Trauma & Forgiveness
It feels as though we have always been told to forgive those who have troubled us, mistreated, or caused harm to us. But what are we actually doing? Are we providing a form of relief to the person who caused us harm, or are we acknowledging that they know they did something wrong and want to move past it? Is it really the best thing for us as survivors of trauma to forgive and is it necessary in finding resolution from the past?
What is Forgiveness?
The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online defines it as:
Forgive [Verb] /fəˈɡɪv//fərˈɡɪv/
[transitive, intransitive] to stop feeling angry with somebody who has done something to harm, annoy or upset you; to stop feeling angry with yourself.
So technically, it is about giving up those unwanted feelings of resentment and replacing them with compassion. It is also about moving away from punishing the offender and consciously striving to find a more balanced approach to a situation.
There are two different types of forgiveness; decisional and emotional.
- Decisional forgiveness – You have consciously decided to forgive them and so you subsequently change your behavior towards them, even though you might still dislike them inside.
- Emotional forgiveness – This is when you experience an internal change towards the other person. Instead of feeling resentment, you actually feel more empathy and compassion towards them.
Interestingly, there isn’t much in the way of scientific research on the topic of forgiveness. The earliest dated piece was 1989. Yes, 1989. There is evidence that primates (bonobos, mountain gorillas, and chimps) have shown physical signs of forgiveness by embracing, kissing, and showing affection following moments of aggression. In fact, forgiveness has appeared to be an instinctual trait in other mammals too, such as goats and hyenas.
In our own evolutionary journey, it has been found that forgiveness was a useful tool in helping to minimize conflict and bind communities closer together in the past. There is a history of forgiveness being at the core of many of the oldest and most common world religions too, which has inspired many people to follow suit. Did you know that those of us who are more religious tend to forgive and seek forgiveness more than non-religious people? Nowadays, it is still used as a way of resolving conflicts, binding communities, and providing support but it also is often linked to healing and therapeutic reasoning too (Luskin 2003).
There is an argument that the reason why this hasn’t been tethered to bits previously, was because there hasn’t been the same need to passively reconcile as there is now. We are starting to see an emergence of public figures admitting they were wrong and asking for forgiveness. Justin Timberlake recently admitted his wrong-doings during his infamous 2004 Super Bowl performance for his degrading comments about Janet Jackson. Interestingly, the superstar responded through an Instagram message declaring, “Always choose to heal, not to hurt. To forgive, not to despise.” (March 31st, 2021).
Forgiveness and Healing:
It is interesting that Janet Jackson chose those all-too-familiar words ‘to heal’ in her plight to forgive Timberlake for his comments. But what about those of us who opt not to forgive, are we forever doomed to a life of eternal resentment? Forgiveness can be a hard pill to swallow on and it is not instigated by a simple ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch that many people seem to believe. Especially if the perpetrator has inflicted significant trauma and unbelievable suffering to the survivor.
The concept of forgiveness being the ultimate point of healing is one that needs serious attention for redefinition and correction. The phrase “you must forgive to heal” can prove to have toxic (even if well-intentioned) consequences on the survivor. It can make their struggle to overcome what they are suffering from seeming invalid and you never know, maybe they just don’t want to have to forgive. Moving on or away from something does not by default mean that forgiveness has to be included along that journey. It is not a simple one-size-fits-all way of “healing”.
Do we really have to forgive?
We live in a culture where it is expected to readily forgive those who have caused wrong-doing and trauma to our lives. We have all heard of those remaining family members of murdered victims, forgiving the inmate facing the death penalty and that’s great for them- if that’s what they have chosen to do.
However, more often than not, if you do not want to forgive, then you are too easily labeled a “grudge holder” or someone who is “unwilling to move on”. Interestingly, it is mostly our own family members or friends who pressure us to forgive others, informing us that the only true way to “heal” is by forgiving the perpetrator. A great example of this is from a recent MailOnline column where Piers Morgan scathingly accused Meghan Markle of ‘ruthlessly disown[ing] her father Thomas and refuses to have anything to do with him, despite the fact that they now live 70 miles from each other.’ This is a classic example of how society deems the importance of maintaining family bonds over the survivor’s need to heal – regardless of the damage it may have caused an individual. The truth is that the concept of someone’s need to grow from their trauma by prioritising their own wellbeing through removing themselves from the very cause of their suffering is one that is not yet openly accepted in our western culture. We just don’t seem to be at the point of accepting the act to remove oneself (or being unwilling to forgive) from the cause of their trauma as a form of passive self-care, rather than “ruthless” acts of punishment and aggression.
Forgiveness – A Paradox
Let’s take a minute to actually think about why we wouldn’t want to forgive someone who has hurt us. Surely, to be unwilling to forgive will inflict a form of punishment on the other person. In achieving this, it could be argued that it provides us with a feeling of restitution if we feel that justice has not been effectively served already? Doesn’t it validate how we are feeling when we effectively withhold happiness from the perpetrator? Also, if the other person insists that they have done nothing wrong, is it right to forgive them if they have been unkind and have treated us unfairly? What are we actually gaining from it?
Pushing someone to forgive when they are not in a position to readily do so can actually instigate further resentment. It just doesn’t qualify that in a world where we are becoming more aware of the importance of self-care that we do things that are perpetuating our own unhappiness. Putting the needs of another human being (who has actually caused significant damage in our lives) before our need to work through past trauma and does not offer us an opportunity to heal at all. Neither does a reluctance to forgive translate as being a nasty, angry, aggressive, and revengeful human being either. Instead, to heal from trauma, it is encouraged to be able to consciously differentiate between the past and the present, affirm effective boundaries, learn how to confidently assert ourselves, grow through forming new healthier habits, prioritize our own needs without feeling selfish, not participate in toxic behaviors and allow ourselves an opportunity to flourish from our past.
Forgiveness isn’t a “must”, it’s simply an option if the survivor wants to investigate it at some point themselves. It has nothing to do with their own path to heal, it’s actually a completely separate entity. Decisional forgiveness can be a toxic and at best a counter-productive option. It can actually force the survivor back into facing the unresolved trauma and then having to mask their emotions, while their feelings chew away underneath into a boiling furnace of internalised magma. If someone is feeling ready to emotionally forgive someone, then great, but that is up to them and will be something they will actively choose to do when they are ready.
Forgiveness is a journey and it can be a hard one for many of us who have experienced unimaginable trauma. So really, what I am trying to say is that it is a journey that is not for everyone and needs to be severed from this idea of being an integral part of healing. Adding pressure to those of us who are trying to survive what has happened in the past can actually make the situation worse, even if it is coming from a place of good intention. Yes, we all want our loved ones to feel free from the chains of their unhappiness but that comes from an established healing process, not false forgiveness. The path that you choose to heal is completely up to you and to be unwilling to forgive does not necessarily prevent you from closing gaping wounds, nor does it have anything to do with healing from past trauma.
By Sarah [email protected]
Arkesie provides Psychotherapy and healing interventions for victims of child abuse, trauma, depression & anxiety.