The word forgiveness is one that always inspires strong emotional responses from those traveling on the healing journey. It is hard to think that you may one day come to forgive your abuser for their torment. When we respond in that emotion, we respond from the forgiveness we have extended our abuser a million times while in the abusive situation. That “forgiveness” that means we take responsibility for what is wrong and extend out abuser an invitation to keep on abusing us. By limiting our understanding to that definition, there is something we forget about forgiveness.
In fact, I would argue that without forgiveness we stay stuck in the past without ever even getting to our future. Intrigued yet?
Our Misunderstanding of Forgiveness
Why forgiveness renders such a powerful emotional response is what I described above; the feeling that we are somehow ‘letting our abuser get away with it‘.It is a type of forgiveness that is fundamental in keeping the abusive relationship going because without it ,we would have kicked our abuser to the curb ages ago. But we keep hoping that things will work out, and we keep giving them the benefit of the doubt, another chance to show they are learning and willing to do better by us. But toxic people notoriously do not take any responsibility for their actions. So maybe, now that we have finally woken up to that fact, we feel that we at least should hold them accountable.
Yet forgiveness has nothing to do with accountability, responsibility or even blame. It also does not mean that just because you forgive your abuser, you have to go back for more abuse. The type of “forgiveness” we practiced while in the abusive relationship, is not forgiveness but rather a pardon.
Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well. (definition from: Wikipedia).
Forgiveness is about acceptance. It is accepting that the abuse happened. It is accepting that you cannot travel through time to stop it from happening. It is about accepting that your abuser will not learn, even if you wish they could learn and change their wicked ways. Accepting that they will likely abuse others, and accepting that you cannot protect their future victims. Accepting that this happened to you. Even though you did not deserve it. Even though there was no reason.
Accept it as part of your history, and then: Let It Go!
To release the past, we want to be willing to forgive, even if we don’t know how. Forgiveness means giving up our hurtful feelings and just letting the whole thing go. A state of non-forgiveness actually destroys something within ourselves.
What About Self-Forgiveness
Many people who experience abuse, end up blaming themselves for the abuse more than their abuser. Even if we realize that we did not deserve the abuse, or do anything to trigger the toxic behavior, there is still plenty of blame we can dish out at ourselves. ‘Why did I accept that?’ or ‘Why did I not see the abuse sooner?’ I found it particularly hard to forgive myself for the times when my abusers used me as a Flying Monkey to inflict abuse on others.
In short, forgiveness is not just about forgiving the abuser. It really is about accepting what happened to us, as part of our life’s story. Not allowing forgiveness to apply to ourselves is like holding a grudge against ourselves for getting wet in the rain.
Abuse happens to you, but it does not define you.
How to Forgive Someone
Forgiveness is difficult, and some days may be easier than others. What is important is that you have the intention to forgive. I took some inspiration from Wikihow to come up with some survivor specific strategies to forgive:
1. State your intention to forgive
You must be willing to accept and let go, even if you cannot always manage it. Without that intention, you are likely to get stuck in a place of blame, anger, thoughts of revenge and endless rehashing and complaining. Although all those thoughts and emotions have a place in the recovery process, these are not states you want to stick with too long.
So hold on to your intention to forgive the abuser and accept your story as part of the person you are. One way to do that, is to actually state that intention. Say it to yourself in the mirror if you like. Just state the intention to forgive, without any judgment of course. Don’t say it because you are impatient with your progress, just say: ‘I have the intention to forgive’,
2. Realize that holding on hurts only you
Toxic people notoriously do not take responsibility for the abuse they dish out. So holding on to the anger and hurt they inflicted will not affect them at all, since they do not even acknowledge any discretion. The only person that will feel the effects of negative emotions, is you.
Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else;
you are the one who gets burned.
3. Living well is the best revenge
I know this is a bit of a cliché, but no less true for that. Living a great and loving life despite your abuser’s best efforts to break you. This is a two birds with one stone scenario. Firstly you get to enjoy your life. Secondly you get to show your abuser how they failed at breaking you.
4. The second best revenge is to turn a negative into a positive
There are surely things you have learned from your past, that you can now apply to make your life better. Did the abuse make you develop a particular eye for detail that makes you an amazing engineer? Or did you develop such people skills by constantly trying to read your abuser, that you are now an amazing manager? There is always something positive that you bring to this world from your experience.
Along that same line you can consider whether you can make a difference for others who are still suffering. Is there volunteer work you can do? Can you find ways to raise awareness of (non-physical) abuse?
One way to do that is to share your story, and support others on this forum. That then leads you directly to the next point:
5. Find a way to tell your story that changes your perspective
Rehashing is a way to get stuck in negativity. Sharing your story is important, but equally important is finding a way to evolve your retelling from simple rehashing to a means to process and re-frame your thoughts and emotions.
Sharing your story while talking to others can do just that. You may reference part of your story to illustrate a point you are making to a fellow-survivor. All of a sudden, you now see your story in light of theirs. It changes the way you look at your experiences, this is when learning, healing, and growing can take place.
6. Look for people who can help you forgive
Never walk alone. Your abuser has isolated you, made you feel you had to face the world alone. Make sure you don’t do that to yourself. Connecting to others and learning to trust again is an essential part of healing and forgiveness.
7. Kindness is Magic, especially kindness to yourself
Never forget that this process is difficult. So no impatience or judgment for yourself. Where judgment begins, growth ends. So remember kindness is key!
8. Learn the meaning of the word forgiveness
The Aramaic (one of the languages known almost from the beginning of human history) word for “forgive” literally means ‘to untie’. I think that is a beautiful thought. If you imagine the abuse as a rock you have been tied to, then forgiveness truly is what will untie you and set you free.