You don’t have to forgive your abuser

Until recently when I heard narcissism expert Dr. Ramani Durvasula talk about she doesn’t like the concept of forgiveness in her podcast Sexual Disorientation, nearly everywhere else you turned there was a pernicious cultural dialogue that pushed forgiveness as the only way to heal. “The pressure to forgive comes from all kinds of sources: friends, family, society at large, television shows, spiritual teachings, most major world religions…” Dr. Ramani writes in her latest book, “Don’t You Know Who I Am,” a virtual treatise on understanding the roots and effects of narcissism. She also notes that “As a result, many narcissistic, antagonistic, and otherwise toxic people are able to behave badly in an unchecked manner for a very long time. This can often happen because people do keep on forgiving them.” The decision to forgive or not is highly personal, and undue pressure is placed on survivors to forgive their abuser for often horrific acts. As if abuse survivors didn’t have enough on their plates.

This is just bullshit.

Forgiveness is largely a spiritual concept, and it’s a beautiful one. However, I view it a bit differently. When you’re dealing with the trauma of surviving abuse, true forgiveness is rarely possible without the abuser taking accountability for their actions, sincerely apologizing, and changing their ways. Which, in my experience, is also quite rare. This form of forgiveness is an interpersonal one (between two people), not a intrapersonal one (within the survivor). When the abuser takes the shame, betrayal, and hurt upon themselves, lifting that burden that has been wrongly placed upon the survival, true forgiveness is possible. It’s amazing to behold. I wish it happened more often.

Closure from an abuser is rarely given to a survivor. We must create closure on our own, and that involves moving through all the phases of grief (denial, anger, depression, bargaining) and finally moving into a phase of acceptance or release. Accepting that the abuse happened is letting it go and moving forward. No forgiveness necessary. If you want to forgive your abuser, that’s between you and your higher power, and it’s optional. You can fully integrate the experience of abuse to the point of which it is just background noise. Past tense. Choosing not to forgive doesn’t make you an angry, horrible person.

To abuse survivors: Anger is okay. In fact, it’s necessary for your healing. Being abused makes a person very angry, for a long time, and for good reason. Anger is what lets us know that a boundary has been crossed. That a violation has occurred. So don’t surrender your anger too quickly. When a personal injustice has occurred, it’s natural to be angry about it. This is not the same thing as giving you blanket permission to act out your anger on others. None of us are entitled to do that, and it’s weapon #1 in an abuser’s arsenal.

When I first started processing my abuse, I would get angry to the point of totally shutting down when someone told me I had to forgive my abuser. This happened most often in my spiritual community, and I really took issue with it. I see it as a form of spiritual abuse, a micro aggression or micro invalidation. It’s often not meant that way, but it’s what happens when you tell a survivor, this is on you. The message is this: Withholding forgiveness means you’re bad, you’re not spiritual, you’re not virtuous, this is your fault.

For the record? No, I have not forgiven my abuser. I accept what this person did, I see what part I played in the dynamic, I know the abuse was their responsibility and not mine, and I’ve made a commitment to myself to never accept abuse from anyone. But forgiveness has not come, and I am unwilling to force it on myself, because that’s a form of self-abuse. There are people whom I have forgiven, and what do they all have in common? They sincerely apologized and owned up to their actions. Those have been some of the most healing moments in my life, and I treasure them. I have also witnessed many in my work with my clients, and I am honored to have been present during such moments.

I can live in a state of acceptance about the abuse I experienced. It no longer defines me. When anger rises up in me about it, when I am triggered (it does still happen), I let myself feel fully and then let it dissipate like vaper, like clouds.

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