Throughout my journey as a Clinician, I've worked within various communities throughout Los Angeles. Undoubtedly, working with children who have experienced physical and sexual abuse has been the most daunting yet meaningful learning experience. I am often astounded at the level of resilience and innocence displayed by young children despite having endured trauma. Countless studies have shown that children who experience early abuse are prone to losing their sense of self and repeating the abusive and harmful behaviors they endured as children. Many will blame themselves for having been abused and very few, if any, will get the apology they so rightfully deserve from their abusers.
precious, young souls?
The theme of ‘forgiveness’ comes to mind during therapy sessions with survivors of abuse. Let’s face it: forgiveness is often the last thing on our mind when we’ve been hurt or rejected by someone we care about. The thought of forgiving our betrayer seems counterintuitive. We’ve been socially conditioned to respond to betrayal with anger, sadness, and the urge to get even.
We may become consumed with thoughts of vengeance and act in a way that isn’t necessarily representative of who we truly are. Forgiveness begins with accepting reality and letting go of what you think should have happened. When someone crosses a boundary and hurts us, we have two choices: to internalize the person’s actions or to understand the motivations behind the person’s actions. We must be willing to consider that a person’s reasons for hurting us may have more to do with their own suffering than their desire to hurt us. By choosing to understand the other person’s motivations, we are acting from a place of self-love and self-respect.
Forgiveness requires us to step outside our comfort zone. When we forgive, we open ourselves up to vulnerability and may encounter feelings of shame and guilt. We may feel conflicted for trying to feel compassion and empathy for a person who has harmed us. Because we’ve held onto certain feelings and beliefs for so long, they can become deeply ingrained in us. If left unaddressed, feelings of resentment and anger can harden into grudges we hold onto and carry with us into other relationships.
Without forgiveness, we risk repeating the same patterns or returning to partners who do not bring out the best in us. I often hear about couples who break up and get back together every few months despite having endured countless betrayals. People often return to toxic relationships with the hopes of changing a partner’s behavior rather than forgiving one another and accepting the other person for who they are. When one person feels betrayed or rejected in a relationship, he or she may internalize their partner’s mistreatment, blaming himself or herself for the rejection. Once we have legitimized our partner’s reasons for rejecting or betraying us, we may feel obligated to prove them wrong. Forgiveness allows us to close the door, once and for all, on people who leave us feeling obligated to prove our worth.
The benefits of forgiveness are worthwhile, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to do. Forgiveness is often dismissed as ‘weak.’ Forgiving a person may feel ingenuine at first. As social beings, we may resist forgiving others to avoid being seen as a pushover. Our preoccupation with getting even feels much more justifiable than trying to understand the motivations behind another person’s frustrating behavior. Maybe we are simply not ready to break free of old patterns. Maybe it is too soon or perhaps the pain of betrayal is still too fresh. Whatever the case, forgiveness is not something we can force or expect to happen overnight.
Consider a situation during which you have felt deeply betrayed or mistreated by someone. You may have felt more than hurt- maybe you even felt devastated or disgusted. Now ask yourself, “Is my interpretation of this event serving me in a positive way?” I urge you to be honest with yourself. You may feel hostile and anger towards a person, and have very good reasons supporting your painful emotions. Remember that forgiveness doesn’t excuse the person for their behavior nor does it trivialize the severity of the wrongdoing. However, holding on to a grudge gives us a false sense of control over a person or situation. Grudges can wreak havoc on our lives. In fact, studies have linked patterns of unforgiveness to adverse effects on our mental and physical health. Holding a grudge will not change the past, but it may affect our future health, placing us at risk for increased stress and the toll it takes on our bodies.
In no way does practicing forgiveness insinuate that one must tolerate or excuse a person for unacceptable behavior. Rather, forgiveness is a conscious choice we make in order to free ourselves from the control we’ve allowed another person to have over us. It is all too easy to ruminate over what went wrong and sulk in our role as the victim of betrayal. Forgiveness gives us an opportunity to create space for happiness in our lives. The less we internalize the seemingly malicious actions of others, the more we can focus on relationships and people who bring out our best selves.