The soul cannot forgive until it is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love—how can one forgive?
With an abundance of love, starting with one’s self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
At some point in every abuse survivor’s healing journey, he or she must face the question of forgiveness. Are there some abuses too atrocious to forgive? Is it possible, or even healthy, to forgive someone who has never asked to be forgiven, someone who has never acknowledged any wrongdoing, and someone who continues to practice the same abusive behaviors?
I questioned how I could forgive my mother for granting her approval when my stepfather burned my 10-year-old hands. Year after year, the betrayal felt incomprehensible as I watched my mother silently witnessing my abuse, defending my stepfather, and even participating in the abuse as my stepfather beat and tortured my brothers and me. How could I forgive a litany of unacknowledged emotional and physical abuses?
Many survivors recovering from abuse, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as well as neglect, rejection, and abandonment, often wrestle with the conflicting senses of a longing to forgive versus not feeling forgiving. Many times, survivors feel a responsibility or a social pressure to forgive even when they have not healed sufficiently for that step to have an emotionally healthy outcome. All too often, well-intentioned friends and relatives ask individuals to forgive and forget. Survivors of family abuse often succumb to this pressure and embark on a path of superficial forgiveness that does not honor the depth of the injury or enable authentic healing and forgiveness.
Any of us who have heard the words “you have to forgive” knows that this added burden can actually impede our recovery. When a survivor denies his feelings and sets aside his wounds, pain, anger, and grief in order to forgive, he often finds that he is not able to heal. Ultimately, in the absence of healing, forgiveness doesn’t last.
Sometimes it is necessary to place a moratorium on forgiveness until healing has taken place. This affords us the opportunity to validate our stories with sympathetic listeners, express our anger in appropriate ways, mourn our losses, and protect others and ourselves from reinjury. Surprisingly, it is often the very process of not forgiving, of acknowledging the pain and taking the steps to heal, that can free the abused to forgive. How then do we acknowledge our pain?
One way to acknowledge our pain is to receive emotional compensation and acknowledgment from our abusers. Our greatest opportunity for healing comes from the offender. When the person who harmed us is willing to offer restitution, we are truly blessed. This means the wrongdoer must be willing to acknowledge the harm they caused us, offer a genuine apology, demonstrate a willingness to restore what was taken and change their abusive behavior. However, because of the chronic nature of abuse, most victims do not have their abuse acknowledged by the offender. When survivors do not receive acknowledgment from the person who harmed them, they need to have their abuse acknowledged by other individuals. It is extremely difficult to forgive something that, in the eyes of their families and communities, never happened.
Another way to acknowledge our pain and move toward the possibility of forgiveness is to feel as if justice has been served. This is an important part of the healing journey, and validation and acknowledgment are part of the justice-making process. Justice can be as limited as receiving support and validation or as substantial as criminal prosecution.
Third, expressing anger is a necessary step toward authentic forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a single act but rather takes place in layers, as other individuals, whether they be our abusers, our friends, our families, or our communities, are willing to share our burden of pain. Once our stories are heard, the door opens to recognizing our anger. All too often, victims try to deny or suppress their anger, yet finding appropriate ways to express their painful experiences is necessary in order to heal. Survivors need to find safe methods and environments in which to discharge their repressed rage. Discharging anger frees the individual to honor her pain and mourn her substantial losses.
Finally, a victim of abuse must be free from abuse to acknowledge her pain and move toward forgiveness, and this often requires placing our trust in others to help us move away from abusive situations. An important and often overlooked aspect to healing is that of protecting others and ourselves from further harm. In order to heal, we must be free from the anxiety of re-injury. In other words, forgiveness is not possible if there is ongoing abuse, and in order to protect ourselves, we need the support of others.
Healing requires a great deal of time, self-examination, hard work, and pain. Yet once an adequate amount of healing has been accomplished, forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we “excuse” offensive behavior; it doesn’t mean forgetting or even trusting the person who harmed us. Nor does it require us to “let go” of our safety. Rather, forgiveness means to let go of resentment and find peace.
Nancy Richards is the author of Heal and Forgive: Forgiveness in the Face of Abuse. Richards is an adult survivor of childhood abuse. She is the single parent of two thriving adult daughters and is a successful businesswoman as vice president and general manager of a large wholesale food processing company in Seattle. Visit http://www.healandforgive.net .