The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Forgiveness: The Last Step in Recovery

At some point in every abuse survivor’s healing journey, he or she face’s the question of forgiveness. Does it or doesn’t it have anything to do with my healing?

I questioned how I could forgive my mother for granting her approval when my stepfather burned my 10-year-old hands. Year after year, the betrayal felt incomprehensible as I watched my mother silently witnessing my abuse, defending my stepfather, and even participating in the abuse as my stepfather beat and tortured my brothers and me. How could I forgive a litany of unacknowledged emotional and physical abuses?

Today, I view forgiveness from three basic definitions:

1. An action: An action requires the participation of both parties. Repentance on the part of the wrong-doer and the apology accepted on the part of the injured party. This is an opportunity for full forgiveness.

2. A journey: Accepting that forgiveness isn’t an immediate response. Forgiveness is a journey that may take a lifetime of healing to achieve, including the period of time we recognize we are unable to forgive.

3. A feeling: Where the injured party has healed enough to let go of resentment and find peace – with or without the participation of the wrong-doer. This could be considered partial forgiveness – when only one of the parties participates.

At some time during my healing process, each of these definitions presented challenges for me:

1. An Action: Without acknowledgment, an apology, and an “act” of contrition, on the part of the “wrong-doer,” I could not perform the “act” of accepting an apology and forgiving. When it comes to abuse, I think sometimes people forget, we are not refusing to accept an apology. We never received one in the first place. Most victims would love to hear an apology. Why? I wondered - was the onus of forgiving on the one who was harmed rather than on the one who caused the harm?

A more pertinent question is, “How can I heal from my abuse?” I needed to take the focus off of forgiveness and off of my abuser, and place the focus solely on myself, my healing, and what was best for me. Often, the concept forgiveness is premature and stands in the way of our recovery. I had a great deal of work to do before I could even look at forgiveness.

2. A Journey: I wish I knew at the beginning of my journey to tell people, “I’m on a journey – on my own timetable. My abuse hasn’t been acknowledged and I haven’t healed! Give me time.”

All too often, well-intentioned friends and relatives ask individuals to forgive and forget. During the first part of my journey, I succumbed to this pressure and embarked on a path of superficial forgiveness that did not honor the depth of my injuries or enable authentic healing and forgiveness. And I got hurt again!

During the next phase of my journey, I militantly proclaimed, “I won’t forgive!” I realized that the pressure I felt to forgive actually damaged my recovery process. When a survivor denies her feelings and sets aside her wounds, pain, anger, and grief in order to forgive, she often finds that she is not able to heal. Ultimately, in the absence of healing, forgiveness doesn’t last.

Sometimes it is necessary to place a moratorium on forgiveness until healing has taken place.

The first thing I needed to do was protect myself. In order to heal, we must be free from the anxiety of re-injury. Healing (or forgiving) is not possible if there is ongoing abuse. This could mean learning to set and maintain clear, respectful boundaries, re-evaluating a relationship, limiting time with an abuser, or even severing a relationship in order to protect ourselves.

Second, I built a community of support to have my injuries acknowledged and validated. The supportive people in my life, listened to me, shared my burden, honored the depth of my pain, helped me express my anger, and mourn my substantial losses. This was a long, painful process that involved years of healing and dealing with many layers of pain.

3. A feeling: After a decade of filling my heart with the love of supportive people in my life, I began to feel an abundance of love rather than my old resentments. I began to feel forgiving. This revelation surprised me! I didn’t think I would ever forgive. It was at this point that I realized the old adage, “forgive and heal” was backwards. For me, it was “Heal and Forgive.”

Even though I couldn’t experience the full forgiveness required with the participation of the “wrong-doer,” I achieved a place of personal peace.

Healing requires a great deal of time, self-examination, hard work, and pain. Yet once an adequate amount of healing has been accomplished, forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we “excuse” offensive behavior; it doesn’t mean forgetting or even trusting the person who harmed us. Nor does it require us to “let go” of our safety, or reconcile a relationship. Rather, feeling forgiving means to let go of resentment and to find peace.

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