Trauma survivors often ponder about the question of forgiveness and find it difficult to resolve. Should one forgive their mother for abandoning them? Should one forgive their father for emotional and physical abuse? Is forgiving one’s parents a necessary part of the recovery process? Will “not forgiving” leave a person with a constant sense of anger and resentment, which in turn will prolong and exacerbate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress or cripple them in some other ways?
Despite my experience of working with trauma survivors, I never advise anyone to forgive or not to forgive. I do not hold a particular opinion or stance on how one should attend to the issue. I believe that this is an individual decision and should vary considerably depending on one’s particular situation. However, from years of working with people who have different stories and different outcomes of treatment and relationships, I will point out some points in this blog, that are worth considering, if you are questioning forgiveness as a part of your trauma recovery. Perhaps thinking about these will help to shed some light on how forgiveness could be approached and considered in your particular life situation.
Is Forgiveness Necessary For Recovery?
There are definitely some “well-meaning” advocates out there who state that forgiving is necessary for recovery, as it allows one to “let go” of the trauma and somehow sets one free. I strongly disagree with that point. Firstly when we order (or strongly suggest) to someone to forgive, we lock them into a state where they do not really have a choice.
We also suggest that the person should find some peace and understanding towards the perpetrators and we take away their right to be angry, their right to turn away and their right to condemn.
I often see survivors of childhood trauma who are still in contact with their parents, the perpetrators of abuse, while their sibling may have chosen to cut the same parents off. I also see people,who cut off their parents, while their sibling chose to have contact and had forgiven. Looking at my relatively small sample, I so far have not seen any “proof” that forgiving helps someone to heal and makes them symptom free. More often than not, sadly, forgiving means that the victims keeps the relationship with the perpetrator and continues to experience the abuse.
Perhaps the most advisable or “healthy” way of approaching forgiveness is to figure out what is right for you, what you consider right or wrong and how forgiving or not forgiving is forming part of your identity here and now and into the future. Childhood trauma strips away the indentity in us as little persons, and as adults we finally get a chance to restore that identity by making decisions that we consider right for us.
Must I Forgive In Order To Sustain Family Relationships?
My answer is no, but I have seen too many people struggle with excruciating ambivalence around this. I recently spoke to a woman whose father used to beat her when she was little. She said she still has scars on her body and she still suffers from panic attacks and has a startle response when someone approaches her unexpectedly. She is now an adult who looks after her father because he is of old age and because she has forgiven him for the past. It was not a session. We met in a social situation. So I asked her how can she do that, how can she just keep looking after her father and not be constantly reminded of what he did to her the past. She merely replied: “But he is my father”. I was taken aback by her plain refusal to consider the situation beyond a cliche response. It was as if she merely continued to go through the motions without questioning and without feeling like she had a choice.
Many people are stuck within the same constructs. Sometimes it is society’s or religious values that do not allow the person to consider options apart from blindly assuming that looking after their aging parents is a duty regardless of how little parenting those did in the past. What always puzzled me is that, whether these are society norms or religious values, they are very one sided and unfair. Somehow it is okay for a parent not to fulfill duties of a parent, causing damage to the child, but it is not okay for a child to refuse support to a frail parent. What I know from my work so far is that while some disbalance and unfairness remains or justice is not restored, post-traumatic stress symptoms never really go away.
How Do I Forgive If I Want To?
So you may have done some work in therapy and may have grown your self-esteem and minimized the effects of trauma on your identity in present time. At some point you may want to choose to forgive your parents. For some people it may even mean that they are ready to restore the contact. Sometimes life changes, like having your own kids, raise a question of forgiving your parents and allow them into your life as grandparents. At this point many people may struggle with the concept of forgiveness or the practicalities of how to go about it. They may fear the perpetrators will damage their present equilibrium or their may not know how to re-introduce the estranged parent back into their current lives.
I would advise to consider your situation (and, let’s be honest, your needs!) and how you can keep yourself safe if you were to establish ongoing contact with your parents. Forgiving the past means that you do not look back but you closely evaluate the present and identify how this relationship is going for you.
Forgiving the past does not mean forgetting what had happened because remembering is necessary to keep yourself and your children safe in the present.
Some people go about it by establishing strong boundaries in the relationship. For example, you may have limited contact a few times a year and always supervise your children when they are around grandparents. It may require keeping conversations neutral and not allowing the abusive parent to criticize and belittle you anymore. Be prepared for constant need to implement and reinforce the boundaries. The parent who did not respect you in the past is very much likely not to do that in the present. You may need to work harder to keep your own feelings in check in order to protect your current self from any more damage. Your parent will also need your patience and support to re-learn new ways of relating to you that are not based on power and abuse.
Finally…What Are The Gains And Losses of Forgiveness?
So imagine you have healed from trauma, to a degree. You have restored your sense of self-worth and moved on. You have built your own family and perhaps you became a parent yourself. You have grown into an adult with an ability to choose and protect yourself, seek justice and treat yourself and others with respect. Now, you may still have contact with your parents, the perpetrators of abuse in your childhood, and it may be going well, with the present relationship giving you some satisfaction. Consider the gains and benefits, and if it brings up the grief, consider the losses. In order to treat yourself with respect you cannot overlook this significant part. I have seen people who continue weekly phone calls with their mother, despite the tears and anger and frustration those contact stir up. I have seen people who haven’t been in contact with their parents for years and breathe freely and lightly and say this was the best choice they made for themselves. I have seen people who developed warm and respectful relationships with their parents in present times and forgave the past, honoring the efforts that their parents are making here and now.
Finally I should point out that what is truly necessary for forgiveness is the recognition by perpetrators and their acknowledgment of the damage that was done. Without that the children of these perpetrators stay victims and stay forever in that “trying to please” and “trying to make things better” mode. Their are trying to clap with one hand, hoping that one day their parents will join in to contribute. It is a sad picture and a guarantee for ongoing mental health struggles.