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How far should forgiveness go?


“Forgiveness is important when there is a purpose behind it.”

In last week’s article, forgiveness was shown to be an effective means for the healing process (click here to read it). However, it was presented in a way that is rarely discussed and that way is self-forgiveness as the first step. The emphasis is generally concentrated on one’s ability to forgive others which often includes those who’ve harmed or abused you.

This can be difficult for many and the reasons are completely understandable. Especially when this remedy is spoken by someone who has earned our respect. If we’ve deemed them virtuous or devout, we don’t question their words but rather examine our own fortitude and determination when we can’t seem to fulfill that command.

So let’s start by asking the question “why should we forgive”?

There are at least two reasons which come to mind. The first, and I believe most valuable, is to heal and restore ourselves. Harboring an inordinate amount of anger, hate, or other destructive emotions can figuratively tie our hands creating mental boundaries and barricades. The second reason to forgive would be to help the offender. Perhaps his guilt  prompted a change in behavior and forgiving them can help facilitate those efforts.

However, forgiving others – especially those who have brutally abused you – can be a complicated and problematic situation. One thing I will NEVER do is tell my clients that they MUST forgive their abusers in order to heal. Personally, I think this is the worst counsel you could ever tell someone who was terribly mistreated.

I cannot nor would I want to imagine the appalling events some have suffered especially as an innocent child. Having the audacity to tell someone they MUST do anything of this sort would in truth, be using a shaming technique on them. “If you do not forgive them, then you will not be able to move forward.”

Think about that statement for a moment. Saying that to someone IS abuse!

What I am not saying is that they should never forgive their abusers. It will happen if it needs to. At fourteen, I was verbally rebuked by someone I highly respected. That incident had a drastically negative impact on me for the next several decades. When I discussed it with my therapist, it became clear to me that I needed to forgive myself for believing what I was told.

The man had passed away several decades earlier and frankly, if there were an opportunity to forgive him, I don’t think he would accept it. However, I no longer blame him for the negative impact so forgiving him really is a moot point.

In many cases, we prolong the damage by believing harmful and destructive thoughts about ourselves. This is why it’s crucial to start by forgiving us. If eventually it becomes crucial to forgive others, we can then work on that. It is not always an easy answer but it is crucial for our own healing.

Thanks to Will Stewart for the wonderful picture and I look forward to your comments.

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