Do You Need to Forgive Your Abuser to Heal?
Updated: May 11
Quick answer: Hell No!
Lets get something out of the way at the start
Stop telling survivors of abuse that they need to forgive their abusers!
Ok I feel a bit better now.
Let’s be Clear.
Let’s get this really clear. Nobody has the right to tell you that you need to forgive the person or people that abused you. Your healing is absolutely NOT dependant on you forgiving people, no matter what other, well meaning, and probably self-righteous people might say.
This blog is going to be full of shouty capital letters, exclamation marks and possibly swearing. I feel really strongly about this. That is not to say that I am going full out the other way and say you should never forgive, but it is a personal choice and forgiveness is NOT a prerequisite for recovery.
We have all heard the clichés
“Forgiveness will set you free.”
“Forgiving will stop you being bitter.”
And the absolute best one
“You can never fully heal without forgiveness”.
This is just bullshit!
And while we are at it, what gave other people the right to determine what forgiveness looks like and when it should be applied?
Again let me clarify I have no issue with forgiving people who are sorry for what they have done and want to change, to make amends.
Let’s face it, some things are unforgivable. This idea that we must forgive only protects abusers. Many of these people are not sorry and are totally unapologetic for what the harm they have caused. So tell me, why on earth should we twist ourselves into knots trying to forgive them?
Do You Need to Forgive Your Abuser to Heal?
So do you need to forgive your abuser to heal? Some research suggests that forgiveness in general is good for our mental health, but there is no statistical evidence that forgiveness is essential to recovery from trauma, NONE!
Insisting that forgiveness is necessary to recovery is in fact harmful and shaming.
· Minimise harms and wrongs which can leave you in an unsafe position
· Focus on the abuser not the survivor.
· Encourage silence, perpetuating the abuse.
So here are some reason that forgiveness should not be imposed on trauma survivors:
Forgiveness diminishes harm done.
When we are told that no matter what happened to us we should forgive our very real feelings about the abuse are ignored. We are being told it wasn’t that bad, you should move on, it was ages ago. These messages show such a lack of empathy and lack of acceptance that I just want to scream and they leave survivors questioning their own reality and sometime their sanity.
Forgiveness focuses on the abuser.
Forgiving an abuser focuses on them, and what they did. Trauma recovery focuses on our relationship with ourselves and treating ourselves with compassion and care.
Forgiveness encourages silence.
When we forgive someone we often feel like we can't talk about things any more, it’s done with and in the past. Forgiveness effectively silences us. Many trauma survivors NEED to talk, we NEED to be heard. Research suggests that forgiveness while still in an abusive relationship removes consequences for abuser and allows the abuse to continue.
But Some People Choose to Forgive
Yeah, some people do. For some people forgiveness is part of their religion. If that’s the case for you, and you believe that you have to forgive others in order to be forgiven yourself, then crack on. Go with your God and do what feels right to you. Please remember though that no one has a right to tell you that you have to forgive, not the person sat next to you in church, not your vicar, no one.
Anger can keep us safe.
If we have had traumatic childhoods we might be really rubbish at being angry, or showing that we are angry. It might not have been safe growing up to show anger, so as adults we find it incredibly difficult to acknowledge that we even feel angry, let alone show it. I think we need to get angry! Carolyn Spring sums it up beautifully she says “ Anger at it’s simplest is the boundary that says NO!” She writes about this so well and much better than I can, do take a look at her blog Anger Says No. Anger at it’s best keeps us safe, It means we won’t allow the abuse anymore.
Who needs Forgiveness?
In my experience it’s not the abuser that we need to forgive. It’s ourselves.
We carry a lot of shame for being a victim of abuse. We carry it for so long that we can no longer see where the shame really belongs. We get angry with ourselves for allowing the husband to beat us, for staying too long, for being weak. If we were children who suffered abuse we internalise it and think there is something fundamentally wrong with us.
If you want to see who gets hurt with the anger and bitterness of not forgiving, it’s us! Forgiveness is about SELF compassion. We need to be kind and loving to the inner child who was so badly hurt, we need to give understanding to the adult who stayed when she knew she should leave. We need to cut ourselves some slack and forgive ourselves for doing the best we could at the time.
That is how we recover. That is how we start to heal.
If you have got this far, well done! I am a bit ranty about this because I know it is so important. If you would like to discuss anything that you have read here please get in touch via the contact page.