Dear Annie: I’d like to offer an alternative perspective on your advice to “Trying To Heal,” who is finding it hard to forgive her abusive mother. I would argue quite strongly, and from experience, that forgiveness isn’t necessary to healing. Trying To Heal is under absolutely zero obligation to forgive her mother, and she can still heal without having done so.
One doesn’t need to forgive to lay aside their anger; those are two separate things. Society forgets that all too often, to the detriment of the victims of abuse, crime and other traumas. People treat an inability to forgive like it’s some kind of conscious, vindictive choice instead of being a visceral emotional response to pain and grief. That’s a mindset that’s incredibly damaging to abuse victims, who are already grappling with their self-esteem. It’s also a mindset that prioritizes the rights of the abuser over the rights of the abused. Researchers have only recently started examining the question of whether forgiveness can have a negative impact, and they’re finding that it can in many cases.
In my own journey to overcome the effects of the abuse I was subject to for the first 20 years of my life, I struggled and felt like a horrible human being for being unable to forgive my father. Worse, my therapists kept telling me over and over that I would never heal if I couldn’t forgive. Once again, I was being given no power and no agency over my own life. I was powerless as a child and then I was powerless as an adult and being told by professionals that I would always be powerless. How is that meant to help someone heal and move on?
A few years ago, I finally started seeing a therapist who advised me to stop focusing on my ability to forgive, who had the courage to go against mainstream platitudes and toxic positivity and tell me that I was actually allowed to feel what I felt without guilt. And the progress I’ve started to see since that has been leaps and bounds above the progress I had made in the prior 20 years. In that time, I have come to understand the factors that led my father to become the kind of person he was. I have even come to feel some measure of sympathy for him. But I don’t forgive him, and I don’t need to, because he no longer has power over me. Until I was given permission not to forgive, he still did have power over me, and he kept me from really healing.
You can understand a person without sympathizing with them. Some things are unforgivable. That’s allowed, and it’s not something people should be made to feel guilty or inadequate over. People are allowed to feel what they feel. The only thing that matters is what they do with those feelings. There is no magic panacea that always heals everyone.
Once I learned to accept that, I became happier, healthier (physically as well as emotionally) and no longer powerless. — Alternative Perspective on Healing
Dear Alternative Perspective: What a great therapist you are working with! Of course you are right to focus on your feelings, and the power that gives you. Being powerless as a child, and then as an adult who is told to feel a certain way — contrary to the way you actually feel — is crazy making. Thank you for your thoughtful letter. You have so many great insights, and they will undoubtedly come to the aid of many struggling readers.
“How Can I Forgive My Cheating Partner?” is out now! Annie Lane’s second anthology — featuring favorite columns on marriage, infidelity, communication and reconciliation — is available as a paperback and e-book. Visit http://www.creatorspublishing.com for more information. Send your questions for Annie Lane to [email protected]