Sunday, May 31, 2009

Professional Perspective: How Forgiveness Helps Us Heal

Since forgiveness seems to be the dominant theme this week, it seems only fitting to include a professional take on the forgiveness question. Dr. Nancy Irwin has a winning approach to helping her clients. In her own words,

"As a therapeutic hypnotist and doctor of psychology, I know for a fact that we are all born to win. We learn to fail, and what we learn, we can un-learn. Therefore, I work to clear away the negative programming, undesirable habits, and limiting beliefs to free the inner winner in my clients."

A survivor herself, Dr. Irwin's words of experience and deep thought add great context to the forgiveness question.


"If we say that monsters [people who do terrible evil] are beyond forgiving, we give them a power they should never have...they are given the power to keep their evil alive in the hearts of those who suffered most. We give them power to condemn their victims to live forever with the hurting memory of their painful pasts. We give the monsters the last word." - Lewis Smedes

Why We Don't Forgive

For years I felt that it would be impossible to forgive my perpetrator (clergyman) of adolescent sexual abuse. I hopped up on my high horse pretty quickly when anyone even suggested I do so. He was WRONG and broke the LAW, yet year after year, I began to grow tired of living in my self-righteousness and superiority, rage, depression, deep sadness, and giving my power not only to the perpetrator, but to the past!

Forgiveness puts YOU in control, calling the shots over the trauma, allowing you to enjoy the now and your future. It frees you to create a happy ending for a movie that had a very scary scene.

Though not an overnight accomplishment, I had to learn to stop making the perpetrator "wrong." I had to see him as a flawed, emotionally arrested human being who operated with the only set of tools he had. Learning to shift my thinking from his being "wrong" to his being "inappropriate" opened up a whole new world for me. It was as if glacial shifts began occurring.....allowing me to settle into a more solid space.

I then had to forgive myself for all the years I lived in hatred and bitterness. I had to review what really happened, express all my feelings about the trauma and the abuser, all my feelings toward those I blamed for not rescuing me. I sorted all this out through therapy, through writing letters and finally through a confrontation. I let him know what his actions had cost me in life. Unfortunately, I was met with defensiveness and denial, yet I got to speak my peace and forgave him his denial, defensiveness, his ignorance, and his inappropriate actions. And almost overnight, 30-year-old symptoms began dissipating: fear of men (especially those who looked like him), my rapid startle reflex, fear of engulfment, fear of intimacy, and more.

What Forgiveness Gives to Us

Forgiving is the ultimate in standing in a place of acceptance and healing. Yes, the scar may remain, yet you are stronger in that place. As a survivor of traumatic experiences myself, I am a psychotherapist/clinical hypnotist specializing in trauma recovery, I have learned to abandon the "why me" questions that kept me trapped in my victimization. When I began asking "how could this experience help me or others" questions, I was able to reclaim my power. Trauma comes from Greek word "wound." As we all know, wounds can be healed. They may leave scars, yet scar tissue is tougher and allows the wounded area to be more resilient than before. I discovered that there was great meaning to my trauma; not that I'd wish it on anyone on the planet, of course, but it led me be the healer that I am.

Like the physical body, the psyche is designed for survival and protection, and is quite resilient. Trauma can leave marks on the psyche that act as warning signals for future similar dangers. This "default setting" may seem like that of a computer program; some are tougher to re-set than others. To avoid automatically reverting to the fear state that the original wound set up for you, there are ways to re-program that amazing computer of your subconscious mind: intervention, treatment, normalization, acceptance, and finally forgiveness. Forgiveness is NOT condoning deviant or criminal behavior. It gives you permission to move forward in your life with peace of mind. Further, you give the perpetrator permission to be accountable and responsible going forward. Staying in righteous mode (while the ego loves it!) disallows growth for all parties.

Things to Think About as We Move Forward

Everything and everyone has a positive intent. No one (including Mother Nature) does anything to be bad, stupid, wrong, or even evil. Even serial killers (and I'm certainly not defending them!) have a positive intent: to be in control or feel powerful. The goal in therapy is to find a healthy way to meet that need without harming others or the self. Just like your responses to trauma have a positive intent (protection, releasing and healing), so do the causes. In the case of natural disasters, the planet is shifting into a more settled position, or is releasing congestion and toxins from the atmosphere.

Many perpetrators are unable to forgive themselves for their behaviors. While it may be tempting to proclaim a resounding "Good! They SHOULD suffer!" this perpetuates the blame-shame cycle and no one is free. The best way to decrease further victims is to forgive the offender. Then, and perhaps only then, can future victims be spared. Yet forgiveness is for YOU.
We tend to have irrational beliefs such as "No harm should ever befall me" or "Others should always be appropriate" or "S--- never should happen to me." Until that Utopia exists, a more rational belief to operate from is: "While I hate the ignorance and inhumanity of others, I forgive the acts and find meaning from it to further my growth as a compassionate being."

If you have found a way to be at peace and in acceptance and do not need or want to forgive, I applaud you. Again, forgiveness is not essential to recovery. If my words here are offensive to you, or anger you, I honor your feelings. I can almost promise you that with the passage of time, the burden of anger will grow exponentially heavier than the trauma. When you forgive, you open the door to freedom.

Dr. Nancy Irwin graduated from the Hypnosis Motivation Institute in Tarzana, California with honors and the Director's Award. She is a member of the Hypnotists' Union, the California Psychological Association, the American Academy for Experts in Traumatic Stress, and the California Coalition on Sexual Offending (CCOSO).

Dr. Irwin is also a certified practitioner of Neurolinguistic Programming, Time Line Therapy and Emotion Free Therapy, combining these modalities with hypnosis to effect the most rapid change possible in her clients. While Dr. Irwin treats over 100 different issues, she is dedicated to treating victims of child sexual abuse as well as abusers.

In addition to earning a doctorate in psychology from Southern California University of Professional Studies, Nancy has a Master of Music degree in Opera Performance, and her background as an opera singer and stand-up comedian adds heart and humor to her healing. A popular keynote speaker she insists, "Change does not have to hurt!"

(Photo: Nancy Irwin)