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Why You Don't Always Have to Forgive

Self healing must always come first.

You’ve been hurt. No, you’ve really been hurt badly. Now you are left in tatters, at your lowest point in life.

You look around in disbelief, wondering what happened. At first, you may have a hard time believing that such a horrible event could have taken place. It is as if you are living in a bizarre dream state where nothing makes sense. People are going on with their lives while you struggle to simply get out of bed and live. You feel like you are on a rollercoaster of numbness and pain.

And when you get to a point where you realize that you must try to pick up the pieces, panic sets in. You ask yourself so many questions. How in the world do you start life over after you have been destroyed? Can you do it when you are damaged or disabled? What is left for you?

You may have been the victim of child abuse or rape. The spouse you loved so much may have beaten you and made you feel insignificant. Your partner of many years could have simply just up and left, leaving you with nothing. Or worse yet, you may have lost someone most precious to murder.

Whatever your tragedy, eventually you must go through a grieving and healing process. As hard as it was to hit bottom, you will come to find that crawling your way out of the pit is equally as hard. Some even find it more difficult than the tragedy itself.

Grieving and healing is a slow, slow process that cannot be hurried or skipped. The excruciating nature of it all can make you simply want to run away and become someone new. Some people try this route, but they only put off the inevitable. You have to face your life. You can only hide for so long.

As you find yourself going through the motions, you might conclude that you seem to be getting nowhere. No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot get past what life has thrown at you. Some days, you just don’t care. Other days you try very hard, but progress is painstakingly slow.

This is normal. Remember, you suffered a life altering and devastating event. You are not the same person you once were, and you cannot act the same way you once did because you are changed. Finding out your identity is part of your journey. The important thing to know is that going through this process is like pulling teeth. It seems to go on forever, but eventually you will find yourself feeling a little better, and in some ways, you can find peace.

With time, you come to realize that you are moving forward, and it is usually at this point that someone will ask if you can forgive. Do you forgive your rapist? Do you forgive your father or mother? Could you forgive your spouse?

Though society pressures you to forgive the person who wronged you, the truth is that forgiving may be the worst thing you can do. Many religions and therapies focus on forgiving a perpetrator so that the victim can "move on." The goal is to make sure that the victim does not become fixated on the hurt. This element is critical because if you become completely obsessed with your victimization, you will not be able to function. That is a fact. Fixating freezes you.

However, forgiveness is not something that just happens. Some people find it helpful to release their anger while others find the idea disgusting. I have dealt with my share of parents of murdered children and victims of sex crimes. Though many find a way to move forward in life, forgiveness truly eludes them. This does not make them bad people. This just means that it is not healing for them at this time.

It may be surprising to learn how many people will pressure survivors to forgive a perpetrator. This was an element to being a profiler that I never expected. Survivors and those left behind after a murder are preyed upon and used more often than you would think. Family members tell them that if they don’t forgive, then they are going to Hell. In some cases, I’ve seen families turn their backs on victims of sexual abuse because the victims wouldn’t go along with the program and keep their mouths shut. They are told to forgive their attackers and let it go. If they cannot do so, then they are banished from the family unit. I’ve also seen women who stand up to their abusive lovers only to be eventually cut off by their children because they won’t simply forgive and let bygones be bygones.

So victims can lose their families, their children, and are even threatened with their souls if they can’t find a way to forgive. Under such pressure, victims will give in and comply. They say they have forgiven when in their hearts they have not. They went along with what they thought would be an easier path only to find that they had made things more stressful. With time, they see that not only haven’t they forgiven, but now, they are trapped by their words. After all, they have said they forgave and were moving on. They are accused of dredging up the past should they speak out, so back to isolation they go.

In these cases, victims have told me that they felt dirty after saying something that wasn’t true in order to smooth things over. They felt that they betrayed their true emotions, and saying the words made them fall into deeper depression.

Forgiveness comes from within. It is not something that can be forced. Either you can do it or you can’t. If you cannot, then don’t think that you are a bad person or that you failed in some way. In some cases, forgiveness is just not possible. You may learn not to despise the perpetrator, but saying you forgive can be hollow if that is not what you truly feel.

Don’t give in to peer pressure. Don’t say you forgive someone when you don’t. It won’t make you feel better, and it won’t make your life easier. On the contrary, it is not about making your life easier when someone asks you to forgive. The purpose behind the question of forgiving is to make the person asking the question feel better.

For some, they want you to forgive because it will make family functions seem normal again. Others will push it on you if your trauma is interfering in their lives. (If you would just forgive, then life could get back to what it once was.) Then there is always the unconscious desire to be forgiven. At some point in life, everyone makes mistakes, and we all want forgiveness. If we hear someone say that he can’t forgive, does that mean that we will not be forgiven if we make a mistake?

For some people, forgiving is a way of freeing themselves, and it acts as a catalyst for healing. They are able to honestly say and mean the words, and for them, this made their lives better. However, others can’t bring themselves to forgive as they don’t feel that it brings them any relief. Such people are being honest about their true feelings, and honesty in feeling is the best policy.

If you find yourself in this quandary, remember that only you can make this decision. This is one area where you have control. With time you may find it in your heart to forgive, or you may not. As you work through your healing process you find the things that bring peace and light into your life. How you feel is how you feel, and no one can dictate that to you no matter how hard he or she tries. Your heart is your own. Your spirit is your own. Your growth is your own.

And on a final note, there is a truth that can give you comfort. That truth is that the more you are active, the less time you will have to focus on negativity. You can find your way out of the tunnel if you just keep taking baby steps. And one day you may even find that not only have you found some peace, but you may have made a positive difference in the world.

More from Deborah Schurman-Kauflin Ph.D.
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