I have the honor of working with a lot of trauma survivors in my practice. It is hard work, and I’m often inspired by the courage of a trauma survivor. For those who have survived interpersonal violence or abuse, one of the greatest challenges of the healing process is forgiveness. I’d like to take a moment to address the misconceptions of forgiveness.
I’d like to redefine forgiveness as acceptance. A lot of survivors believe that forgiveness means that they have to be “ok” with the terrible things they had to endure at the hands of their abuser. Survivors also believe that “to forgive is to forget.” We hear these messages so often, and these messages simply are not true. Forgiving certainly does not mean that the survivor has to ever be “ok” with what happened to them. That would completely invalidate not only the trauma itself, but all of the natural emotions the survivor had in reaction to the trauma. Forgiveness also does not mean forgetting. A trauma survivor never forgets, nor should he. However, it is important to accept the trauma. Acceptance is not the same as resignation, approval or forgetting. Acceptance means letting go of a fight. It first and foremost means letting go of the denial of the trauma. Denial is temporarily helpful but it completely cripples the healing process.
Acceptance also gives the survivor power. The bad news is, the survivor has to do some hard to work to get that place of acceptance. The good news is…well, the same thing. The survivor gets to do that hard work to arrive at acceptance, meaning there is something the survivor has control over. It can be his process. The survivor is choosing to no longer be ruled by the tumultuous emotions and after effects of the trauma. The survivor can choose, by accepting the work, how he wants to live his story, and how he wants to edit his perception of past events.
Forgiveness/acceptance also calls the survivor to forgive someone he never thought he would or could forgive: himself. The process of healing from trauma means the survivor will experience a vast array of emotions, many of which he never even knew he was capable of experiencing. Some may be surprisingly empowering, while others may be extremely challenging to tolerate. Ultimately, the survivor will first be challenged to experience the shame and anger that so often accompanies trauma. Next, the survivor and therapist will work together to put these feelings into a different context and understanding, so that they are no longer directed at the survivor. The survivor can step back from the feelings and question what purpose they once served, and what they now mean in present life.
I will close this blog today with a story. A man learned that his mother died. He had experienced various types of abuse at the hands of this mother for many years when he was very young. He really struggled with the idea of forgiving her now that she was deceased. He wanted to forgive his mother, as he felt it was the right thing to do, but just couldn’t. He turned to his rabbi for help, thinking the rabbi could provide some wise counsel. He found himself in the rabbi’s office, talking about he was really struggling with the idea of forgiving his mother. He felt he had to do it for his mother, and this was what ethical people did. His rabbi paused and said, “Perhaps you need to think about this differently. Don’t forgive your mother for your mother’s sake. Forgive your mother for your sake. The anger and ruminating only hurts you, and the forgiveness would, at the end of the day, ultimately be the greatest service to you.”