You can probably tell by the title
that I’m not an advocate of forgiving ruthless predators who victimize without remorse and who will keep doing so. If you have chosen to forgive and it helps you heal, that’s great. This blog post is for those of you who feel you must forgive the perpetrator, but are having trouble doing so. It’s also for those who choose not to forgive and are taking flak for it.
There are many paths to healing and moving on other than forgiveness. I’ve done it myself, so I know it’s possible. Even so, tremendous pressure is placed on victims to grant forgiveness:
“Religious, psychological and societal values endorse the virtue of forgiveness. Victims are confronted with the pressure to forgive those who caused them pain. They are told that forgiveness is an essential ingredient for the healing process. There’s a widespread assumption that without forgiveness, victims will never move past their trauma or achieve self-empowered freedom that conquers their sense of victimization.
When it comes to the need for victims to forgive, two questions need to be asked:
First, do victims really need to forgive to overcome their ordeals?
Second, is it fair to expect victims to forgive and exonerate their perpetrators?
While we may all agree that a continued and permanent state of bitterness about the past is never a healthy mode of existence, it’s fair to question whether forgiveness is the key to escaping a state of negativity or whether acceptance — without forgiveness — is enough to move beyond suffering towards peace and achieving resolution.
When victims succumb to the pressure to forgive, they may feel that they’re being victimized once again because in a way, forgiveness can negate the agony they endured and their right to be angry. In fact, there are times when anger is a healthy response. Acquiescence is never an appropriate response when your trust and dignity has been violated. When someone humiliates and hurts you, anger serves as a protective mechanism because it signals that something is wrong. Anger tells you that this type of behavior is unacceptable because it’s damaging to your self-worth. The absence of anger in a scenario like this leaves you vulnerable to abuse.”
— Psychiatrist Mark Banschick, “Unforgivable Hurt: Eight Ways To Heal”
You’ve probably heard the popular axiom below, which is widely accepted as true without controversy:
“Not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
I believe the poison is not the refusal to forgive — the poison is the injustice a victim experienced in the first place. In fact, being pressured to forgive is yet another poison. Believing you must forgive — but feeling unable to do so — can leave you emotionally stuck and lead to a slower recovery. The idea that you have to forgive or you’re a bad person is untrue and detrimental. Instead of moving forward in your recovery, you expend energy trying to forgive and wondering what’s wrong with you since you can’t. There’s nothing wrong with you. You can’t forgive because the perpetrator does not deserve it and because what he did was unforgivable.
Acquiescence is never an appropriate response when your trust and dignity has been violated.
Insisting that someone forgive — especially when the perpetrator has no remorse — is the perfect way to re-victimize and disempower them. It’s hard enough to heal from this without throwing an unnecessary wrench into the works.
“Whether it is the result of the way people have been programmed to believe or because they cannot fathom the depth of the pain of the victims of an aggression, it remains that remorse should be the first step.”
— Do We Always Have To Forgive? Leo Michel Abrami, Institute of Logotherapy, Berkeley, CA, Logotherapy, Existential Analysis, Emeritus
I never for one moment considered forgiving the psychopath who victimized me. I couldn’t imagine why I would want to. A big part of healing for me was becoming empowered, and developing boundaries was a large part of that. One of those boundaries defined who was worthy of forgiveness: Someone who understands the harm they caused, who expresses genuine remorse, and who makes a sincere vow not to repeat the harmful actions in the future. The heartless predator who gleefully emotionally raped me certainly didn’t deserve my forgiveness.
Another boundary I developed was not allowing others to dictate what was appropriate for me to do, feel, or think. I’d had more than enough manipulation, and I was not going to be driven by guilt or fear of rejection to do something I was against just so someone would think I was a good and virtuous person.
A large part of healing is learning to acknowledge and trust our own feelings, perceptions and choices again, instead of letting others dictate to us what we ‘should’ feel and what we ‘should’ do. We’ve all had enough of that kind of manipulation. Why let it continue with the issue of forgiveness?
What is Forgiveness?
“Forgiveness is the transaction that allows for restoration. On the offender’s side there must be confession (admit to their act against you), contrition (show sorrow for what they’ve done to you) restitution (pay back what they took plus a penalty) and repentance (show solid determination to not re-offend). The person being asked for forgiveness, you, can then offer a large measure of grace if you are convinced of the sincerity of the offender’s efforts… The word “transaction” means that forgiveness can not happen unilaterally. It takes two to dance this tango.”
— “Forgiveness,” from Narcissists Suck
What worth does forgiveness have
when we’re expected to give it away willy-nilly to anyone and everyone who harms us, no matter how egregiously? How is forgiveness the precious virtue it’s made out to be when it’s handed out freely, without expectations, and without the perpetrator even being aware of it and free to continue doing harm? How is forgiveness healing when it is another burden placed upon the shoulders of an already overburdened victim?
This is not real forgiveness; it’s a cheap imitation. It’s de rigueur forgiveness, the artificial forgiveness pushed by the superficial and the pseudo-spiritual, who preach that enlightenment is being above experiencing the pain, anger, and prolonged recovery that go along with serious trauma. Just forgive and move on. If you can’t, you really need to work on your issues.
G]enuine forgiveness does not require the forgiver to deny their suffering and their anger at the harm and injustice they experienced. It does not require further compromise of their dignity and self-worth and the continuing negation of their humanity. Real forgiveness involves more than one person: It requires a remorseful perpetrator and the person they harmed, who has the power to grant forgiveness or not. Genuine forgiveness is empowering and it restores dignity, to both the victim and the perpetrator.
Unfortunately, the remorseless psychopath will never seek forgiveness. Luckily, we do not have to forgive in order to heal.
“As Solomon Schimmel notes, ‘to advocate forgiving all offenders and all offenses because everyone commits some offenses blurs all distinction between degrees of sin, evil, and crime.’ In short, Schimmel’s view is that the simple fact that we all at some point commit some offense(s) does not lead to the conclusion that we are all equally culpable and thus equally forgivable since there are offenses that are significantly different in their effects or intentions from others that are minor, short-lived, or generally insignificant…Further, even if in general all of us commit some offense(s) at some time, this is largely irrelevant to specific cases in which the harmed person did not commit any offense against the offender.”
— Florida Philosophical Review, Volume X, Issue 1, Summer 2010, Reconciling with Harm: An Alternative to Forgiveness and Revenge, by Nancy A. Stanlick, University of Central Florida
I‘m not sure what pardoning a predator has to do with healing. How could healing be dependent on feeling goodwill toward someone who intentionally caused severe harm? On the contrary, healing depends in part on realizing the violation of our worth and dignity and humanity, and feeling the outrage that goes along with that realization. That is what will protect us in the future. The dictionary says forgiveness is “to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake,” but anger can be the energizing force that pushes you forward.
“What I abhor is a culture that places demands on victims and survivors, insisting that we are not whole until we forgive. Forgiveness culture implies that betrayers and abusers can expect to be forgiven — they can hurt and harm and rage — and should their targets decline to forgive, they can rest smug in the assurance that the refusal reflects a flaw in their victims, not in themselves.
Pseudo-spirituality has made forgiveness a marker of personal virtue. If you forgive, then you know you are enlightened. Deepak Chopra describes forgiveness as the “recognition that actions that are perceived as hurtful or wrong are the perspective of the small ego mind, not the higher self.” If you perceive an assault on yourself and your body as too wrong to forgive, you are being small-minded.
This attitude ignores that the choice not to forgive can come from a place of strength. It can represent a legitimate response to an offender’s continuing actions and place in society. The absence of forgiveness implies neither desire for revenge nor lack of enlightenment
Demanding that survivors of trauma forgive denies us agency in choosing how to heal, even though denial of agency is often a key part of trauma and its reassertion is essential to moving forward.
Coerced forgiveness — a forgiveness granted because it is believed to be the only virtuous or healthy thing to do — breeds resentment. Coerced forgiveness merely paves over rage or the desire for vengeance.”
— Why I Reject Forgiveness Culture By Elizabeth Switaj
“I’ve spent a whole lot of years trying to forgive certain people for abusing me in extreme ways, violent ways, and feeling like there was something wrong with ME because I couldn’t forgive them. So after having been brutally traumatized, I was then further traumatized by those who were supposed to help me heal, who told me that I needed to forgive to heal; and further traumatized by listening to them and brow-beating myself for my inability to forgive.
I don’t need to forgive them. Furthermore, to do so would be the worst kind of betrayal of myself. I realized that I didn’t care what type of ‘expert’ someone was, if they thought forgiveness was necessary for healing then they were not worth listening to. From there I started to actually heal. No, I don’t sit around and stew about the horrors I experienced all those years ago, but once I dropped the idea of forgiving the unforgivable, I actually began to heal. I’m guessing that has a lot to do with the self-respect that came with my refusal to forgive what was done to me.”
Acceptance was what finally dissolved the anger and resentment I felt. Acceptance was necessary to move on; I needed to acknowledge and come to terms with the reality that what the perpetrator had done was so wrong it was unforgivable.
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