I am going to talk about a subject that is sensitive for many people who have experienced trauma: forgiving one’s abuser.
Many of us hold forgiveness up as an ideal. Our spiritual tradition may teach us to forgive. We may have been taught to love our enemies, or turn the other cheek. For some (but not all) people, forgiveness can be healing. But what does it mean?
Forgiveness does not mean condoning what happened. It does not mean that the person in question was not responsible for their actions. Most importantly, it does not in any way diminish the fact that the abuse was deeply and profoundly harmful. If we choose to forgive, this does not mean taking away our permission to feel whatever we need to feel about the abuse. This might include grief or outright rage. All of these feelings are part of the healing process. It is important to have compassion for ourselves when those feelings come up.
In time, though, comes the realization that we do not want to be swallowed up in anger and grief. It saps our energy. It keeps us from noticing the moments of joy, warmth and humor that show up spontaneously in our lives. While traumatic experiences can change us, they do not define who we are. Sometimes, forgiveness means choosing to live our lives on our own terms, rather than letting trauma dominate our existence. When we take time for self-care, we have more energy to have compassion for others. This may, eventually, include compassion for our abusers. We may come to a place where we do not wish them harm, or even wish them healing from whatever suffering led them down the wrong path.
In some cases, this can be a spiritual resource. Compassion feels good! If a client has a belief that their God wants them to be compassionate, then compassion can feel like a spiritual experience. I’m 100% in favor of people having as many healthy spiritual experiences as they want to have. So, if a client comes to a place where they are able to do that, then I offer my full support.
That said, it is important to remember that not everyone reaches this place…and that’s OK. If we can’t forgive, it does not mean that we are unable to heal. It also does not mean that we are, in some way, less moral or spiritually enlightened than the person who IS able to forgive. It can be very empowering to say “I choose not to forgive.” Sometimes, THIS is the statement that allows us to move past the trauma. It sets a clear boundary, which we may not have been able to set, in the past. This can be an important step toward healing, because it acknowledges that we have choices, and are NOT powerless.
If somebody you love is recovering from trauma, it is important not to have an agenda about forgiveness. They will forgive when and IF they are ready. The most helpful thing you can do is listen, and remind the person that you love them…whatever their choice may be.