Forgiveness has been broadly defined by psychologists as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.
Forgiveness is one of the most complex concepts that I have struggled with throughout my lifespan. Forgiving yourself and others, especially those who have wronged or hurt you, are the most difficult things you can ever try to accomplish. What I’ve come to ask myself is, do I truly need to forgive others in order to heal and move forward?
No one should be put down for not being able to forgive. I know I’m not the first person to feel attacked, looked down on, and judged for not being able to forgive. You might be reading this now feeling agitated, uneasy, and angry at the idea of forgiving those who have harmed or done wrong to you. I would just like to say, welcome, I am glad we can establish we are all human here.
Being a survivor myself of childhood sexual abuse and as an adult being a victim of sexual assault and harassment I have heard countless people tell me, “you need to forgive and let it go.” Why? Why did I spend so many years worrying and further burdening myself with something that ultimately made my path to healing longer and harder?
I would say that not every person who says this is trying to be rude, harsh, or even insincere, they just do not know or understand. Not every individual is built the same, and not every individual handles traumas and injustices the same exact way. Healing from trauma is already highly complex and concepts like forgiveness further complicate this process.
There is Power in Not Forgiving
For some, forgiving those who have emotionally or physically harmed them can be good. For others, it can be empowering not to. The point is, it’s not up to you. It’s up to the individual themselves.
For survivors of abuse and assault, it can help to place them back into control of their life and mind. Words like you “have to” or “should” and it’s your “obligation to” can be extremely triggering. It took me so long to come to realize this trigger in my own life. Learning how to properly communicate this to others so they can understand was especially difficult but also necessary.
What is important is that individuals find what works best in their journey of healing. That has nothing to do with what your beliefs or thoughts are on the subject. For me, it was only after I realized that forgiveness was impossible that I slowly was able to turn inward to help unburden myself.
why people forgive
A lot of people have their own version of what they believe forgiveness is or looks like. Your own conceptualization and practice of forgiveness come from various cultural, including religious and spiritual, influences.
For many in Western cultures, it is a “moral obligation” to forgive. Forgiveness here is mainly focused on as a way to unburden the individual or feel good for doing the right thing. This is different from other cultural sectors where forgiveness is focused on the preservation of social harmony among groups.
In the US, for example, you will commonly hear the phrases “give it to God” or “let go and let God” put forward by Christians. Some might feel obliged to do this, but this can be extremely harmful to many others. That’s why it’s so important for people to understand and educate themselves because while this is possibly being said out of kindness can be a major violation of boundaries.
Revictimizing in Pushing Someone To Forgive
Growing up in a Baptist Christian household I was given these types of instructions which felt much more like commands. Resentment continued to grow toward this belief system and those who were raising me to follow it. Looking back now I can understand myself more and why I felt further violated.
After enduring what I had inside of my mother’s home I was then fully integrated into my father’s home and a different lifestyle. But there still were harmful similarities there. I was then told I still am not in control of anything but I am to give up complete control over to an invisible sky daddy. Not only this but I also was obligated to forgive my transgressors.
This belief system told me that in order for my sins to be forgiven then I had to first forgive others of their sins against me. Even worse it made it seem that I was not a good individual or worthy of forgiveness if I couldn’t. After all, Jesus was able to forgive everyone, I should too.
I’m sure you can see how that was not very helpful. As an adult, I can understand that my family, especially my father (a Baptist pastor/preacher) were only doing what they believed to be right based on their religious rules and system. It was not malicious, but it was detrimental to my health and well-being.
Perspectives of forgiveness should overall be recognized as human constructs that are purely subjective. What you believe, the rules, and the way of life you follow is your choice. Just please remember, what may be working for you will not work for everyone. And most importantly it is not in any way helpful to blame or shame those who cannot forgive.
Validation and focus on self Are more important than forgiveness
When I would hear someone tell me I need to forgive, it would hit me so hard emotionally. I would feel unimportant and shamed. That instead of my feelings and trauma being heard and validated, I was having My Story judged and told it doesn’t matter.
It is a fallacy that you cannot move on and heal without first forgiving. It is ridiculous to even think we perpetuate this one-size-fits-all idea about healing. And it is increasingly harmful that we have been force-fed this notion that our emotions and feelings are negative.
It is 100% possible for you to heal without forgiving your abuser or a perpetrator. You do not owe them forgiveness. It is important to fully acknowledge, express, and have your emotions and feelings understood. Rather than focusing on others, especially giving more thought and power to those who have wronged you, I encourage others to focus inward and on healing the self. And if you never reach the point of being able to forgive, it is okay, you can still unburden yourself and move forward in life and thrive.