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Posts Tagged ‘forgiving abuser’

I have been reading the book The Shack by William Paul Young. I have been focusing upon different words of wisdom in the book that can be applied to survivors of child abuse. See my first post for more information about the book.

The book The Shack hits upon a hot-button topic for child abuse survivors: forgiveness. I have mixed reviews to offer about the way this book handles forgiveness. I was quite displeased with the sudden forgiveness of and reconciliation with the abusive father. However, the matter involving forgiving the man who murdered Mack’s daughter was much more realistic.

I do not completely agree with the author’s views on forgiveness, but I really did like this part:

Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love full and openly. Do you think this man cares about the pain and torment you have gone through? If anything, he feeds on that knowledge. Don’t you want to cut that off? ~ The Shack page 227

I have been saying for years that forgiveness has nothing to do with reconciliation. It also has nothing to do with “forgetting” about the offense. Instead, forgiveness is an internal choice that I made within myself to stop “feeding” energy into hatred toward my abusers. By choosing to stop nursing the bitterness and, instead, use the energy to heal myself, I cut the bond between us.

The day I chose to begin forgiving my mother/abuser (forgiveness is a process, not a “moment”), my life stopped being about her. Up until that point, I aimed so much mental energy toward hating her. My life was consumed by hating her. I thought about her a lot (how much I hated her), and I limited the degree to which I could connect with other people. There was no room left for investing in loving others because so much of myself was consumed by hating her.

I did not want to stop hating her because she deserved my hatred. However, it hit me that I was the only one suffering, not her. My hatred was all inside of myself. So, when I chose to stop nursing my bitterness toward her, it really made little difference in her life, but it made all of the difference in the world in mine.

I don’t really like the term “forgiveness” because society has tacked on many things that it does not include, such as forgetting about the offense and reconciling with the offender. I like the term “letting go” better because that better captures what was involved in my choice to forgive.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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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.

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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.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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On my blog entry Forgiveness and Adult Survivors of Childhood Abuse, a reader posted the following comment:

What are the steps or rather the things you can do to stop thinking about what s happened to you, to stop nursing your hurt. You Im allowing time to help me with this as it does dissapate. However, the hurt will always remain. There will be times when it resurfaces. I know I do need to let go, but if I have a list in front of me if the things I can do, I can really visually, verbally, and kinesthetically do this..

Here is my own “how to” list for how to forgive an abuser.

1. Decide that you are ready to put healing yourself above holding onto your pain.

While it might seem obvious that someone would choose healing over pain, it really is not that simple. When you choose to forgive, a part of yourself will scream, “But s/he deserves my hatred. S/He does not deserve to be forgiven.”

It is true that your abuser does not deserve forgiveness. However, you deserve to live a life free from the pain of the abuse. You also deserve to live a life that is no longer “tied” to your abuser. Until you decide to place healing yourself over holding onto your anger, you will not be ready to begin the process of forgiveness.

2. Stop thinking about your abuser.

I did not realize how frequently I thought about my mother/abuser until I chose to work on forgiving her. I thought about her all the time, and I would get angry. I was “wed” to my abuser because she filled my thoughts.

You choose what you think about in your own head, so you have the power to stop thinking about your abuser. It will be a challenge at first, but with practice, you will learn how to stop.

I did this by choosing to think about other things. Whenever my mother/abuser would pop into my head, I would consciously choose not to dwell on the thought. Instead, I would put on my favorite CD, call a friend, or think about something that made me happy. As I channeled my mental energy toward things that made me feel good about myself, I stopped thinking about my abusers as frequently.

3. Process your anger.

Until you process your anger, you will be unable to stop thinking about your abuser. Do something physical to release your anger once and for all. Here are some things that have for worked for other abuser survivors:

  • Beat the ground with a baseball bat.
  • Punch pillows.
  • Take a kickboxing class.
  • Throw things at the wall that won’t damage it.
  • Visualize beating up your abuser.
  • Write your abuser’s name on red balloons and pop them.

You can come up with your own way to process your anger. Doing something physical works best for most people. Make sure you “see” your abuser’s face as you process your anger.

4. Honor your other emotions.

As you experience grief, terror, or other emotions, honor them. Comfort yourself as you would a hurting child. I found a picture of myself as a little girl and would use it to see the wounded little girl inside. I did lots of visualizations of the adult me comforting the child me.

5. Focus on healing yourself.

As you work through the first four steps, you will find yourself freeing up a lot of energy. Use that energy to heal yourself. Do things that are good for you, like exercising or hanging out with friends. Make a conscious choice to spend your time, thoughts, and energy on things that make you feel good about yourself.

As you turn your focus away from the past and turn it onto who you are today, you will find yourself spending less time nursing the bitterness toward your abuser. As you do this, you will feel less “wed” to your abuser as you take charge of your own life.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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I received an email from a reader who asked me to talk more about “processing the forgiveness” part. I have written about forgiveness several times on this blog. However, I do not claim to have all of the answers.

I will share my own forgiveness process and then share what I have heard from others. I have not fully forgiven my mother, although I really am trying. However, I do know child abuse survivors who have completed the forgiveness process, and I will pass along what they have told me.

I used to hate my mother/abuser. I would nurse the bitterness, and I would be so frustrated that she continued to have the power to hurt me. It simply was not fair.

I was listening to a talk radio show, and somebody called in with a similar issue. The host said that the way to get out of this dynamic is to forgive. I about choked at that advice because my mother did not deserve forgiveness. However, after really thinking about it, I decided that I deserved to be free from the pain, so I began the process of forgiving her.

For me, forgiveness has meant choosing to stop thinking about my mother/abuser and, instead, use that energy to heal myself. I made a conscious choice to stop nursing the bitterness. Whenever my mother/abuser would pop into my head, I would choose to think about something else. Gradually, as I stopped putting energy into hating my mother/abuser, I began to release the bitterness.

The next step was to heal myself. Part of healing myself involved expressing my anger toward my mother/abuser. This was very different from nursing the bitterness. Instead of pouring more energy into myself through hating her, I was pouring energy out of myself by giving my anger somewhere to go. I did not need to interact with my mother to express my anger. I managed this by punching pillows and doing other physical things to process my anger.

Since then, I have moved into a place of indifference toward my mother/abuser. I really do not care if she lives or dies. (However, I will admit that I get an involuntary smile on my face when I think about her dying). I put no energy into her at all. I rarely think about her, and, when I do, I just let the thought pass on through.

So, this is where I stand now as far as forgiving my mother/abuser.

I have friends who have moved past this stage of indifference. They tell me that the next step is to grow compassion for your abuser. You see the weakness in the abuser, and you feel compassion for all of the hurt that s/he has suffered. You want to reach out yourself to heal your abuser’s wounds.

Personally, I do not know if I will ever reach that place. I cannot fathom wanting to spend one more second of my life around my mother/abuser. However, these abuse survivors were once in the place where I am, and that is where they have gone. I just need to trust that my intuition will lead me where I need to go if and when the time comes.

Related Topic:

How to Forgive an Abuser After Child Abuse

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Forest

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.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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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.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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