Forgiveness…do we even need it?
I cannot count the number of times I’ve talked with clients about forgiveness. It seems like there is a societal ideal to absolve others from the responsibility of the pain or trauma they have dropped into our lives. Granted, I am most familiar with the Christian views on forgiveness. Things like, turn the other cheek, forgive 70 times 7 times. And there are numerous tropes insisting that you must forgive in order to heal. Even in the media, we see overt examples of victims forgiving perpetrators. Not many give their stamp of approval to those who do not.
Over time, my thoughts on the act of forgiveness have changed. This was highlighted for me recently while I listened to a true crime podcast (as one does when showering…). An impact statement read by the family of a victim included the words “yeah, you are going to hell. And if I have to forgive any of you to stay out of hell, then I’ll see you there.” When I tell you, I got my entire life! This resonates with me so much because the person was honest with where they were in the healing process. Forgiveness is something that is personal and, I believe, means something different across people. Dictating someone’s healing process can often backfire. Many times, when exploring trauma, the individual is processing much more than what is visible on the surface. There are many overwhelming emotions, including anger, sadness, depression and anxiety. People experience shame, guilt, decreased safety and control, self-blame and identity instability. Unfamiliar spaces and new people can trigger a panic attack and overstimulate the nervous system. There is barely enough mental space to manage these symptoms, let alone meet the pressure of forgiving others.
When clients ask if I think they need to forgive someone, I typically throw the question back (good ole therapist dodgeball) and ask them if they want and/or need to forgive; what does forgiveness mean to you; for whose benefit, peace, and mental health are you doing it. Some people want to forgive someone. Yet oftentimes, the grace forgiveness provides is first necessary for the self. A sense of safety and control need to be rebuilt. I can certainly inform you of the various research and opinions on the idea of forgiveness, but most importantly we have to figure out what works best for you.
Forgiveness may be part of your healing; but it's totally cool if it’s not. -Dr.B