Author’s Note: This is the third in a series of articles on emotional healing. Although reading the first two is not a prerequisite, it may help clarify some of the ideas discussed below. Click here for Part I and here for Part II.
When we choose to begin our journey of emotional healing, forgiveness can be a trigger for igniting our recovery and working miracles during this process. But the subject of forgiveness poses its own controversies with conflicting and ambiguous advice by well-meaning and respected individuals. There are those who insist we should always forgive no matter what the circumstance while others protest some situations can never be forgiven. With opposite sides presenting strong arguments, how do we discern what works best for our journey? Should we always unconditionally forgive or are there times we may be forgiven for not forgiving?
If you have struggled with this dilemma in the past, you are not alone. Knowing whether to forgive someone who harmed you can seem like a no-win situation. Often, the decision itself becomes overwhelming and rather than deciding what to do, we completely avoid the topic and elude the shameful feelings for not determining to act one way or another.
One reason for all this confusion is because there is not a single sure-fire answer for every situation. It is up to us individually to decide what works best for our journey, and focusing on how it will impact our own healing will help determine how or even if we need to forgive.
The purpose of forgiveness
Forgiveness, like a gift, can be given as well as received. Unfortunately and all to often, it is the emotionally damaged person who feels compelled, or sometimes forced, to give it. They’ve been told it’s the best way to “put it behind you and move forward.” While I am a huge proponent of forgiving, the last thing I would ever tell someone is the first thing they must do is forgive their abuser.
I caution anyone who pushes this command on others trying to find emotional healing. We have no clue what kind of devastation that person suffered. I don’t have the faintest idea what it feels like to be molested by a loved one or physically beaten by someone I trusted. Demanding someone to first forgive their abuser would be akin to asking them to go through that pain again. This is not wise counsel but an inferior attempt to sound prudent, when in reality, it can conceivably obstruct or completely thwart the healing process altogether.
There are times when an abuser comes to the realization of the damage their actions caused and pleads for their victim’s forgiveness. But just because they’ve mustered up the courage to ask for it doesn’t guarantee it will be given. If their request is not granted, does this deprive them of their opportunity to heal?
When it comes to our own emotional healing, the primary reason we forgive is for our own healing, benefit, and growth.
When we have been deeply wounded, the tendency is to harbor sentiments of anger, resentment, or other destructive judgements against our abusers. This is normal, and quite an understandable reaction, but this mindset also has the capacity to limit us. It diminishes our ability to love and constrains us from trusting or showing compassion. We believe by not being vulnerable the possibility of being hurt will vanish.
In the end, this belief only diminishes our capacity to live a full and purpose-filled life. If you are not ready to forgive your abuser, my recommendation is first begin by forgiving yourself for harboring any negative feelings – and especially if any of those feelings were directed at yourself. The unspeakable pain you suffered contributed to your beliefs this would help you survive but holding onto them only shifted the pain you continued to suffer. By forgiving yourself for having all these resentments, it will release you from the negativity and shame which may have followed you for many years, without having the trauma of wondering if you need to forgive your abuser.
When I was 14, a man, whose word I respected more highly than my parents, accused me of doing something I didn’t do. But because I thought every word he spoke was essentially inspired by God, I believed him. It wasn’t until my early 50’s when I could forgive myself for believing the terrible things he said I had done. During my healing process, I considered if I needed to forgive him for saying those things to me. Had he been alive, there is no doubt if I had attempted to forgive him, he would not have accepted it, and would continue to assert what he said was the truth.
His non-acceptance and denial will not stop my healing because I no longer hold grudges or ill feelings for those words. Forgiving him has no bearing on my healing. But this story has been extremely instrumental in my endeavors to help others understand the power of shame and forgiveness.
If you have hurt someone in your past and want forgiveness for your healing journey, asking your victim is a good place to start. Hopefully, your sincere obligation to rectify the situation will help them as well. Although you always have the option to simply forgive yourself, this one-sided approach will not be as effective because it mitigates your actions and may show a lack of insincerity.
Asking forgiveness proves you accepted your actions and shows others your true intentions of wanting to change. It won’t undo the injustices and may never re-right the situation, but it will show the depths you are going to make amends. Should the one you hurt refuse to forgive you, likewise, this should not block your healing from occurring.
We only have the ability to control our own outcomes but asking forgiveness of those we have hurt can immensely influence their journey and lighten their load. Part of our obligation may be to do our best to help them but it is completely in their hands if they are willing to give or accept forgiveness.
Inevitably, circumstances arise where others involved in your healing may have disappeared or are deceased. Although it may be difficult for some to proceed, our emotional healing should never depend on whether we are able to give to or receive forgiveness from another person. It is our journey and we must take responsibility for the direction it heads.
Forgiveness is not an easy choice. It may require the help of a trained counselor or therapist. In any case, proceed in the direction of promoting your own healing and it will guide you to know whether forgiveness is a vital part of that journey.
If you have questions about your own healing journey and would like to know more, feel free to contact me on this website or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org