Forgiveness and Trauma: Are Some Things Unforgivable?

Forgiveness and Trauma

Forgiveness is often a complex issue for trauma survivors.  Many times clients arrive in my office grappling with the belief that they “ought” to forgive those who have abused and betrayed them.  Sometimes they even see their difficulty accomplishing this as further proof that something is wrong with them. Or sometimes clients report having already forgiven an abuser, but seem to have perhaps skipped over part of their process in the rush to do so.  Our culture is full of messages about the benefits of forgiveness. Religions and pop psychology alike stress its importance, sometimes to the point of threatening dire emotional (or spiritual) consequences unless one forgives.

Forgiveness is universally believed to be good for us, it seems. But it isn’t always clear exactly how it is accomplished. Or if there are exceptions. True to our culture’s love of all or nothing thinking, the alternative to forgiveness is framed as a complete negative.  For example, a quick Google search turns up this claim from the Mayo Clinic:

When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge or embrace forgiveness and move forward.

Must it be that black or white?

Is healing without forgiveness possible?

Are there some harms that are unforgivable?

In thinking about these questions I consider how forgiveness is or is not the same for survivors of severe trauma. What happens when the very people who are supposed to love, care for, and protect you are the ones who instead abuse you? What happens when this abuse is ongoing or appears to be done with ill intent? If betrayal and violation in the context of our closest connections has a different impact, surely forgiveness may be a different thing in these situations.

In my process of thinking about forgiveness, I suddenly seem to come across discussion of it everywhere! Isn’t it something how that can happen?

I came upon this post at Blooming Lotus (just one of several excellent posts about forgiveness after abuse): How to Forgive an Abuser after Child Abuse. I really liked the expanded concept of what forgiveness can look like, the focus on allowing room for exploration of feelings about the abuse/betrayal and the focus on forgiving oneself.  From there I also discovered Heal and Forgive by Nancy Richards. Both sites are incredibly rich and worth exploring in depth.

Reading these sites  reminded me of a book I own but have not looked at in quite a while: Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better Not To Forgive by Jeanne Safer, Ph.D. I was drawn to this book many years ago while contemplating these same questions. The premise of this exploration of forgiveness in intimate relationships is that it can be equally valid and healthy for some individuals to choose not to forgive.

Forgiving and Not Forgiving proposes a paradigm shift. It challenges the conventional wisdom and offers a new and consoling perspective: that forgiveness as it is commonly understood is only one of many routes to resolution, humanity and peace, and that reengaging with the past is the best way to change to future. It charges that false forgiveness damages self and society, and that not forgiving without vindictiveness can be morally and emotionally right. (p.2)

Reengaging with the past is the best way to change to future- what does this mean? I see this at the root of all trauma therapy. The unexamined and sometimes unremembered past continues to influence us all. It is in fact sometimes most powerfully driving our behavior and choices when we have not examined and come to terms with it.  By bringing the past out into the light, especially in the context of a current safe relationship, transformation can happen.

Dr. Safer focuses on “intimate betrayal” vs. damage done by strangers stating:

Intimate betrayal requires a special kind of forgiveness…betrayal destroys faith in love, trust, and honor. Betrayers have no regard for the impact of their actions on victims they know intimately, even those they love. This disregard is especially devastating, because it confronts you with the knowledge that at least for a time, you did not matter at all to someone who mattered deeply to you (p.43)

This is the crux of the matter for trauma survivors.  How do you come to terms with abuse and betrayal at the hands of a loved one, a spouse, partner, parent or other trusted figure. Part of the wounding is to your very ability to trust and believe in relationships and safety.  How can you forgive someone who has done such profound damage to you and your life?

How do we even define forgiveness? Too often it gets used in ways that seem to mean excusing or forgetting the wrong in order to reconcile with the abuser.  For individuals who have already had the experience of putting their needs, feelings, very safety on the back burner in relationships with abusive others this could just feel like more of the same. This version of forgiveness becomes just another way to deny or overlook  normal reactions to mistreatment or injustice.  Dr. Safer  suggests a broader perspective on what forgiveness can entail:

any state of mind that enables a person to reconnect psychically with a betrayer and to change the meaning and impact of the trauma, even if considerable anger remains.

Some approaches to forgiveness seem to lump all wrongs into the same category. For example, I found yet another forgiveness article:  Four Elements of Forgiveness by Ryan Howes, Ph.D.  In it he breaks forgiveness into the following steps:

  • A. Express the emotion
  • B. Understand why
  • C. Rebuild safety
  • 4. Let go

I like the steps.  It reminds me very much of the process Dr. Safer describes as the sort of therapeutic work that is necessary to achieve genuine forgiveness rather than the forced, automatic forgiving because you have to variety. This is the “reconnecting psychically with a betrayer” work. “Let go” or letting go is often used as synonymous with forgiveness. I resonate with it as it seems much less value-laden, less loaded.

However, this article loses me with its example of a nearly unforgivable offense (although I imagine this was meant in jest). Returning someone’s car in bad condition is light years away from the types of violations and betrayals clients of mine struggle to forgive. I also very much believe forgiveness is a process you can accomplish yourself, it does not necessitate any interaction with the abuser. Perhaps that is an example of why so many mainstream approaches to and discussions of forgiveness fall short of the mark to me.

Like every therapeutic issue, I believe that forgiveness is highly personal and individual. I fully support clients in coming to terms with what makes sense in their lives. I think it is important to ask yourself why you feel the need to forgive? Is your motivation external? Is it a “should” coming at you from others or something that is important to your internal process? Is it a part of making meaning from the abuse or an attempt to side step delving into it more fully? Dr. Safe identifies a type of “false forgiveness” that can be damaging rather than healing.

Sometimes the right option for you as an individual may be to choose to not forgive. This may be temporary. Perhaps you will not forgive while your healing is still in progress, while you have yet to fully explore all feelings and the meaning associated with the abuse, or when your personal safety has not yer been re-established.  If you have a dissociative disorder, parts of you may differ greatly on whether to forgive an abuser or not. Gathering and assessing the reasons behind the different views is a crucial part of the decision making process.

Not forgiving can be the outcome of deep emotional work and careful consideration. It can be the right outcome for some to further their healing and make sense of the world.  Not forgiving can be an act of opposing injustice: a way of taking a stand even within yourself and saying this occurred and it was wrong. Period.

It can also be an acknowledgement that there is no way, for you, to reconnect positively, even within your mind  with your abuser. For some the damage is too pervasive. The toxicity too great. There is not always something positive to reclaim and reconcile with. There can be a peace in even this devastating realization. It can be freeing. The abuse and hatred of abuser no longer dominate your life. You do not hold yourself accountable or buy into illusion that if you were different/did something different you could change the other or the relationship.

Forgiveness or unforgiveness can also be partial. This can come in the form of the painful realization that the type of connection you wish for is not possible or that your self or life is not fully accepted (so often the case for LGBT individuals). Holding onto this complexity and ambivalence, that the people we love and choose to continue to relate to have and continue to wound us, is painful but real. Many parent are loving and flawed.  Some people find a resolution that allows for connecting to the good and letting go of the toxic.

However this is not always the case. What about children who experience severe and comprehensive emotional, physical and sexual abuse? Sometimes there is not a positive side to a relationship. Sometimes the level of betrayal and damage is so severe there is nothing positive left. This can be true in adult intimate  relationships as well, but is especially devastating in childhood when the need to love, connect with and depend upon a caretaker is paramount. To find a way to heal, forgive oneself and let go of what is toxic may be the optimal tasks.

Any of the following may be a valid and healing approach for you in coming to terms with the aftermath of abuse and betrayal:

  • Forgiveness
  • Partial forgiveness
  • Understanding but not forgiving
  • Letting go of bitterness and hatred
  • Active unforgiveness

Making peace with yourself, your past and creating the type of life you desire in the future can occur whether you forgive your abusers or not. That you reach a resolution that makes sense for you matter more than the form it takes. Perhaps this is the most important thing to take away: focus on your healing first. Reconnect with the past, forgive and learn how to provide safety for yourself. Once you have healed sufficiently I trust you will know what needs to happen next in terms of forgiving others or not.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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16 Responses to Forgiveness and Trauma: Are Some Things Unforgivable?

  1. faithallen says:

    Thank you for the kinds words. :0)

    – Faith from Blooming Lotus

  2. This is a great article Kathleen! I was just in a big discussion about this topic!

    As someone who has personally recovered from childhood sexual abuse and dissociated identity disorder, forgiveness was not the key to recovery for me. I understand today that forgiveness is not saying “it’s ok what you did” and I also understand that there is no point in forgiving someone that isn’t sorry other than to set myself free. Forgiveness seems to make more sense when meant for those that have repented from their wrong doing. There was a fine line in there between the fact that I needed to forgive so that I didn’t live in the resentment and terror of what they did to me and the fact that I was trying to forgive people that still deny what they did! Having said that, it was imperative that I put myself, my therapy and my healing first, before I even considered how I felt about the people that had abused me.

    What set me free was finally understanding what happened to me and believing that I had nothing to do with my abuse. I did not make any decisions that caused it and I did not bring it on myself as I was always led to believe. Even in Christian society, there was this “indication” that I had done something wrong, either I didn’t have enough faith or whatever, (and that if I could just ‘forgive’ then I would be set free) but my whole entire life I believed that it was up to me to have prevented it, and it all spiraled down to something I did wrong. In the depths of my heart I believed that it was all my fault.

    It was only when I finally understood with the help of a therapist, that it was NOT my fault in any way, that began to recover, and eventually I was truly free to live life as a whole and functional person. I was then free to forgive, but what forgiveness “feels” like for me is that I was able to let go of the hated and bitterness. I don’t really feel anything for my abusers and a sign of my freedom is that I truly know they can’t hurt me anymore. I live my life supporting others in the quest for this freedom.

    Thanks for posting, this is wonderful!

    • Darlene-

      I found myself nodding as I read along with your comment. Thank you for sharing your experience with this!

      I truly agree with you, that healing and forgiving of self is so crucial (really getting on a deep level that you did not cause or deserve the abuse).

      Letting go of bitterness, freedom, peace of mind: whether these are synonymous with forgiveness or not they are attainable. I am so glad for you that you’ve had this kind of healing. Thanks for sharing the hope with others!

  3. Sharon S says:

    This post is really interesting because it is something too many of us have asked ourselves at one time or another. I immediately thought of a book I read called “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life” by Susan Forward, Ph.D. There is a chapter called “You Don’t Have To Forgive” that really struck me.

    One of the things she talks about is questioning why we feel we need to forgive someone who has severely mistreated/abused you? She equates it to a form of denial, meaning that if I forgive you, we can now pretend that it did not happen. I really like this point of view simply because all we hear in polite society is that we must forgive. I like to think that we have options and if by not forgiving an abuser we can move on and be at peace with it, then isn’t that a better option?

    • Thanks for commenting Sharon!

      Yes, that chapter sounds very much like the “false forgiveness” concept I wrote about. Anything that furthers denial vs. true healing is of course not what we want to work towards!

  4. Nansie says:

    Dr. Young this is a wonderful post. It encompasses every angle possible. The only kind of forgiveness I could muster up would be false so I came to terms with the fact that the abuse went too deep…sexual/physical/emotional and lasted too long for me to find forgiveness. Too much damage was done. I will never have contact with my abusers again…even though they were family. The only way I could begin the healing process was to cut off all contact. I cannot forgive them. I cannot move forward with them ever so forgiveness of them becomes a moot point. I will heal in time going through whatever processes I must in order to get to the next level. I am sure forgiving myself will be one of these steps. I am healing with DID and to offer them any kind of forgiveness would be a huge betrayal to my parts. I want it to be widely known within my parts that I am taking care of them now and things will be different. They will be safe and they will be protected and they will never have to be in the presence of their abusers again.

  5. Karen says:

    I cannot express how much of an impact this post had on me when I read it. I was sexually assaulted by a former acquaintance and some of my family members have been less than supportive in the aftermath. My husband is pressuring me to forgive and forget, but I refuse to do this as it would be a betrayal to my healing. I don’t forgive them. I feel emotionally and psychologically abandoned by people I love and the damage is so pervasive that I’ve had to cut off all contact in order to heal and feel safe. I now know that my actions are normal and healthy, whether others understand it or not. Protecting myself is more important than “playing nice” and pretending everything is fine, when that is far from my reality. Thank you for articulating so many of my feelings, it helps so much.

    • Red says:

      Karen and Nansie–

      More power to you. Sometimes you have to say “screw forgiveness, and screw my abuser” in order to truly grasp your own value and worth. If the abuse was not your fault, then why should the onus be on you to forgive? Don’t you have enough to deal with already? Shouldn’t the onus be on the abuser to stop being an a**h*** and swallow his/her punishment? When you accept these ideas, you begin to say, “The abuse committed against me was unforgivable precisely because I am too valuable a person to deserve it. I cannot just ‘bounce back’, and that which threatens to crush me physically or emotionally must be treated with profound gravity and seriousness. It will never be okay, and I want to sever this unwanted relationship because I deserve it.”

      You owe your abusers nothing. If they won’t suck up to you for a change, screw ’em. And even if they will…they don’t deserve you, so screw ’em anyway.

  6. Alexander says:

    You are so totally awesome, thanks.

  7. Claire says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I am 50 years old and had remained a prisoner of childhood abuse until three months ago, when I decided to have no contact with them despite being very frightened. My life has been destroyed and I cannot forgive.

  8. Anonymous says:

    thank you for helping me help myself

  9. sherisebgabe says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m apparently late to the party, but I did want to extend my thanks.

    I have struggled with forgiving a man who left me with a child to raise alone. I seem to get stuck at understanding. I just can’t fathom what would bring this person to do the things he did. I have a strong suspicion that this individual is a sociopath, and it’s difficult to comprehend, let alone forgive, someone who is incapable of feeling guilt, empathy, or remorse.

    I think your post will give me the strength to move on, even if I can’t understand or forgive. I’m sure I can’t forgive, at least in the sense that I can re-establish any sort of connection with this person. He has tried to contact me, and even though I reject all forms of contact, I feel nothing but abject terror and disgust when he does reach out to me. The physical illness lasts for days and sometimes weeks. It’s obvious I can’t reconnect with this person (and if he is a sociopath, it’s probably best if I don’t).

    Anyway, just wanted to thank you . 🙂

  10. I have not spoken to my dad in 21 years.
    He doesn’t deserve to be in my life.

  11. marian h says:

    dr Kathleen young many thanks for your articule im in the process of healing severe childhood abuse from my father. im in a twelve step programme which hightlights forgiveness to the person who has wronged us. im grateful for the above stories as it makes me feel so much better. he does not deserve forgiveness. god will have that one when the time comes ragards marian

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