Some thoughts on forgiveness

A recent post at Kellevision entitled “To ‘Heal’ or not to ‘Heal’…” (excellent and well worth a read) has prompted me to share a few of my own thoughts on the subject of forgiveness.

Expectations of forgiveness are unreasonable when harm is ongoing
I think one of the worst double binds that abuse and trauma survivors face is the expectation that they should forgive someone, often a family member, who continues to treat them badly. Often the nature of the maltreatment has changed from childhood to adulthood. For example, someone who was physically abused as a child by a parent may instead be subjected to what often seem to be regarded as more civilized and acceptable forms of psychologically abusive behavior as an adult. But the original underlying pattern of disrespectful, abusive behavior has never stopped. It is still ongoing. How can anyone be expected to forgive hurtful behavior that is still ongoing? This is a common and very difficult problem for many adult survivors of childhood abuse. They feel forced to choose between looking after their own well-being and maintaining a relationship with one or more family members (oftentimes an entire family system) continuing to perpetuate the same sort of abusive, wounding treatment that hurt them as children.

Forgiveness requires an end to the cycle of wounding
Sometimes the only viable path to forgiveness is to remove ourselves from those who continue to cause us harm despite our best efforts to communicate our needs clearly and maintain healthy boundaries. By taking care of ourselves and ending the cycle of wounding, we can establish a safe distance from those who have injured us, allowing ourselves to move through the old hurts and toward greater understanding and forgiveness without constantly being re-injured by new hurts that feel just like the old ones.

Forgiveness is an iterative process
In my experience, forgiveness, as it relates to healing the effects of abuse and trauma, is not a one-time event. It’s an iterative, multi-layered process that, with committed awareness of oneself and one’s history, unfolds over time. For many survivors, abuse and trauma were not experienced as a one-time event either, but iteratively, in layers, over time. In that context, it seems very unreasonable to me to expect that forgiveness will come as the result of simply deciding to “move on,” “turn the page,” “get over it,” or whatever other subtly coercive euphemism might be used to put pressure on someone who’s not healing fast enough to meet someone else’s requirements.

Forgiveness is an active process
Forgiveness of the sort of deep, longstanding wounds that result from abuse, neglect, and trauma is anything but a passive “love and light,” “warm and fuzzy,” “time heals all wounds” kind of process. Every wound has its own story and its own life, and many wounds are not healed simply by waiting and thinking happy thoughts. They have to be faced, entered, lived in, listened to, understood. They have to be cleansed with tears and shouting and shaking and all the other ways that the human body expresses and discharges the stored energies of fear and pain and grief. They have to be allowed to speak, to tell their stories in their own way and their own time. They have to be met and seen, acknowledged and accepted in all their painful glory as the wild, primal things they are.

Forgiveness is a sacred process
The place within us where we meet our wounds and do the work they call us to do is holy ground. It is ancient and eternal, beyond time, expectations, and schedules. It is the place where we keep our secrets, and where our secrets keep us. It is dark, messy, vital, and beautiful. It knows what we need to know, and it will tell us, if we’re brave enough to listen and to feel our way through to the light that knowledge carries for us. Battleground and sanctuary, it is that sacred space within each of us where we encounter grief, wisdom, and hope, and where, I believe, the path to true forgiveness begins.

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Some thoughts on forgiveness by Rick Belden, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

18 thoughts on “Some thoughts on forgiveness

  1. Rick, I agree with what you have written about forgiveness. I have also found these things to be true in my own recovery efforts. I found that forgiveness wasn’t possible until I had gotten angry at my abusers, felt the anger and then let go of it. Until then, forgiveness wasn’t possible. Forgiving doesn’t mean that I forget what happened. It just means that the abuser no longer controls me through my feelings.

  2. Thanks, Patricia. I appreciate your perspective on this. Forgiveness is a complex, dynamic, and very personal experience that is all too often oversimplified, to everyone’s detriment.

  3. Hi Rick,

    I enjoyed your observations, which are close to my own experience. I have just started blogging about my own journey, a rather confronting experience, but oddly therapeutic.

    I am interested in the practical rather than the religious or spiritual approaches, such as the place of art and writing in the process, and ‘on the ground’ solutions to dealing with hurtful behaviour. I am having trouble finding blogs with a similarly practical bent.

    Very enjoyable and informative. Thankyou, Jo. ( http://writespare.net )

  4. Thank you for reading and commenting, Joanne. I visited your blog and enjoyed what you’ve posted so far. I especially appreciate your stated intention of bringing the process and the art of forgiveness down to earth. Both connotations of the word “art” apply here: art as a skill, and art as an expression and application of creative energy and imagination.

    My primary method of expression in my own work to better understand, apply, and experience the process of forgiveness in my own life has been my writing. If you’re interested in a couple of examples, you might have a look at my poems “easter” and “face my ghosts”.

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  6. i’m recovering (or trying to) from a recent inadvertent descent into my childhood wounds via an extremely toxic relationship that energetically mimicked the original abusive relationship of my childhood. im struggling with forgiving this person, who is clearly lost himself. i feel pressure to “let it go” but it’s still so raw and inflamed. i really appreciate your perspective and your validation that it’s something you have to inhabit, not wave a crystal at. as always, i give you a round of applause, rick, for holding that space.

    • Kathy: So sorry to hear that you’re dealing with that kind of pain, but pleased to know that this post was helpful to you in some way. It’s so easy for us to stumble back into that old familiar territory we knew as children. Hopefully this most recent experience, painful as it is, will prove to be the last of its kind for you.

  7. I really agree – forgiveness has been hell for me! The way I was taught forgiveness meant, was that that you basically let your abusers off the hook. It was a way of washing the “sins” away white as snow. (like they never happened).

    I still remember one church that actually had me come to the front at the end of a service and had all these people laying hands on me and having me pray to forgive my abusers. When I look back at that, it was so damaging. I wasn’t ready for this step and I wasn’t ready to do it in the way these well intentioned church people thought it should be done.

    I heard Oprah, Tyler Perry and others talk about forgiveness being something you do for yourself and that’s where I’m at in these years. I’m learning how to forgive myself and let my past go – but I’m doing it to heal my life, not to let the creeps off the hook. That’s their issue! I’ll never forget what was done to me.

    It isn’t easy though – an ongoing process that sometimes hits some major speed bumps in life.

    Thanks for writing what you did! More people need to see this!

    • Thanks, Don. I think the sort of forced forgiveness you describe in your recollection happens a lot. Well-intentioned or not, it is very misguided and can be, as you said, incredibly damaging. People who haven’t done their own work, for whatever reason (fear, family and social conditioning, etc), are the ones most likely to try to rush others to “heal” and there are a lot of people like that in positions of authority and influence. It can be very confusing when someone you trust (and someone you feel you need) pushes you to “finish” something you haven’t even begun to fully understand. I’ve had my share of those experiences as well.

      An ongoing process, as you said, with plenty of bumps, bypasses, and detours along the way.

    • What a sad commentary on the damage inflicted by well-intentioned people and how wounding for you, Don. The public “acts of forgiveness” and “reconciliation” that happen in churches & the media every day cheapen the intense and painful effort of the work of forgiving, and continue to enforce the perception that forgiveness is the same as “it never happened.”
      Not true in society, culture, or religion, but it’s easier to perpetuate this myth than to do the real work of healing which takes time, is never smooth, and doesn’t always have a ‘happily ever after’ outcome for the relationship between wounded and offender.
      I hope your journey to healing includes people of wisdom who will support the work you are doing to be whole & healthy in a world which is anything but.

  8. It is so damaging when “forgiving” is made synonymous with “forgetting” – as if by simply wilfully wiping away the damage done by another’s actions somehow creates the opportunity for hearts and flowers and happily ever after.

    In short, ‘for giving’ is to give up my demand for emotional &/or psychological compensation for the offences committed against me. (This is separate from a legal process for illegal or indictable offences) It is an intrapersonal process, NOT an interpersonal one as people believe. I am able to work through the pain of another’s actions and give up my need to be “paid back” without the other person ever being involved. And I need to work my way to this place for my OWN sake. Not the other’s. As long as I am looking for emotional/psychological compensation for the wrongs committed against me, I will always be internally tied to the offender. This causes more pain, bitterness, and an inability to put the wounding into perspective and into the past where it belongs. Forgiveness is solely and only in MY hands, no one else’s.

    The second part to forgiveness is reconciliation. I may choose to work through the pain and angst of forgiving another’s actions for the sake of my own mental and emotional health, but whether or not I restore that relationship is entirely dependent on the actions of the other. If there is no sorrow, no contrition, no observable, measurable, consistent effort to address the issues which caused the wounding in the first place, the other is not SAFE, and it would be foolish of me to place myself in a position to be re-wounded again by the other’s thoughtless, cruel, or malicious behaviour.

    Too many teach that forgiving and reconciliation are symbiotic – as if the one cannot exist without the other. Balderdash. Coming to a place of forgiving those who have wounded me does not ever then require me to restore/continue/perpetuate the same circumstances which caused the damage in the first place.

    This is such an excellent article, Rick, and the comments indicate the pain that comes with society/culture/religion not understanding the true nature of forgiveness, and the incredible hard work it is to count the cost of living in a flawed and chaotic world where relationships are the source of our greatest pleasure …and our greatest pain.

    With your permission, I will use this article with my psych students.

    • Great comment, Susannah. I especially liked this bit:

      Too many teach that forgiving and reconciliation are symbiotic – as if the one cannot exist without the other. Balderdash. Coming to a place of forgiving those who have wounded me does not ever then require me to restore/continue/perpetuate the same circumstances which caused the damage in the first place.

      Right on the money and so very important.

      I’d be very pleased for you to use this post with your students. Thank you for asking.

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  11. Rick, you are “spot on” with “Expectations of forgiveness are unreasonable when harm is ongoing” and “By taking care of and ending the cycle of wounding, we can establish a safe distance from those who have injured us, allowing ourselves to move through the old hurts and toward greater understanding and forgiveness without constantly being re-injured by new hurts that feel just like the old ones.”

    The decision for me to establish a “safe distance” from those who injured me was not an easy one. I appreciate your repost of this, especially at this time of year when all seems so centered on family – who for me were the ones who “constantly re-injured.”

    I have said time and time again that “I would rather miss them than be continually hurt by them.” I find it unfortunate that so many have the “must forgive” mentality. However, I am so grateful to have you as well as many others in our community, for it is through true sharing such as this that education begins and the hope for our thriving futures continue.

    Thanks so much and best to you in 2013!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Faith. I’m sure what you’ve said will ring true for a lot of other folks as well.

      As you so accurately pointed out, we’re moving forward because so many people are sharing their experiences and passing on they’ve learned. It’s always been my intention and my heartfelt desire that my work would provide transformational opportunities for others as well as for myself. I’m thankful to have the chance to reach new people and, hopefully, contribute to their growth and healing in some way.

      Thanks to you as well for the work you’re doing. I hope your 2013 is healthy, safe, and productive.