the memories. However, I find that EMDR is one of the most effective ways to reduce the emotional intensity of the situation, and feel like the things you have learned in talk therapy are true. Sometimes talk therapy can get you to the place where you understand the abuse was not your fault, but you still feel ashamed and at fault. EMDR can help your brain sync your feelings, beliefs, and thoughts so they are all in harmony.
Take care of yourself. Give yourself permission to heal. Reclaim control over your life. Learn to listen to yourself and be your best advocate. Find people who care about you and support you. Surround yourself with these life-giving people. Stop the cycle of trying to prove yourself or your pain to people who do not want to listen. Learn how to be assertive and get support from others on the journey. Learn to say what you need and stand up for yourself. I offer an Assertiveness support group to empower you in this part of your journey. I will have a free download, Make Assertiveness a Reality in Your Life, in the near future to get you started. I will add it to this blog and also post a link on facebook: www.facebook.com/cqcounseling. Follow me to make sure you get notified.
Note: What if I am ready to pursue forgiveness?
If you've read all this, and decide that you are ready and want to pursue forgiveness as a part of your healing journey, you can find more information on how to do that here.
I'd love to know what else has been an important part of your healing journey, and your thoughts/experiences with forgiveness. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please don't be shy. I'd love to hear from you.