To Forgive or Not To Forgive? Posted on July 8, 2020, updated on March 17, 2023 by Gateway Counseling Over the last several weeks, the topic of forgiveness has come up with numerous clients. In my work with these clients, I was reminded again how many misperceptions there are in relation to forgiveness. I have seen distorted views of forgiveness cause people to suffer in a variety of ways. The first of these is how inaccurate beliefs about forgiveness can prevent someone from practicing it, which results in a prolonging of their suffering. On the other hand, it causes some individuals to feel forced into forgiveness, which results in them losing their sense of self or possibly placing themselves in situations where they may experience additional harm or abuse. What forgiveness is and is not The first step for me in helping people in this area is to define what forgiveness is and is not. Forgiveness does not entail forgetting. It is not forgoing justice or the right to hold someone accountable. You can forgive someone and still set boundaries or terminate all contact with them. It is not denying the pain or injury they may have perpetrated against you. Let’s say you were molested by a family member, and they have not expressed any remorse or taken accountability for their actions. Forgiveness does not mean you are under any obligation to have ongoing contact with them. They are not a safe person! To interact with them would be an act of self-abandonment or allowing yourself to be devalued. Forgiving but not forgetting Furthermore, forgiveness is not forgetting what they have done. You would not have them babysit your child and assume they are a changed person. You do not need to sit through a family dinner with them and experience fear, shame, or anxiety in an effort to be a forgiving person. A level of self-care and common sense is required in such situations. Another aspect of forgiveness that infuriates me is when a person tells me someone in their life tells them they need to forgive the other party. Forgiveness is never something you should feel forced into doing as a result of being guilted or shamed to do so. It should always be an autonomous act of free will free of any judgment or pressure from others. I don’t care who the person is or what their title, such as a minister, therapist, or mentor. No one should ever guilt or pressure you into forgiving. We often over value the opinion of others because of their reputation or status. Don’t fall into this trap. Although my desire is to help my client heal and release from the toxic connection they may still with their abuser, this process takes time. I never tell them they need to forgive or should. When dealing with this issue with someone else, you need to be extremely sensitive to where they are in the process of healing. Pushing someone to forgive can be retraumatizing. Going back to the example of molestation, putting pressure on the person to forgive their abuser can feel like another violation. There are two additional areas of confusion I see with people when it comes to forgiveness. Faux forgiveness The first of these is what I call faux forgiveness. This is common in people of faith. Individuals will claim they “Gave it to God” or “Let it go”. There is no authentic forgiveness without wrestling with the anger and grief associated with being mistreated or violated in some manner. Jumping to forgiveness without processing these emotions becomes another form of denial. People can be aware or unaware they are using forgiveness as an emotional defense in my experience. One of the ways I assess this pattern is to ask how they came to an genuine place of forgiveness. If they cannot provide a coherent narrative of their journey, I know they have not arrived at a place of true forgiveness. Forgiveness in relation to trauma The other area of misperception about forgiveness is in relation to trauma. You may have come to a place of authentic forgiveness and believe you have resolved what happened to you only to be shocked and perplexed when your symptoms return. Trauma is stored in the body. While practicing true forgiveness can be powerfully healing on one level it will do little to nothing to clear the trauma from your body. This has to be done through other means. When I am working with someone, I track their non-verbal and emotional reactions to discussing the traumatic event. Again, when I ask them about the traumatic incidents or events, they should be able to provide a detailed narrative of how they processed the trauma. This one is a bit tricky for people. Some of these individuals have done great emotional work and have come to a real place of forgiveness, but there are still remnants of the trauma in their body. What forgiveness consists of I will now give you a clear explanation of what forgiveness consists of: Forgiveness requires fully acknowledging the extent of the injury; processing one’s core emotions related to what occurred, including legitimate feelings of anger, sadness, fear, or shame; releasing yourself from the connection to the pain and suffering in relation to what happened; and trusting there is a loving presence at the heart of all thing that is working towards making everything right. In addition, it is recognizing you are also many times in need of forgiveness as well. In some instances, it may require holding a person accountable legally. You can still pursue justice while being a forgiving person, particularly when the negative behavior was perpetrated against someone you are responsible for or to help keep others safe, such in a situation when someone is sexually or physically assaulted by a violent individual. When you exercise authentic forgiveness, you are not only disconnecting yourself from the toxic link to the other person, but you are trusting there is a cosmic sense of justness that will balance things out. You have a right to protect yourself and others, but you recognize we live in a world where people are abused, wounded, and traumatized. This is no way justifies their behavior. However, you no longer desire to suffer and perpetuate the cycle of violence through hate, bitterness, and resentment. My hope is this article helps clarify for you what forgiveness actually is and frees you to eventually achieve it. Don’t judge or guilt yourself if you are not there yet. You may be early in the process or stuck emotionally. If this describes you, get the help and support you need to reach the level of freedom forgiveness can bring. Only work with someone you feel safe and understood by. Again, don’t allow anyone to shame or pressure you. Everyone’s process and pace is unique to them. Real forgiveness is earned by dealing with your full range of emotions associated with what happened and clearing any trauma connected to it. Let it define or effect the rest of your life, or you can face and conquer it When you experience trauma and abuse, your choice is taken from you. You now have a choice in how to respond to what occurred. You can let it define or effect the rest of your life, or you can face and conquer it, no longer allowing it to be an influence on you. This is where your true power lies. No matter what you have experienced you can fully recover from it and come to a place of forgiveness. But be patient with yourself and find emotionally safe people to go with you on your journey. Keep going and don’t stop unit you arrive at your destination. I promise you will.