Posts Tagged ‘Forgiveness’

On my blog entry entitled, Talking about Child Abuse with Religious People, a reader posted the following comment:

So, the premise of this conversation here is: ‘if my religion says I should forgive, then I should forgive, however, my religion also proposes hell which means forgiveness is only for those who repent; then I don’t need to forgive.’ If your abuser’s one day came to you and told you in tears that they’re extremely sorry and repentant, would you forgive then? would you even believe them? … Why not try to decide for yourself? It seems like some of you are already doing this, but maybe you’re still looking for someone outside of yourself to tell you that it’s OK not to forgive. Is forgiveness something that you feel you need to do in order to feel peace? what does forgiveness even mean for you? (for YOU, not a definition the bible or someone gave you). I find that, when someone says something that really gets to me, it is because in some way I feel that they are right. Why is it even an issue when people tell you that you *should* forgive? do you believe them on some level? ~ Luna Sol

I have long since put this issue behind me, but at the time that I was wrestling with how to reconcile my definition of forgiveness with my religion’s definition, it wasn’t because I wanted anyone necessarily defining it for me. Instead, my faith was such an instrumental part of my healing process that what my faith had to say about different issues carried a lot of weight.

What I learned through lots of prayer and critical thinking was that church doctrine and faith are often not the same thing. The scriptures were written thousands of years ago, translated into English, interpreted by “men of the cloth,” and then passed down from generation to generation. I often wonder how many rituals and beliefs started as one thing but evolved into something else.

Part of my healing journey involved taking a step back and reading scripture from a fresh perspective without the influence of what I was always taught about a particular passage. The topic of forgiveness is one of these areas. I have come to define forgiveness as an internal choice that I make to stop nursing my bitterness toward someone who has wronged me – to stop spending my time thinking about that person. To do this requires no action on the part of the one who wronged me.

My personal definition of forgiveness has nothing whatsoever to do with reconciliation. I believe this is one area where church doctrine is way off the mark – if reconciliation were a required element of forgiveness, I simply could not do it. By my definition, I have forgiven my abusers, but I have also cut of all contact with them. I am 100% comfortable with this decision, and when questioned about it at church, I have no problem backing it up with scripture.

I have many other areas of my faith where I diverge from mainstream Christian doctrine, but I can back it all up Biblically (which is, of course, only relevant to people who believe the Bible). One example is my belief in reincarnation. All areas in which I diverge have come after lots of prayer and critical thinking, and my divergences have brought me immense healing rather than the whole “I guess we’ll know when we get to Heaven” cop out that some people give me when they are not open to considering alternative perspectives.

My advice to people who wrestle with their faith is to question it down to its core. In my opinion, any faith that cannot withstand critical thinking and Socratic questioning isn’t of much value. I am not saying that I have all the answers, but through lots of praying and questioning, I have found the answers to the questions I needed answers for the most without having to “wait to get to Heaven to ask.”

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A reader wants to know how to forgive yourself for what your abusers forced you to do or watch as they harmed those you love. This is a complicated process that is going to involve different steps for different people, but the big picture process is the same – you need to find a way to accept at a heart level that you were not responsible for your abusers’ actions. This includes not being responsible for doing things that you were forced to do.

When I first recovered the sickening awareness and then memories that I had been forced to sexually abuse my younger sister, I didn’t think I could bear it. I was flooded with suicidal urges and simply wanted to die. Thankfully, my mind released a montage of memories of my sister being forced to abuse me. I knew at a heart level that she was not responsible for any of those vile things. Even at the time, I never blamed her for the things our abusers forced her to do to me. That was the starting point for me removing blame from myself – if I could see that my sister was not to blame for what they did to me, perhaps I was not to blame for what they made me to do her.

It helps that my sister and I talk about our shared abuse, so I was able to tell her that I had recovered memories of us being forced to harm each other and that I was sorry for all that they forced me to do to her. She was able to tell me immediately that she did not blame me, which helped the process along. The conversation was not a switch that made the self-blame go away, but it was a huge start.

From there, I had to force myself to stop blaming myself. When guilt or shame would ooze out about what I had been forced to do, I would actively stop it. I would tell myself that I was not responsible for those actions and refuse to put more energy into hating myself over them. I would then replace those thoughts with positive ones, focusing on anything I could to feed the right wolf.

One thing that worked for me was doing positive mantras. (Some child abuse survivors have told me that this doesn’t work for them, but they have found other ways to achieve the same goals, so don’t despair if this doesn’t work for you.) During this phase of healing, if I was flooded with guilt and shame over what I had been forced to do to my sister, I would recite, “I love you; you are safe; I’m sorry” over and over and over and over in my head. I didn’t believe a word of it, so it’s OK if you don’t, either. However, over time, just as I had been brainwashed by hearing how rotten I was as a child, I was able to “brainwash” my way back to believing that I loved myself and was safe.

Feeding the right wolf works. You need to find a way that your wolf can be fed.

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As many of you know, I have written quite a few articles about healing from child abuse for eHow.com. One of those articles is entitled How to Stop Dissociation After Childhood Abuse. A reader wrote me the following question in the comments:

How do I rebuild a relationship with my daughter after all the abuse she witnessed an endured in her life? I was a victim of sexual abuse when I was a child and had a turbulent upraising with alcoholic Mother and a strict and physically abusive step father. I ran away from home as a teenager and became pregnant at 16. I went on to marry the man who was the father to my daughter. He turned out to be very physically, mentally and emotionally abusive. I in turn took out my anger on my daughter, I would snap at her over small things like her getting upset over her hair being brushed. I would get very impatient and hit her with the brush over her head and yell at her. I would apologize to her but it wasn’t enough to take the look out of her eyes. The anger I took out on her is unbelievable, now that she is 21yrs old she holds so much anger towards me. I can’t go back and change these events. – mariannegagne

I told mariannegagne that I would post her question here and solicit suggestions from all of you. I will share my own advice to her in this blog entry. I would appreciate everyone being respectful to her in your responses, even if you find her message to be triggering in any way.


To mariannegagne,

I am so sorry that you know the pain of being abused as a child. As you have experienced yourself, child abuse comes with a lot of anger. It was not safe for you to vent your anger toward the people who caused it. Different abuse survivors react in different ways. Unfortunately, you chose to vent your anger on an innocent child. It is no wonder that she grew into an adult who resents you for it. She did not deserve your anger any more than you deserved the sexual abuse.

The big difference between you and your daughter’s father is that it sounds like you have remorse for the way that you treated your daughter. You have apologized, but she probably has a hard time believing your apologies because this was not a one-time thing – it was a pattern.

If you want to repair your relationship with your daughter, then you must first understand how deeply your actions wounded her. She needs you to “get it.” She needs you to understand how painful it was to be raised by an abusive father, and she needs you to apologize for not removing her from the abusive situation. She also needs you to understand how painful it was that her “good parent” vented anger onto her that she did not deserve. She was just a little girl who wanted to be loved, and both parents used her as a place to dump out all of their own unresolved emotions. That was not fair to her. She was just a little kid. Until you appreciate the gravity of the damage you inflicted upon her, your apologies are going to ring hollow to her.

Next, she needs you to take responsibility for the damage that you did to her. Every time you took out your anger on her, you damaged her. That damage needs to be repaired. Have you considered offering to pay for her to see a therapist?

Your daughter also needs you to heal yourself. Until you heal your own emotional wounds, you are going to look for other, less healthy, ways to deal with the pain. Now that your daughter is an adult, she doesn’t have to stick around and be the recipient of this. One of the biggest gifts you can give your daughter is an emotionally healthy mother.

If you will commit to dealing with your own issues and take responsibility for the damage that you did to your daughter, then you will have laid the foundation for building a positive relationship with her. The rest is up to her.

One more thing – You will eventually need to forgive yourself for the choices that you made throughout your life. So many of your choices were driven by your own pain. No, you cannot change your choices from the past, but you have the power to make better choices from now forward. If you will transform yourself into a healthier person, your daughter will be much more likely to want you in her life again.

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Plant (c) Lynda BernhardtI have written a few times about forgiveness after child abuse. Forgiveness is such a huge stumbling block for many adult survivors of child abuse. I have heard many say that if forgiveness is required in order to heal from child abuse, then they will never fully heal.

I first approached the idea of forgiveness before I faced the extent of my child abuse history. I hated my mother/abuser throughout my life, and I thought it all stemmed from certain emotional abuses that I have always remembered. I was angry about the fact that she continued to have the power to hurt me. I was listening to a talk radio show, and somebody called in about a similar issue. The radio personality said that forgiveness was the key to releasing my mother/abuser’s power over me.

I was floored and had the same reaction that most child abuse survivors do – She does not deserve forgiveness. However, I wanted relief from the ongoing emotional pain, so I read a book about forgiveness. I came to realize that, while she did not deserve forgiveness, I deserved healing. I chose myself over her. Also, I came to realize that, whether or not I forgave my mother, her life was pretty much the same. I was the only one who was suffering.

So, I chose to let go of the bitterness, which is how I have always defined forgiveness. I chose to stop nursing the bitterness, and I freed myself from her. The emotional abuse history lost its power and stopped hurting me.

I have applied this principle to my other abusers, first processing my anger toward them and then choosing to let go of putting energy into thinking about them. I have defined forgiveness as becoming indifferent toward them. However, some comments now have me questioning if this is forgiveness or something else.

I have a friend who has forgiven her father for his sexual abuse. She went through the same place where I am now for a very long time. However, as she continued to heal, she grew compassion for him, and he is now in her life again. She says that forgiveness is about recognizing his limitations and wanting to love him through them. If that is forgiveness, then I am not there and probably never will be.

I also wrote an article on forgiveness for eHow.com. A reader over there says that I am only “pretending to be indifferent.” Seriously, I am not pretending anything. I really do not think about my mother that often, unless something forces me to think about her like having to provide her maiden name to get a credit card. But that is more of an annoyance, not a dwelling.

That reader says that forgiveness is really about finding compassion for the other person, which is the same thing that my friend says. And that seems to tie into forgiveness meaning understanding. If that is true, then I guess I have not forgiven my abusers. If I have not, then what have I done? It has brought me an enormous amount of relief and comfort. But what exactly is it?

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Tree (c) Lynda BernhardtOn my post, Child Abuse: Severe Emotional Abuses I Suffered, a reader posted a question about whether my abusers are still “alive and well” but not incarcerated. As far as I know, none of them ever did any jail time for what they did to my sister and me. However, I have made peace with this, and I want to share how.

Those of you who were moved by my discussion of reincarnation will probably find this very useful. Those who think I am off my rocker for believing in reincarnation will likely find this post and my next one to be a little nutty.

A fundamental part of being a human being is needing justice. People who do good things are supposed to be rewarded, and those who do bad things are supposed to suffer. Unfortunately, the world is filled with examples of where this is not the case.

If I based my need for justice on this lifetime, then I would likely never move past my hatred toward my abusers. I define “forgiveness” as letting go of the bitterness. Without justice, I do not believe that I could accomplish this. However, my beliefs in karma and reincarnation have enabled me to accept that my abusers will pay for what they did to me, which has enabled me to let go of my bitterness.

I believe that, after we die, our spirits rest. Then, our spirits must experience how our actions in our last lifetime affected others. So, I believe that when each abuser dies, he will have to feel the same pain that I felt and know that he caused that pain. While in spiritual state, I believe that each abuser will feel an enormous amount of remorse for the pain he inflicted. In my next post, I will share how I came to this belief.

I do believe that there is karma in this life as well. My mother/abuser feels pain because I am no longer in her life other than sending the occasional letter. I have told her not to call or visit me. I do not do this to hurt her: I do it to protect myself. However, this choice has the effect of hurting her, and I believe this is part of her karma and learning her life lessons. You cannot treat another person any way you want and then expect to have that person continue to give you love and energy. My mother lost a lot when she lost me.

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In my post, Forgiveness and Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse, I talked about how forgiveness is a process rather than a moment. I have also found that sometimes forgiveness happens in layers.

For my abusers who harmed me one time, I have been able to choose to let go of the bitterness and, over time, heal the wound and forgive. However, for abusers who repeatedly harmed me, I have had to forgive in layers. It is sort of like the difference between healing a first degree versus a third degree burn. You have to heal one layer of skin at a time if the burn runs deeper.

My primary abuser is the same person who provided most of my others abusers access to me as a child. I have found that I needed to forgive that abuser first for the things done directly to me. After I healed those wounded parts of myself, I was ready to start healing the wounds inflicted by providing access to others. I also needed to heal different layers based upon the forms of abuse inflicted upon me.

Because my wounds were so deep, it appeared to others like I continued to wrestle with the same wounds with this one abuser. In actuality, I was continuously healing my wounds – they were just very deep. I would fully heal the wounds from one type of abuse, but I would move on to another wound that was still very raw.

I still cannot say that I have fully forgiven this person, although I would estimate that I am 90% there. I do not want to invest any energy into this person, which is how I let go of the bitterness. However, it does take a very long time to fully forgive when the person inflicted multiple wounds.

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On my post, Forgiveness and Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse, a reader left the following comment:

The person I need to forgive is me. I did nothing wrong, and have no reason to be blamed for anything that happened, yet I feel dirty, ashamed, guilty and a million and 1 other negative emotions. They are dissipating, slowly, and as I let go of each one, I come closer to the self forgiveness and the peace that I so need.

There is so much wisdom in that comment. The reader captures well the struggles that survivors of childhood abuse face as they wrestle with finding a way to forgive themselves.

I, too, used to feel very guilty and filled with shame over my childhood, even though I did nothing wrong. I was just an innocent child. I did not choose to be abused, and I did not choose the things that my abusers forced me to do. However, no matter how much I knew these things in my head, I still felt very guilty at a heart level.

In my post Forgiveness and Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse, I described the forgiveness of others as the act of letting go – of choosing to stop nursing the bitterness and, instead, using that energy to heal yourself. I used the same process in forgiving myself.

Whether or not I “should” feel guilty about my history of abuse, I did feel guilty. I needed to choose to stop nursing that guilt and shame. Whenever I felt filled with shame, I would choose to be kind to myself and think about positive things, even when doing so felt foreign to me.

One resource that really helped me was the book, Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Lewis Herman. In this book, Ms. Herman talks about different causes of trauma, including soldiers who are traumatized by war. I could look at a soldier’s situation more objectively: They were drafted to fight, so why should they feel guilty? Then I thought about what that guilt-ridden soldier would say to me about things that I suffered as a young child. Taking a step back from my specific circumstances helped me to see my circumstances more objectively.

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Pink Buds (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Most adult survivors of childhood abuse wrestle with issues surrounding forgiveness. The abuses suffered by many abuse survivors are unforgivable acts, and yet most religions strongly encourage people to forgive one another for their “trespasses.” How can an adult survivor of childhood abuse resolve her issues surrounding forgiveness? Must she choose between justice and her faith?

It has taken me years to come to terms with issues surrounding forgiveness. The abuses that I suffered as a child ran much deeper than a simple grudge over a property dispute. It has taken me years to overcome the severe damage that my abusers inflicted upon my body, soul, and spirit. I was unable to forgive them until I worked through many other issues, including honoring my emotions associated with all that I had endured.

I define forgiveness much differently than society does. Society uses pat sayings like “forgive and forget” that are simply not possible. How can I possibly “forget” being severely traumatized? The trauma happened, and it cannot be undone. Society also equates forgiveness with reconciliation, which takes away the abuse survivor’s power because she needs the abuser to take action toward reconciliation, and many abusers have no interest in doing so. I have found that reconciliation is not necessary in order to forgive because forgiveness is a gift that I give myself and has nothing to do with the other person.

Forgiveness is a choice rather than a moment. It is a series of choices to stop nursing your bitterness toward your abuser and, instead, use the freed up energy toward healing yourself. You need do nothing externally for this to happen, and you certainly do not have to have contact with your abuser to accomplish this.

Each time you focus on your bitterness toward your abuser, no matter how legitimate your grievance is, you are choosing to keep yourself “wed” to your abuser. You continue to think about him, and you feed the negativity inside of yourself. When you do this, you continue to give your abuser power over your life. You also choose to continue hurting yourself because it is you, rather than your abuser, who suffers from the bitterness you are nursing.

When you choose to stop nursing the bitterness, you stop putting energy into your “relationship” with your abuser. You stop thinking about your abuser, and you free up that energy toward healing yourself. In time, you will find yourself becoming indifferent toward your abuser.

While hatred and love are polar opposites, they both involve investing energy into another person. The true opposite of love is indifference because you stop thinking about the other person altogether.

I do not like to use the term “forgiveness” because of all of the associations that society places on this term. Instead, I like to call this process “letting go.” By letting go of the bitterness, I was able to heal myself. My abusers’ lives were not affected as I moved from hating them to letting go, but the healing I experienced in letting go of the bitterness was immense. Letting go was a gift that I gave to myself, and I needed nobody else to take action for me to make that choice.

I suffered enough as a child. Through letting go, I ended my suffering for good. I took back my power by choosing to let go of the past and focus on my present.

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