Forgiveness, Never Forget
I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately. There was a line in a poem I wrote in the early 1990s about forgiving, not forgetting. I wrote that poem during a time when I was living in an emotionally abusive home. I was at a point that I was starting to figure out the world within myself, and the idea of forgiveness was beginning to take hold.
What is forgiveness? The consensus amongst psychologists is that forgiveness is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses.” 1
If that is the definition of forgiveness, why does it feel like I am doing all of those things? I think right there, what forgiveness is not, is the biggest reason we feel that our abusers do not deserve our forgiveness. It feels like I am allowing them to get away with something. I can repeatedly read that definition, and it still feels like I am saying that it was okay. Why should that they get a pass for being awful human beings?
Forgiveness for Your Health
Our bodies react to perceived threats, and when we get angry, our body reacts to that through the amygdala that puts us in fight or flight mode. That survival mode keeps our adrenaline high, increases the heart rate, which increases blood pressure. Our bodies are not able to sustain those heightened levels for long. Staying in fight or flight mode can cause depression, changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and immune response.2
There is no doubt in my mind that there are positive health benefits of letting go of anger and not holding onto it in general. I have felt myself come down from one of my hypervigilance moments, and I can feel my body relaxing. Having been in a chronic fight or flight mode growing up, I am here to say it isn’t worth the damage to your body. Unfortunately, what I did to bring myself down back then was drinking and using drugs. Now I use meditation and self-talk to cope with things in life.
I do believe that letting go of the anger towards your abuser is also beneficial to you. Carrying around that anger only hurts you; it doesn’t hurt them at all. They don’t care that you carry that anger around with you and that it affects your life. That was the turning point for me. Realizing that I was only hurting me by keeping myself in the anger cage, even though I wanted to hurt them. It is another one of those thought processes that you realize that it doesn’t make sense when you sit and think about it for a moment. I mean, really, ‘I am going to hurt myself to hurt you’ – what kind of logic is that?
Forgiveness and Validation
I often think that we, the survivors of abuse, want to forgive our abusers so that we can elicit the coveted ‘I’m sorry’ response. Or even more, coveted is the further admittance of guilt that what they did was wrong. Their admittance of responsibility validates me, my story, and what I have known all of my life.
I know from my experience trying to elicit that my parents have only served to increase my anxiety and frustration from either of my parents. Admitting to things that one has done that are abusive would take such a self-awareness and introspection level. And neither of my abusers have that. A long time ago, I came to terms that I would never hear a ‘sorry’ or any other admittance of guilt for what I went through. There is still a part of me that still wants to hear that even though I know that I never will.
I can’t elicit the response out of them that I want to hear. The only one that I can do that with is myself. Based on the definition of forgiveness, there is an element of letting go of the anger. It is the anger that causes health issues, not specifically the forgiveness. I let go of the anger that I had towards them a long time ago. I have not forgiven them. And I don’t know that I ever will.
Uphill Forgiveness Battle
Part of me thinks that forgiveness is a good idea, but then I go back to thinking it is letting those people off the hook. But at the same time, if you hold onto that anger and hatred and hate those people like so many of us do, we will never heal from the wounds they inflicted. Instead of allowing those wounds to heal, we continuously pick at them, keeping them open and bleeding.
The more we poke at that wound, the more the pain stays at the surface, and the pain, that we keep just beneath the surface. It is like when I was a kid and picked at scabs. I got yelled at a lot when I did that because it wouldn’t heal. I think I picked at those scabs to feel something, but that is another story. Not forgiving is like that, pulling that scab until the blood starts to flow again.
The only problem with picking at scabs (wounds) is that you end up with a scar when you don’t allow that to heal. It is always there, that uncomfortable spot you get used to until you try to do something that involves that spot. The scars on my body are a constant reminder of the things that I once did to cope. Then other people see that scar, and they ask about it. And then you have to explain that scar, and you know what I do when someone asks about one of my self-inflicted scars, I lie. I don’t tell people the truth about how I got any of those scars.
You know what I realized while I was writing this? To hell with our abusers. For all of the shit that our abusers have put us through, why do they get our forgiveness? In fact, studies have shown that in some cases, forgiveness can increase the likelihood of revictimization.3 We carry the burden of our abuse, not the abuser. They don’t care how much they destroyed our lives.
You know who deserves our forgiveness? You. Me. Us. We need to forgive ourselves.4 I think a lot of the anger that I held onto throughout my adult life was towards myself. I believed that I should have done something to stop the abuse. And when I couldn’t, I turned to alcohol, drugs, and other behaviors that were not safe. I was mad at myself for the way I coped with what had happened to me. WTF, really? I did the best that I could with what I had at the time, which wasn’t much at all. But I still felt like crap about how I coped.
I am not angry. I feel better and more at peace than I have, probably ever. And yet, I am not going to forgive my abusers. I know some of the reasons why my abusers were that way, and it is sad. Knowing what I know releases the anger because they were dealing with their own shit. Isn’t that true for all of us? But forgiveness? Nope. Because instead of working through their shit, they just let it flow all over me.
You know what is normal? Your reaction to being abused. The way that we all cope with being abused was perfectly normal. Your body and brain were doing what they could to protect you in an environment that was far from ideal. When I read about forgiving ourselves for the ways we coped with abuse4, I added a thought. That is that we should also thank ourselves because we survived and are here to tell our story.
- University of Berkeley. Forgiveness Defined. The Greater Good Science Center. Retrieved November 3, 2020 from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/forgiveness/definition#:~:text=Psychologists%20generally%20define%20forgiveness%20as,they%20actually%20deserve%20your%20forgiveness.&text=Forgiveness%20does%20not%20mean%20forgetting,mean%20condoning%20or%20excusing%20offenses.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved November 1, 2020. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it
- Juliana Breines Ph.D. (July 31, 2014) Does Forgiveness Have a Dark Side? Psychology Today. Retrieved November 1, 2020 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-love-and-war/201407/does-forgiveness-have-dark-side#:~:text=Related%20studies%20have%20shown%20that,have%20not%20made%20sufficient%20amends.
- Beverly Engel L.M.F.T. (July 26, 2017). Forgiving Yourself for the Ways You Have Harmed Yourself. Psychology Today. Retrieved November 2, 2020 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/201707/forgiving-yourself-the-ways-you-have-harmed-yourself