Is Forgiveness Required to Heal Abuse & Trauma?
Today, I am taking a deep dive into a controversial topic. As a trauma survivor, oftentimes I write and speak on “hard to discuss subjects.” I share from my personal experiences in effort to build awareness, to encourage survivors, and to help educate about the trauma recovery process.
Healing trauma is not linear. It will not happen overnight. Healing is not a straight line, nor is it always smooth sailing. Instead, healing trauma is a zig zag. We will have ups and downs. We may take two steps forward and then one step backwards.
Uneducated advice about the healing process is unhealthy, destructive, and shaming. This is not okay. Yet, it is increasingly happening, particularly in the religious, new age, and mental health communities.
It is inappropriate, unprofessional, and abusive in itself to insist a survivor of severe, intentional abuse to forgive their perpetrator. Nobody has the right to project their limiting beliefs onto you.
There are various stages of the healing journey. Each stage can look quite different for survivors. Had I known in 2006 what I know now about healing from sexual abuse, narcissistic abuse, and child abuse, I guarantee that my recovery process would not have taken five decades.
Despite what I didn’t know back in 2006 and despite that I believed I had to forgive the rapist and abusers, I give myself grace. We don’t know what we don’t know. This is why educating ourselves about credible facts is vital. The more we read, learn, and gain knowledge about trauma and forgiveness, the more we can choose what is best for us.
There is not a single road to the trauma recovery. We are unique people with totally different backgrounds, religious beliefs, and spiritual views. How you heal and how I heal can appear completely different. And that is perfectly fine.
I have come to realize that I had been brainwashed by organized religion. I had fallen hook, line, and sinker into the belief that I would never heal unless I forgave each person who hurt me, abused me, and violated me. Trigger Warning: Some of the information in this post may contain graphic content. If you have experienced child abuse, mental abuse, physical abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual assault, Complex PTSD, or trauma, the content may trigger a response. Please be aware that triggers are common and part of the recovery process. The triggers are an opportunity to go deeper into your traumatic event and to promote healing. Use discretion and please read with care.
I love this inspiring quote by Autumn Shroud. I believe that it is spot on in regards to forgiveness. He shared, “The concept of forgiveness allows the abuser to still abuse, and keeps the victim in a constant state of victimhood.”
Today, I am sharing my trauma recovery journey in effort to give voice to those who have been harshly judged, condemned, and bullied for struggling with forgiveness. I hear you. I see you. I believe you. I validate you.
I understand how some Christians and religious leaders have directly re-traumatized you when they demanded that you forgive and forget fast. That they had used the Bible and God as a weapon to hurt you, silence you, shame you, and blame you for your abuse.
It may have been child abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse, or narcissistic abuse. You may have been through hell and high waters over such a horrifying nightmare. What made it ten times more brutal were the manipulative people who accused you of not healing because you hadn’t forgiven the rapist, the narcissist, the cheating spouse, the malicious person who abused you.
Their accusations deeply cut like a knife. It may have instantly triggered you or caused you to get slammed with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response of trauma. These accusations against you are laced with victim-blaming and shaming. When someone verbally attacks you for not forgiving the abuser, they are saying, “You are the problem. It is your fault. You are a bad person.” Please know that this is religious gaslighting. They are using scriptures, the Bible, and religious dogma to make you feel guilty, ashamed, and humiliated. If this person who bullied you is a believer or they call themselves a “good Christian,” where is the Fruit of the Spirit?
Were they speaking in a loving way? No. Were they kind? No. Were them respectful to you? No. Were they gentle? No. Were they compassionate towards you? No. Did they place themselves in YOUR shoes and try to view YOUR point of view? No. Simply stated, those who judged you and condemned you were not a demonstration of the love of Christ. They were not the least bit sensitive to you, nor your past abuse. Did they repent? In most cases, no.
When I was 15 years old, I was a victim of statutory rape. On the morning after being sexually assaulted, filing a police report, and undergoing the “rape kit” in the ER, I felt re-traumatized. As a young teen, I wasn’t prepared for the gynecological examination. I was pinched, poked, and prodded.
The sexual assault forensic exam is known as the “rape kit.” In an emergency room, DNA evidence from a crime, such as sexual assault, can be collected from the crime scene. Also, it can be collected from your clothes, body, and other personal belongings. The purpose is to store evidence and to receive proper medical care. My body instantly kicked into the freeze mode. I dissociated during the statutory rape, when I had escaped from the attacker, and during my forensic examination.
This was a common and normal response to trauma. Our brain wants to protect us. This is why we may unconsciously experience dissociation as well as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
When we dissociate, we disconnect from our own selves. It’s like we have an outer body experience. We may not recall the specific details of the violent assault, but we can remember sights, sounds, odors, and sensations. Again, this is a normal response to an abnormal event; sexual trauma.
When I returned home from this atrocious ordeal, I was laying in the dark alone in my bedroom when my older sister burst into my room. She had a sour look on her face when she hissed, “This is your fault. You asked for it. You deserved it!”
Speechless, I sat quietly. I didn’t say one word. Automatically, I felt a sense of betrayal. How could my own blood relative speak so viciously to me after I was raped? How could my sister accuse me of causing my own sexual assault?
As my sister marched out of my room and slammed my door, my heart started to race. Anxiety had my mind revisiting my traumatic event. Like a movie, I kept seeing the same disgusting scene repeatedly. Over and over, I felt nauseated by how powerless and helpless I had been when the rapist wouldn’t take no for an answer.
My sister’s hateful accusations to me caused me further trauma. I was so embarrassed by my sexual assault and that my sister blamed me for it that I refused counseling. This sabotaged my own trauma recovery.
Fast forward to August 2006 when my sister’s husband sexually assaulted me. This was the same sister who had victim-shamed and blamed me for statutory rape. When I informed my sister of what her husband did, she took his side. She protected and defended her predator spouse. She demanded that I be a “good Christian” and “forgive fast.”
Back in 2006, I was a believer for 14 years. I felt so mortified by my sister repeatedly blame-shifting me and psychologically abusing me that I didn’t share my trauma with my friends, nor those who I went to church with. This left me isolated, alone, and in a dark place. Regardless of what my sister had said to me and that she emotionally abandoned me, I forgave her and her husband. I prayed for them and my situation with them. I extended mercy, grace, and compassion to them. Yet, where was their mercy for me? Where was their grace, compassion, and respect for me?
Even more important, how come I didn’t experience any healing after I had genuinely forgiven my sister and brother-in-law? This had me perplexed for 15 more years. Fifteen years of being haunted by terrible memories of my sister’s husband violating me. Fifteen years of being haunted of how painful this had been for me. Fifteen years of running and burying my trauma. Because it hurt like hell. I genuinely forgave them. Not just once or twice, but whenever negative thoughts would surface. I have a clear conscience.
Meanwhile, for years, my sister gave me the stink eye during family gatherings. My brother-in-law insisted on sitting next to me on holidays. It was quite inappropriate and made me feel uncomfortable. There was a ginormous elephant in the room. Nobody in my family wanted to open up that can of worms. And I silently suffered alone.
Yet, I never ever started to heal from trauma, until I gave myself permission to face and address my past sexual abuse. This whole idea that we must pray harder, we must forgive harder, we must be these “good Christians” and just forget about our past abuse is BS.
The truth is that healing from abuse and trauma doesn’t require forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a prerequisite to trauma recovery. Healing is possible whether you do or you don’t forgive the rapist, narcissist, bully, or abuser.
In the book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker, there is an entire chapter on the topic of forgiveness. I do appreciate Pete’s sensitivity and knowledge to confront how our society dictates that we must forgive in order to heal. Pete tackles the countless misconceptions of our society and religion that says we must “just get over it,” that we must “let it go,” or that we must “leave the past in the past.” (The reality is that this false myth will prevent us from actually healing our trauma.)
Pete Walker wrote, “There is a lot of shaming, dangerous and inaccurate ‘guidance’ put out about forgiveness in both the recovery community and in many spiritual teachings. Many survivors of dysfunctional families have been injured by the simplistic, black-and-white advice that they must embrace a position of being totally and permanently forgiving in order to recover. Unfortunately, those who take the advice to forgive abuses that they have not fully grieved, abuses that are still occurring, and/or abuse so heinous they should and could never be forgiven, often find themselves getting nowhere in their recovery process.”
He goes on to share, “In fact, the possibility of attaining real feelings of forgiveness is usually lost when there is a premature, cognitive decision to forgive. This is because premature forgiveness mimics the defenses of denial and repression. It keeps unprocessed feelings of anger and hurt about trauma out of awareness.”
According to Anchor Psychology, “Healing trauma is not hinged in forgiveness. The pressure to forgive is often applied by those we hold in high regard. When family members, advisers, mentors, close friends, or spiritual leaders insist on this, many clients feeling gaslit, shamed, and forced to betray themselves by placing the needs of their perpetrator above their own. Healing trauma requires a focus on self – not on the needs of another. When we claim that forgiveness is a necessary component of healing, we tell survivors that they cannot be whole again unless they extend forgiveness even to those who have committed the most physically and psychologically violent acts imaginable.”
In our society, therapy, trauma recovery coaching, and mental health community, especially those who work with abuse survivors, we must do better. We must start to change how we speak, what we teach, and how we respond to survivors. Our words, attitudes, and teachings need to help people to heal; not re-traumatize them. As a collective, we must change the limiting beliefs about forgiveness.
According to Healing from Complex Trauma and PTSD, “It is also necessary to understand, if a perpetrator of severe abuse asks for forgiveness, they do not have a right to demand this. Perpetrators of abuse can sometimes abuse victims more, by demanding forgiveness. Sometimes, the perpetrator of abuse has no real remorse and simply expects forgiveness for their own self-serving needs and this is not okay. The perpetrator has no right to demand anything. Even if they are family, a parent, etc. Any perpetrator of abuse who has genuine remorse and repentance for the harm and suffering they have caused would never demand or expect forgiveness because they know this is not ‘their’ choice, or demand to make.”
In effort for you to heal trauma, give yourself safe space to reconnect to your inner child. To listen to them. To help them to feel safe. To reconnect to your inner child’s genuine emotions. Do not bury it, run from it, dissociate from it, or try to hide your pain. Don’t minimize it, ignore it, or say, “It wasn’t that bad.”
Oh, yes it was really bad. It had you in so much turmoil and anguish. It had you struggling with triggers, flashbacks, nightmares, physical pain, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and ongoing long-term suffering. And today you may still be stuck in this vicious cycle of trauma.
Instead of pretending the abuse wasn’t that awful, let yourself feel the fear, the confusion, the anger, the sorrow, and the unspeakable things that you had suffered. In a safe place with a trauma-informed coach, therapist, or trustworthy friend, give voice to your legitimate heartbreak.
Cry. Cuss. Vent. Scream. Speak up about what really happened. Punch a pillow. Journal. Lament. Grieve. Do what you need to do to release and heal your trauma.
From one survivor to another, please know that the abuse was never your fault. You didn’t ask for it. You didn’t cause someone to violate you. It doesn’t matter where you were, what you drank, how you dressed, nor what situation you found yourself in.
Rape is still rape. Abuse is still abuse. Both are still a crime.
You are not responsible for the evil actions, words, and criminal behaviors of the perpetrator. The blame is not for you to carry.
If you are a survivor of abuse, it is up to you how you choose to recover. If you find forgiveness along your healing journey, fine. If you don’t feel compelled to forgive the perpetrator, that is also fine. It is your life, your choice, your body, and your own decision on how to recover your trauma.
If forgiveness isn’t part of your healing path, please know that this doesn’t mean you are bitter, hostile, nor a bad person. You are a human being feeling normal human emotions to a traumatic event. It’s actually super cathartic and therapeutic to express your righteous anger in a productive way. In addition, I’ve been a big believer in crying. The tears are a huge part of our healing journey and releasing the painful wounds.
No one else can dictate how you should or shouldn’t heal. This is very personal. Wherever you are at in your trauma recovery, honor this sacred space. Offer yourself compassion, grace, and love.
Today, reclaim your power by taking back responsibility for your life, your recovery, and accepting that the perpetrators of your past have no power over you anymore. Whether you forgive or not, all that matters is that you take the first step to recover from your trauma.
Just in case nobody ever told you… You are worthy of healing. You matter. Your life has value. You deserve to find happiness, love, and to have peace of mind.