by Christina Enevoldsen
As much support and love as there is in the community of survivors that gather online, there is a topic that seems to divide us. I’ve rarely witnessed discussion topics that become as hostile as the issue of forgiveness.
It’s easy to understand why there would be so much disagreement considering that there are so many definitions of forgiveness. To some it means accepting the past. Others define forgiveness as letting go of negative emotions. To some, it coincides with reconciliation or feeling no ill will toward towards the abuser, while others believe it has nothing to do with a relationship the abuser.
Added to that, forgiveness is very often preached as necessary for other survivors. It’s one thing to say that forgiveness is important to you, but quite another to insist that it’s important for all survivors or to tell others what’s best for their own healing. That’s when forgiveness discussions turn into defenses against boundary violations and condescending remarks.
On a recent quote I posted on OSA Facebook, (a quote that didn’t really have anything to do with forgiveness), the discussion took an interesting turn. It was interesting to me because it illustrated where I believe discussions on forgiveness become unhealthy.
“I used to have a fear that I’d be obligated to stop talking about my abuser if he was sorry, as though that changed anything about what he had done to me. Now I believe that if there are consequences for his actions, it’s not up to me to protect him, no matter what his intentions and actions are now. No matter what happens after the abuse, I still have a right to tell my story—even if my abuser is remorseful; even if my abuser turns into a loving person; even if my abuser builds wells in impoverished countries; even if I restore a relationship with my abuser; even if my abuser is incapacitated; even if my abuser dies—I still have a right to tell my story.” The Rescued Soul by Christina Enevoldsen
I appreciated this insight from one of the commenters:
“Even if your abuser was remorseful, he would know you have the right to be hurt and heal and shouldn’t stop you from it. They would own up and take responsibility for the consequences and know that what they have done will always be part of your life. They would understand—if truly remorseful. They would even stop others from doing what they did. The sad thing is, too many never are.”
This spells out what I believe true remorse is. It’s being concerned for the well-being of the one you harmed. It’s pursuing amends instead of escape from the consequences.
So far, none of the abusers in my life have shown remorse, though one claimed to be remorseful to avoid prison. When that didn’t work, he returned to claiming he was being treated unfairly.
I believe that it’s possible for a sexual abuser to be remorseful—only I haven’t seen or experienced it. The problem is that they tend to be so manipulative and deceptive that it can be hard to know the truth unless you see evidence of change over a long period of time—which isn’t possible when you don’t want them in your life. Even then, how can you really know for sure?
The commenter continued:
“Someone hurt me last year and I feel the need for them to be remorseful because I want to believe change can happen but I’m not expecting it and they are removed from my life. Even if they were [remorseful], I don’t feel I could forgive and definitely not forget or [that] it would mean I have to forgive them.”
This echoes very much what I expressed in the original quote. There is no obligation to me no matter the improvements my abusers make or claim to make.
However, another commenter continued the thought on forgiveness with this response directed toward the previous commenter:
“In time I hope you can forgive because it will help in your healing process.”
Do I Need to Forgive My Abuser to Heal?
Do I have to forgive my abuser to heal? I was told forgiveness was a condition of healing for years after I first remembered that my dad had sexually abused me. Our relationship continued as it had. I called it forgiveness, but I hadn’t even validated my own pain yet. It wasn’t really forgiveness since I hadn’t faced that there was anything to forgive. I was in denial; I just swept it all away and pretended it never happened.
The commenter added:
“Also in life’s journey, you/we all will need to be forgiven for the wrong we may say or do at some time or another.”
Saying that we all need to be forgiven isn’t helpful. That discounts the serious and repetitive nature of sexual abuse. It’s a shame-making statement to compel a survivor into doing what they “should”. It’s each survivor’s decision to work out what’s best for him or her.”
When I intervened, the commenter directed this to me:
“Do you not believe that you yourself will need to be forgiven for ANYTHING you may have said or done to anyone along life’s journey or do you not ever apologize for anything you say or do wrong??! No one is without spot or blemish/wrong doing?”
This is another approach I’ve heard so much. Yes, I do wrong others. I need to apologize. I need to be forgiven.
I don’t handle my wrong-doing the same way that most abusers do. When I discovered that I’ve wronged someone, I feel pain for the injury I’ve done. It wounds me to know I’ve wounded someone else. I feel a responsibility to do something about that. I apologize and make appropriate amends. I work to change my behavior so I don’t repeat it.
What Does Being Imperfect Have to Do With It?
There’s an added insult in that statement too. “You will need to be forgiven” comes as a threat: You don’t deserve to be forgiven unless you forgive.” My dad, and many other abusers, have used that reasoning to imply that you’re wrong for protesting or complaining about abuse at all unless you’re perfect.
“You’re not perfect so who are you to judge?”
“You’re not perfect so why should we believe you?”
“You’re not perfect so your hands are dirty too.”
What’s Wrong With Being Angry About Abuse?
The commenter added:
“I’m wondering, you may be physically free from your abuser(s) but how long are you going to hold a grudge towards your abuser(s) & still live mentally as a hostage by them in keeping angry ill feelings towards them???”
“holding a grudge”
Those are all very triggering words to most survivors that I know. Why wouldn’t they be? Who wants to be around someone who is bitter? Who wants to extend support to someone who is resentful? Being labeled as angry means rejection. Those accusations are intended to get us “in line”—to make us conform to cultural norms and to put the happy face back on.
That comment prompted me to actually look up the meaning of those words. The dictionary definitions:
Grudge comes from the German word, “to complain”. It means feeling ill will or resentment toward someone.
Resentment is the feeling of displeasure or indignation at some act, remark, person, etc., regarded as causing injury or insult. Anger
What’s wrong with feeling ill will toward your abuser? What wrong with complaining about them? What wrong with feeling indignant about their abuse? What’s wrong with expressing anger?
Those are the things I needed to do to heal. Previously, I was numb to the things that happened to me. Coping with the abuse required me to agree with my treatment and to shut down my feelings. But unfeeling isn’t the same as being healed.
To heal, I had to do the opposite of what forgiveness demanded. I had to finally become my own ally instead of my abuser’s. I had to acknowledge the depth of betrayal and offense that I’d experienced. I had to get in touch with my emotions and feel the pain and anger that was buried. I had to turn with compassion toward myself and give myself the comfort I needed.
While I was pressured to forgive, I didn’t make any progress in my healing. I only healed once I started to make me the focus of my healing without worrying about my abusers or my feelings toward them.
Who Is Forgiveness For?
I was told that forgiveness was for my benefit, not for my abusers, but it wasn’t for my benefit to be pushed. I needed time to sort through my feelings and then to decide for myself without guilt from outside sources.
Forgiveness is touted as something we do to free ourselves, but how freeing is it to be told you have to do something? How freeing is it to be told to let go of your feelings? I was separated from my feelings long enough while I coped with the experience and effects of my abuse. Accepting my emotions was a sign that I was finally considering and connecting with me.
Many claim that if we don’t forgive, we are likely to get stuck in a place of anger and bitterness. But all of those feelings pass when they are properly directed and expressed. When survivors feel permission to grieve for our losses and to express all the feelings that are a part of that grief, it frees us to move though it. Getting stuck isn’t the result of freedom to feel; it comes from the pressure to move on before we’re ready.
Survivors are amazingly capable of moving through the healing steps when we are validated and encouraged to listen to ourselves. No one else has a better sense of timing for our own process than we do.
External pressure doesn’t produce true forgiveness anyway. Forgiveness comes from the generosity of a full heart. When our hearts are broken and we are taught to forgive, it’s another soul betrayal. It’s being generous with the person who crushed us rather than being generous with ourselves.
I did end up forgiving, but that was the result of my healing, not the cause of it. Forgiveness came for me when I expressed—and ran out of—the anger. I ran out of anger because I stopped judging myself for feeling it. I ran out because I directed it where it belonged: toward my abusers. I ran out of anger because I gave myself permission to express it in healthy ways.
Is Advising Abuse Survivors to Forgive Their Abusers Helpful?
I’m not against forgiveness. What I am against is anyone telling me or other survivors to forgive. I’m against other survivor’s healing process being invalidated by being told they aren’t doing it right.
I’m sure most people who recommend that others forgive their abusers are only trying to be helpful. We were abused by being overpowered and controlled and part of our healing is to break away from that. To be pressured or manipulated to do something “good” for us is not really good for us.
What truly is loving and useful is to allow others the freedom to choose their own healing journey. Every survivor deserves true support instead of being “helped” by conforming to someone else’s beliefs about what is healthy for them. All survivors deserve the chance to decide for themselves if forgiveness is a step they want to take and if so, when they are ready to take it.
What are your views on forgiveness? Have you experienced pain around this issue? If you’ve chosen to forgive your abuser, did you benefit from it? Was it your choice or did you feel pressure? I’d love to hear your feelings and experiences about this. Please share them with me below and remember to subscribe to the comments so you don’t miss any of the discussion.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.
What About Forgiveness?
Forgetting About Abuse: Who Does That Really Serve?
Exposing the Incest Family Secrets
What’s Inappropriate About Exposing Abuse?
Warning: Abusers Will Shame You For Being Angry About Your Abuse
If you’re interested in how I’ve healed from my abuse, I invite you to read my book, The Rescued Soul: A Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. In it, I spell out the details of exactly how I’ve healed, using excerpts from my journal, very candid stories and detailed examples. It’s definitely up close and personal! It’s healing guide, workbook and journal all in one. I put a lot of love into all 518 pages.