Those who go through trauma or other distressing events often come across the word "forgiving." Many individuals feel apprehensive about this term and frequently experience resentment. How can I possibly forgive someone who has caused me immense pain? It appears to be a difficult task. The concept itself is perplexing. We often hear that forgiveness is not for the other person but for ourselves. But how can I achieve that? Some people, unsure of what to do, attempt to force forgiveness due to societal expectations and moral standards. However, this often does more harm than good as it disregards the pain, suppresses emotions, impedes genuine healing, and fails to address underlying issues.
The concept of forgiveness lacks a clear roadmap on how to attain it and, in my view, fails to capture the essence of what is happening when someone heals. As I explored this topic further, it became evident to me that the term "forgiveness" does not accurately depict the process that occurs when individuals claim to have "truly forgiven." In this post, I will delve into the need for a more appropriate shift away from the notion of forgiveness and highlight what we should prioritize instead.
What to do instead?
Step 1: Take the time to uncover and process your anger, shame, guilt, and other emotions arising from your experiences.
Many individuals are unaware of how trauma affects them, often resulting in anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and relationship difficulties stemming from these hidden emotions. It is crucial to release these emotions rather than holding them inside. Return to the traumatic event and allow yourself to fully experience the range of emotions in a safe and supportive environment. Give yourself permission to grieve and let the tears flow. This step may take a while, sometimes spanning days, weeks, or months. Find safe outlets to express your feelings, such as writing in a diary, engaging in artwork like painting, confiding in trusted individuals or specialists, or participating in sports. Acknowledge the harm caused by the traumatic event and recognize its impact on various aspects of your life, including your general beliefs about others. One of the aims of this step is to become aware of how trauma affects you and reduce biological and emotional reactivity. Throughout this process, don't attempt to diminish your emotions; instead, allow yourself to feel and express them in a healthy manner.
Step 2: Accepting that trauma is not your fault is a crucial step in the healing and recovery process.
It allows individuals to let go of self-blame, shame, and guilt. Many victims often blame themselves for what happened, but it is important to understand that it was not their fault. By acknowledging this, you can restore a sense of empowerment and self-worth. The responsibility for the abusive actions lies solely with the perpetrator. Abusers make choices to engage in harmful behaviors, and they are accountable for their actions. It is not your fault that someone chose to abuse you. Abusive dynamics often involve a power imbalance, where the abuser exerts control and manipulates the victim. The responsibility for the abusive actions and the resulting power imbalance rests with the perpetrator, not the victim.In abusive relationships, abusers employ manipulative tactics and coercion to maintain control. They may use threats, intimidation, guilt, or emotional manipulation to exert power. Victims of abuse may feel trapped or fearful of the consequences of resisting. It is important to recognize that these tactics are designed to manipulate and control, and the victim should not blame themselves for succumbing to them. Remember, you are not at fault for the abusive actions of others. Whether you were born into an abusive environment or were an accidental victim, it does not define your worth as a person. Despite what happened, you are deserving of respect and dignity. By shifting the blame from yourself to the perpetrator, you can begin to reclaim your sense of self and work towards healing and recovery.
Step 3. Instead of justifying what happened, it is crucial to acknowledge that what the perpetrator did was not okay.
By doing so, victims can avoid diminishing the gravity of the trauma they experienced and the impact it had on their lives.
Justifying the actions of the perpetrator can perpetuate a cycle of abuse and further dis-empower the victim. It sends a message that there are no consequences for the perpetrator's actions, potentially allowing them to continue harming others. It may also hinder the victim's ability to fully process the trauma, address associated emotions, and establish healthy boundaries.
It is important to acknowledge that perpetrators of trauma engage in behaviors that violate the rights and autonomy of their victims infringing upon their basic human rights to safety, dignity, and consent. The actions of perpetrators cause significant harm and suffering, resulting in physical injuries, psychological trauma, and lasting distress.
Perpetrators often exploit positions of trust or authority, such as caregivers, family members, partners, or professionals, which further deepens the betrayal experienced by the victim. Their actions undermine the foundations of healthy relationships and leave lasting emotional scars.
By acknowledging that the actions were wrong and unjustifiable, victims can shift their focus towards their own healing and rebuilding their lives, free from the burden of justifying the actions of their perpetrators.
Step 4. Try to broaden your perspective when viewing the perpetrator, rather than solely defining them by their hurtful behavior.
Take a step back and consider the vulnerabilities within the perpetrator. Was this person hurt as a child? Is this person wounded inside? Can you see how you both share such woundedness? Exploring their background, upbringing, personal history, and potential psychological factors can provide a deeper understanding. However, this process of understanding may take time, possibly spanning weeks or months. Initially, it can be challenging to separate the person from their actions, as there may be an inclination to equate the two. Nonetheless, comprehending the circumstances and factors that contributed to the perpetrator's behavior can foster empathy without condoning or excusing their actions.
Step 5. See yourself as a survivor or warrior, acknowledging the strength and resilience you have demonstrated in overcoming your traumatic experiences. Rewrite your entire trauma story, keeping in mind the positive qualities, resources, and strengths that enabled you to endure such difficult hardships. Reflect on who you have become as a result of standing up to the pain. You can express this new narrative by writing it down on paper, recording a video, sharing it with a friend, or through any other means you find suitable. Next, seek meaning in your suffering. Did the trauma you experienced contribute to your personal growth and strength after you triumphed over it? Have you learned to survive and thrive despite the pain? Embracing the identity of a survivor empowers you to reclaim control over your life. It signifies a shift from feeling helpless and defined by the trauma to actively engaging in your healing and recovery journey. By recognizing your ability to overcome and thrive despite the trauma, you can cultivate a sense of hope and belief in your capacity to heal and create a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Step 6. Acquire skills to prevent further trauma.
Each person's narrative is unique, but those who have experienced trauma or abuse often find themselves susceptible to encountering similar situations in the future. Individuals who have endured abuse may lack an understanding of healthy behaviors and may not possess the necessary skills and knowledge to prevent further harm.
To safeguard against entering an abusive situation, it is crucial to develop a comprehensive understanding of what constitutes abuse. This includes gaining awareness what abuse is which is- recognizing patterns of manipulation, understanding the mindset of perpetrators, and being attentive to red flags. Additionally, it also involves learning skills to prevent that such as increasing assertiveness, setting and enforcing personal boundaries, having the ability to say no, seeking help, and acquiring knowledge about healthy relationship dynamics based on mutual respect, trust, and consent are all important steps in preventing future harm.
Step 7. Learn other important skills to thrive in life.
Abuse or trauma can have a profound impact on various aspects of your well-being, including emotional regulation, coping abilities, self-esteem, emotional stability, trust, and relationship dynamics. These effects can perpetuate further harm and contribute to the development of unhealthy behaviors such as substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, or engaging in risky sexual activities. While the previous six steps outlined earlier can help alleviate some of these effects, it is crucial to continue learning and implementing healthy practices in different areas of your life.
One important area to focus on is developing healthy emotion regulation and coping skills. This entails cultivating awareness of your emotions, accepting them without judgment, acquiring problem-solving abilities, engaging in self-care activities, practicing positive re-framing of negative thoughts, fostering healthy communication with others, and utilizing cognitive reappraisal techniques, among many others. Equally important is the continuous effort to nurture healthy self-esteem. This involves practicing self-compassion, showing kindness and understanding towards yourself, and challenging negative self-talk that may undermine your sense of self-worth. By consistently learning and applying these skills in your life, you can create a solid foundation for personal growth, resilience, and a more fulfilling future.
In essence, based on my perspective, individuals who have endured abuse and assert that they have fully and truly forgiven the perpetrator have actually undergone a comprehensive journey encompassing these above steps. However, I hesitate to label this process as forgiveness. Instead, I would describe it as a transformative path involving healing, becoming free from too-difficult emotions, expanding understanding, processing trauma, and acquiring essential skills for continued personal growth that trauma deprived you of! I firmly believe that it is entirely feasible to accomplish these objectives without feeling compelled to declare forgiveness as part of one's journey.
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Song, M. J., Yu, L., & Enright, R. D. (2020). Trauma and healing in the underserved populations of homelessness and corrections: Forgiveness therapy as an added component to intervention. Clinical Psychology &amp; Psychotherapy, 28(3), 694–714. https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2531