Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Survivors Speak: Forgiveness & Abuse

A few months ago I stumbled upon Nancy Richard's blog, Heal and Forgive, and was immediately taken in by this statement in her bio:

"When I finally mustered the courage to buck societal expectations; not to forgive; and to put my own healing and well-being first, I achieved a level of healing that I never thought was possible."

Don't you need to hear more from this person? I know I did. And now, I'm really delighted she's written a guest post just for us. Her views on what comes first, forgiveness or healing, might surprise you. Or, you might agree it's something you've suspected all along...

At some point in most abuse survivor’s healing journey, he or she faces the question of forgiveness. Are there some abuses too atrocious to forgive? Is it possible, or even healthy, to forgive someone who has never asked to be forgiven, someone who has never acknowledged any wrongdoing, and someone who continues to practice the same abusive behaviors?

All too often, well-intentioned people ask us to forgive and forget. For decades, I heard from friends, relatives, therapists, and fellow Christians, that I needed to forgive my abusers in order to heal. This advice - and the attempts I made to forgive before I'd learned to exercise personal boundaries - left me open to further injury and damaged me deeply. When I finally mustered the courage to buck societal expectations; not to forgive; and to put my own healing and well-being first, I achieved a level of healing that I never thought was possible. My period of not forgiving created the space necessary to achieve the greatest emotional growth of my life. Wow!

Sometimes it is necessary to place a moratorium on forgiveness until healing has taken place. This affords us the opportunity to 1) validate our stories with sympathetic listeners, 2) express our anger in appropriate ways, 3) mourn our losses, and 4) protect others and ourselves from re-injury.

After many years of militantly not forgiving, I was both shocked and surprised to find that the unintentional by-product of this healing was - ironically – forgiveness.

At that time, I realized that the old adage, "Forgive and Heal," was backwards. For me, it was "Heal and Forgive!" If I only knew *then* that adequate healing had to come first, it would have saved me a great deal of time and pain. So, now I shout it from the roof tops "Heal first, THEN Forgive!"

How then do we heal?


Our greatest opportunity for healing comes from the offender. When the person who harmed us is willing to offer restitution, we are truly blessed. This means the wrongdoer must be willing to acknowledge the harm he or she caused us, offer a genuine apology, demonstrate a willingness to restore what was taken and change abusive behavior. However, because of the chronic nature of abuse, most victims do not have their abuse acknowledged by the offender.

Still, validation is key. When we do not receive acknowledgment from the person who harmed us we need to have our abuse acknowledged by other individuals, so we feel as if justice has been served.

For me, justice came in the form of supportive friends, a therapist, and support groups who stood by me during my 14 year estrangement from my family. Each time someone validated my experiences, I became stronger and clearer about what happened to me and the effect it had on my life. For most survivors, abuse is our only reality. Even if we are aware of our childhood abuse, we often live in denial about the effect the abuse had on us until another party bears witness to our trauma. Support and validation from others, dissolved my isolation and gave me the necessary strength to journey forward to the life I deserved.


Forgive and forget. Anger corrodes. Only through forgiveness can you heal. These often heard statements usually instill within us a sense of urgency that implies we must forgive immediately. Yet, healing and forgiveness are a process.

It is important to note that for most survivors, it isn’t anger that holds us back from forgiving - it is fear. I was afraid that if I forgave, I would be hurt again.

Anger has its place. We can’t deal with our fear until we deal with our suppressed anger.

It wasn't until I received validation from other people that I found appropriate ways to discharge my rage. I gave myself permission to be constructively angry - to use my anger as an aid in moving forward - until the hurt no longer felt present. Expressing anger in the company of trusted confidantes gave me the sense of not being alone, and validated that I had a right to my anger.

There is an important distinction between - a) perpetuating anger by raging at the individuals who harmed us, and - b) releasing pent up anger in safe environments apart from the individuals who caused the harm. Bringing my injuries "into the light" and acknowledging my anger in the safety of supportive individuals brought me the emotional freedom necessary to find a measure of peace.


Discharging my anger freed me to honor my pain and mourn my substantial losses.


An important and often overlooked aspect to healing is that of protecting others and ourselves from further harm. In order to heal, we must be free from the anxiety of re-injury. Boundaries issues are common in abusive family systems. When a child’s body, heart, and soul are routinely violated, her life is constructed in the absence of boundaries. Forgiveness must go hand in hand with learning to set and maintain clear, respectful boundaries.

Each survivor has her own individual time-table that must be honored. As long as I carried unhealed wounds – forgiveness would have to wait. Healing requires a great deal of time, self-examination, hard work, and pain. Yet, I have learned that once an adequate amount of healing has been accomplished, forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we “excuse” offensive behavior; it doesn’t mean forgetting or even trusting the person who harmed us. Nor does it require us to “let go” of our safety. Rather, for me, forgiveness meant healing enough to let go of resentment and find peace.

Nancy Richards is an adult survivor of childhood abuse. She is the author of "Heal and Forgive: Forgiveness in the Face of Abuse," "Heal and Forgive II: The Journey from Abuse and Estrangement to Reconciliation" and co-author of "101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life, Volume 2."

Copyright © Nancy Richards. All Rights Reserved.

'Survivors Speak' is a weekly feature written by or interviewing a survivor and PTSD experiencer about some positive aspect of healing. If you would like to participate in the series (anonymously if you prefer), please email thoughts, ideas, and topic suggestions to Michele: parasitesof.themind @ yahoo.com.

(Photo: Nancy Richards)


Anonymous said...

wow wow wow. i've never heard my deepest feelings on this subject articulated so clearly. i'm definitely going to send this on to a friend of mine to thank her for her help in my healing. she was one of the key people in my life who provided the validation i so deeply needed. thank you :)

Ruth said...

Great post, thank you. I recently wrote a poem on forgiveness and posted it to my blog. It has always been a thing that has bothered me because I have always been 'told' by others to forgive, which actually made me feel angry. I believe formemost that healing is what is required before doing any forgiving, I think forgiving is more about acceptance. In the big scheme of life, I do not believe there is anything to forgive at all... I trust you understand what I mean in saying this. :)

healandforgive said...

Mountainmama and Ruth - Thank you for joining in the dialogue!


It always does my heart good when the sharing of my experience is helpful to others. Thank you for letting me know. I am so pleased that you are passing this on. What a wonderful way to let your friend know how much her validation has impacted your journey.


Thank you for your comments. When people told me, “You have to forgive!” long before I even had the opportunity to heal; it made me angry as well.

I stopped by your blog and read your forgiveness poem. I’ve never been able to write poetry, so I’m always in awe of those who can. I felt “unsettled” as I read your words – in a good sort of way. It takes a great deal of healing to accept, “reach for the light,” and unchain ourselves from the darkness.

Your poem reminded me of something I wrote after the years I spent healing finally opened my heart to the possibility of forgiveness:

With my anger long subsided, I was ready to take the last step. I needed more - I needed the kind of love in my life that radiated into every corner of my heart and was central in my being. I knew that to achieve such a place would take a firm commitment and constant hard work.