Trauma and Forgiveness
There is a theory around that says “Forgive your perpetrator/s and you will feel better.” This is closely related to advice to “let go of old baggage,” to “stop being the victim” (see my separate article on victimhood) and can be especially poignant for people whose religion urges them to “forgive those who have sinned against them.”
I would like to unravel this a bit from my own point of view, in the hope that it might be useful for someone out there who is feeling as confused about this apparent call to forgiveness as I used to be.
It is a nonsense to ask trauma victims to “forgive and all will go away.” In my experience, this simply isn’t true. Usually, people who have been traumatised come from a position of powerlessness, of not feeling in control of their situation. Examples would be survivors of childhood domestic or sexual abuse, partners in relationships where they are subjected to coercive control or other forms of emotional abuse.
It is important for the trauma victim to first of all piece their sense of self back together again, make meaning of their life story and feel empowered to take decisions, rather than being pulled on the string of the so-called “trauma-bond” like a puppet. This can be a long and sometimes painful process and it would not be helpful at this stage to be asked to “forgive the perpetrator and let go.” Until the trauma victim has firm boundaries in place which cannot be transgressed by the perpetrator anymore, the danger of being pulled back into the abusive situation would be too great.
The so-called “trauma bond” is one of the strongest bonds between human beings I have ever encountered and I admire everyone who has been able to shed those ties for good. There is an element of what feels like genuine love for the abuser, coupled with hatred of the abuser when s/he “tortures” the victim as well as all the hallmarks of the cycle of addiction. It is comparable to Stockholm Syndrome where a hostage feels love/affection for the hostage taker and trusts him/her more than the rescue teams. Someone once said to me it felt like being hooked on heroine.
In my view, it is only understandable if someone doesn’t want to/feels unable to forgive something as dreadful as childhood sexual abuse because it changes everything and it can have an impact for generations to come. Nobody should be made to feel that they are in some way lacking in forgiveness if this is the case.
Some people feel that it is adding insult to injury if someone asks them to “forgive” their perpetrator/s. If a victim was groomed at a young age or grew up in an environment of domestic violence, it is perfectly understandable that this person feels victimised by a greater power which didn’t allow them to grow up with a healthy, secure attachment. Resulting feelings of anger or even a secret wish for revenge are absolutely understandable. Calls to “forgive and let go” can be very counter productive when the victim feels unable to forgive and forget. This might do further damage by tapping into the victim’s feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing because the expectation seems to “forgive” and somehow they can’t manage this which makes poor self-esteem worse.
A whole host of emotions can be tied in with being a trauma victim; anger/rage at the abuser which might have been suppressed as it was probably safer to please, walk on egg shells and coax the abuser out of a violent mood. There could be some self-hatred because the victim might know somewhere deep down that this is not a healthy relationship/situation while at the same time feeling powerless to do anything about it. There could be a lot of sadness, too, or even grief for a childhood or a relationship that went wrong. There also could be conflicting emotions regarding the abuser. In my experience, none of these will just “go away” when the victim decides to forgive the perpetrator at this stage. It could be that these feelings might get repressed when someone is eager to forgive. Repressed feelings have a habit of showing up in all sorts of unwanted ways, physical ailments being one of them.
I think that these feelings need to be validated and to a certain extent honoured before a victim can seriously consider forgiveness. Some people might feel that they can never forgive what has happened to them or others but that it is all right to be able to talk calmly about it now and integrate the trauma into the timeline of a person’s life, rather than the trauma springing out at every trigger situation.
Being called to “forgive” the perpetrator/s can be further damaging to the victim whose sense of reality and meaning making might have been messed with by the perpetrator. Anyone who has been the victim of gas lighting or who has had close ties with a narcissist will know that it can be extremely confusing when the perpetrator keeps turning the blame game back to the victim, trying to convince them that they are the problem. This is why it is so important to validate a victim’s story so that the victim can really internalise that what happened to them was wrong. If victims are called to forgive, this can amplify their sense of confusion around the perpetrator’s behaviour. If they are called to forgive, then surely, what the perpetrator did wasn’t so bad after all? And once again the ball is back in the court of the victim who is being asked to perform emotional contortions in order to comply with expected behaviour, ie. forgiveness.
Calling a victim to forgive regardless of how they feel about that can be detrimental for other reasons as well. A victim’s fragile sense of self might be inextricably linked to the wrong they experienced through the perpetrator’s actions and words. It is very important to make meaning of my surroundings and to make sense of my life. If I experience myself as the product of some gross misconduct or crime, this picture of myself which has developed over many years throughout many incidents of abuse or coercion, is important to my sense of self. If I am called to forgive, then what do I do with this history which has lead up to me being the way I am because of the trauma I have experienced? Does it stop to matter?
Some victims might feel that forgiveness would be like erasing all the wrong that happened to them, as if it didn’t matter which might confirm the victim’s view of themselves as “I don’t matter, my suffering doesn’t matter.” It might feel like saying to the perpetrator: “It’s ok, I am ok with what you did to me, never mind, I forgive you.” But abuse does matter. It causes trauma and it causes the victim untold inner distress and it can have repercussions in every relationship the victim tries to form. It furthermore shapes the victim’s world view and impinges on everything from being able to trust people to suffering with underlying health conditions, perhaps like IBS.
Once a client has developed a sense of self which is not entirely based on past trauma, they might want to forgive, but first of all, they need to have an understanding of themselves; that they are more than their trauma. For this to happen, post-traumatic growth needs to occur first.
HOW COUNSELLING CAN HELP WITH THIS:
In our sessions, we can explore what feels right for you, which way you would like to go with your trauma recovery journey. We can validate your life history and it is entirely up to you what you want to do with the perpetrator in your life. Some people have cut themselves off from the perpetrator completely, some people have found that forgiveness came to them at the end and others are walking a middle ground of compromise, especially when the perpetrator is a close family member who is very old. Holding on to their boundaries and not allowing the perpetrator to suck them back into the vortex of narcissistic supply can feel very self-empowering. This is your journey, it has to be right for you and only you will ultimately know what that looks like.