Forgiving Is Not the Only Option
Forgiveness is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot and means a variety of different things to different people. It is often cited as the means to achieve healing, growth, or self-improvement…and, occasionally, it is revered as the only means one can achieve these things. Is forgiveness necessary for one to heal or improve their life, relationships, or wellbeing? I don’t believe it is. I actually believe that pushing forgiveness on people who are not ready to forgive is more harmful than helpful situations when a person is not ready to let go of active emotions related to the offender or offense that wounded them, they believe forgiveness may cause further harm, or they are operating in active trauma or stress-related physiology. It can retraumatize a person or compound the trauma by piling on a sense of blame or shame.
As a trauma-informed integrative practitioner, forgiveness comes up often in conversation. Many clients I engage with on a deeply emotional level ask about receiving help with achieving forgiveness, share their aversion to forgiveness, or divulge that they are afraid they will never be able to forgive and that the lack of forgiveness will prevent them from healing their deepest, often most painful wounds.
The most common aversion to forgiveness is rooted in the conditioned, subconscious beliefs we hold about what forgiveness means. The belief that forgiveness equates to saying what happened to me is okay is off-putting, especially to those who have suffered abuses at the hands of another. The reason people seek assistance with forgiveness, fear the consequences of not forgiving, or are adamantly opposed to forgiveness are also commonly rooted in their personal, familial, cultural, religious, and/or systemic conditioning or beliefs.
Think about it for a moment… How do you define forgiveness? What does forgiving mean to you? What does forgiveness entail? Does the idea of forgiveness resonate with you or ruffle your feathers? What do you believe about forgiveness?
Merriam-Webster defines forgiving as “ceasing to feel resentment against (an offender)”, but more significant than defining what forgiveness means to you personally is defining the outcome desired from forgiveness. The outcome of forgiving your abuser, harm-doer, or offender is to free yourself from the potentially stress-inducing emotions, negative thoughts, and emotionally-charged patterns that can lead to ongoing suffering. If a person remains in an ongoing pattern of stress it can ultimately affect their health and wellbeing on all levels: mind, body, spirit, and relationship with self or others. An ideal outcome for forgiveness would likely include neutralizing emotional pain so that you can be in your body and in the world free from past pain caused by an offense or offender. Forgiveness is not the only way this can be achieved.
The thing is, what we believe to be true about what forgiveness means is determined by our past conditioning and experiences. These beliefs shape our individual perception and reality. Each individual comes from a diverse set of cultures, environments, and experiences, meaning that what works for one person is not likely to work for all people. This is why forgiveness must be a free-will choice each person makes for themselves related to their own needs for healing, growth, or personal evolution.
If a person chooses forgiveness as a means to heal and grow because it resonates with them to do so, then it absolutely can be a bridge from struggling or suffering to healing and thriving. If forgiveness does NOT resonate with someone for any reason, they should receive support and reassurance that there ARE, in fact, alternatives to forgiveness that can help them achieve their goals and meet their needs.
One of the more simple alternatives to forgiveness include acceptance of what happened. It is absolutely NOT OKAY that it happened, but it can be beneficial to reach a point of accepting that what is done cannot be changed. Another option, albeit a seemingly less culturally accepted or popular one, is just being pissed off, or feeling whatever feelings you have until they are processed. This is especially helpful if you can do so in a safe, supportive environment that prevents getting stuck in these feelings too long, which can be detrimental to your wellbeing. It is okay to be pissed or angry or feel whatever you feel, even if it makes others uncomfortable because it is not your job to ensure everyone else’s comfort — your job is to ensure YOUR comfort. As long as your anger or other emotions aren’t holding you in a pattern of continued, ongoing suffering, struggle, limitation, pain, or victimization AND you are comfortable with being in your emotions, regardless of labels that may be attached to them such as ‘negative’, then go ahead and feel what you feel. Another alternative that comes up fairly often is to explore and uncover any areas of self-forgiveness necessary to create relief and freedom from an offense/offender. This realization absolutely does NOT indicate you have any ownership or blame for what happened to you. Most self-forgiveness stems from internalized patterns of thought and feeling, commonly experienced as the ‘what-if’s’, that sometimes follow abuse, trauma, or other experiences that are not in our control, thus activating a sense of a loss of control. These internalized thoughts and feelings are coping/survival responses that involve trying to make sense of what happened in order to prevent it from happening again, an ego response…it is, after all, our ego’s function to keep us safe — even if it tells lies or untruths about us to do so. The process of self-forgiveness is MUCH easier than forgiving an abuser or offender because you absolutely did not cause, deserve, or want to experience what happened to you in any way. It should be said that not everyone will find the need to experience self-forgiveness, but if there is something lingering under the surface that needs to be forgiven (self-blame, what-ifs, should haves, or the ilk) it can be extremely healing to offer yourself forgiveness.
That last part about self-forgiveness being said, it is absolutely imperative to reiterate that it is NOT okay if someone abused or harmed you in any way, regardless of their intention or the circumstances. It is in no way your fault. You in no way deserve what happened and you owe no one forgiveness if it is not aligned with your comfort and integrity. It did NOT happen to you for any other reason than someone chose to do harm to you, whether they chose intentionally, were operating on autopilot, or any other reason. What happened to you did not happen to teach you a lesson. I find it infuriating when well-meaning people say that ‘bad things happen for a reason’ or ‘there’s a lesson in what happened to you’. This is a form of victim-blaming. It is possible to learn from ALL experiences and, sure, lessons or insight can arise from ANY situation but abuse is never inflicted upon people to ‘teach them lessons’. Suggesting so is harmful because it insinuates that a victim had a choice, was to blame, or both. Additionally, telling people ‘they need to forgive’, or worse yet that ‘they need to forgive and forget’, is potentially harmful advice. It is a good idea to err on the side of saying nothing, if you think of saying these or similar phrases when friends or loved ones confide in you about an offensive act against them. I recommend saying “I’m sorry that happened to you”, or asking “do you need to be heard, or do you need solutions?” as more healthy alternatives.
It is my intention with this writing to inspire hope that there is healing and freedom from pain or suffering available even if you can not or will not forgive. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for healing our transcending our suffering and there is a way to show up for others (and yourself!) that does not perpetuate harm or cause re-traumatization.
If you are still mad and want to be mad at an offense or offender, your anger is valid. If your anger, other emotions, or memories of what happened to you are causing ongoing, continued suffering, but forgiveness is not an option, I hope you will consider other possibilities to end that suffering…either ones mentioned in this article or other options outside of the scope of this article. If you feel forgiveness in your heart and wish to extend it towards your offender, please do so knowing that this choice is not giving permission for the wrongdoing or to the wrongdoer. At the very least, I hope you feel validation in whatever you choose or do not choose in terms of forgiveness, and I hope you will offer yourself kindness and grace for all that you’ve experienced.