Trauma and Forgiveness

Seated Statue at US Supreme Court While forgiveness may be an important part of the work with a trauma survivor, the idea that it must happen is something that really doesn’t jive with my experience as a therapist. Many of the survivors I’ve worked with have been able to achieve symptom reduction and acceptance with very little time spent on forgiveness at all.  That may be surprising given that over the years forgiveness has become such a prominent fixture in therapy and highly associated with work involving trauma and loss.

The three most effective modalities in relation to PTSD, as an example, are  –

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Exposure Therapy

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

None of these are predicated on the idea that forgiveness is necessary. All three are open to it, have ways of addressing it but avoid being directive about its inclusion or outcome. Forgiving the perpetrator does not magically make the distress in relation to the event disappear. Being able to think about the event without feeling distress does not always mean that the survivor has forgiven the perpetrator.  It can mean these things sometimes. 

Not forgiving can be as valid, considered and reasonable as forgiving.

One can argue that a lot depends on how we define “forgiveness” – this is true and another reason it has the potential to become problematic if not handled carefully.

From the Forgiveness Therapy folks-

Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you, or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the “peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story. (Luskin, F. M. (2003) Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. Harper Collins: San Francisco.) – emphasis added

This definition appears most consistent with a Buddhist or Hindu take on the subject but it also describes the outcomes most clinicians who engage in the three modalities mentioned previously, seek to achieve. Using the term “forgiveness” as a label or grouping for these components is a subjective call.

This isn’t to say that helping folks negotiate their definition of forgiveness to something more adaptive isn’t important or meaningful; but it’s equally important for therapists to remember that forgiveness is not solely defined by psychology – theology, philosophy, family of origin etc, – all have a part to play.  Our understanding is a relatively new spin on a term that may have different and deep rooted meanings for survivors, depending on the theological or philosophical framework they operate from.

Catholicism-

Forgiveness goes beyond those three virtues, but without negating any of them. Justice, clemency, and mercy provide the very foundation that allows forgiveness to be a possibility. Forgiveness goes beyond mercy and treats the offense as if it never happened. It wipes the slate clean, as it were, and gives the transgressor a fresh start.  (Forgiveness, Donald DeMarco, Catholic Education Resource Center, 2002)

Judaism-

The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not offering mechila, for this is not the way of the seed of Israel. Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims and has] asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner mechila (Rabbi David R. Blumenthal quoting Maimonides link )

Aristotle-

 The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. (Nicomachean Ethics)

Objectivism-

Learn to distinguish the difference between errors of knowledge and breaches of morality. An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul. Make every allowance for errors of knowledge; do not forgive or accept any break of morality. (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

Voltron-

From days of long ago, from uncharted regions of the universe, comes a legend; the legend of Voltron, Defender of the Universe, a mighty robot, loved by good, feared by evil. As Voltron’s legend grew, peace settled across the galaxy. On Planet Earth, a Galaxy Alliance was formed. Together with the good planets of the solar system, they maintained peace throughout the universe, until a new horrible menace threatened the galaxy. Voltron was needed once more. This is the story of the super force of space explorers, specially trained and sent by the Alliance to bring back Voltron, Defender of the Universe!

The last one had nothing to do with forgiveness but I don’t think I ever worked in a Voltron quote. It just needed to get done.

Pursuing forgiveness as a treatment goal prematurely and/or without invitation on the part of the survivor can create an unnecessary and even counter productive dynamic that challenges some deep seated beliefs which may or may not bear any relevance to the issue.  Even if the clinician is right in their thinking, getting it wrong on timing may have a negative impact on the success of the intervention and the overall work.

If forgiveness does come up, it is important for therapists to identify and operate from an understanding of forgiveness that makes sense for the survivor and their world view.  Although the work is harder on the clinician,  doing so creates a greater potential for authenticity and is more protective of a survivor’s self determination.

4 thoughts on “Trauma and Forgiveness

  1. I think good old hatred can be a very good thing for the victim as long as they don’t let it consume them. I believe there are some people who don’t deserve forgiveness and wouldn’t appreciate it if it was given. I will never “forgive” my ex, I am not consumed with hatred and a need for revenge but I will never forgive him. I can accept what happened and even see good that came out of it in the end. But any good that came out of it was not his doing; what he did,:he did wilfully and with full knowledge of what he was doing;:he planned it, he executed it and it is just by sheer luck and my inner strength that he did not succeed in his sadistic plot to destroy me.
    He doesn’t even want my forgiveness that would mean he admits wrong doing.
    I think healing comes when the victim accepts what happened, and accepts the N is just plain evil and accepts the lessons they learned through the experience and grow from it.

  2. Thank you for saying the very thing that I feel. I was recently in a very traumatic interaction. I can’t even call it a relationship considering everything about it was a lie. I have people telling to “move on” and “forgive him”…I know I am not ready for that as I am getting comfortable with seeing him for what he really is. It’s as if I am not allowed to get angry, hell enraged by this experience. The anger has actually given me the power and energy to stand up for myself and go after him for a contractual agreement he’s defaulted on. Anger is not an enemy, the individual who had put me through all those unnecessary, time wasting, abusive experiences is the enemy! Anger and hate towards the perp has actually empowered me to take value in my worth, to recognize more concretely that I am a person worthy to be loved, valued, treated with respect. It has enabled me to see clearly what I was dealing with and prompted me to get out.
    Anger and hate from abuse is a gift when used in a positive sense to stabilize my emotions, avoid me from re-constructing a horribly abusive situation into a romantic light, encourage me to fight for me and my family!

  3. Thank you for saying the very thing I feel… I just got out of an abusive overdue interaction that lasted 1yr, although I had been aware of him and his mask for 2yrs. I call it an interaction as the whole relationship was one small, fat, ugly, shiny, bald headed lie. People have told me to move on and forgive. I say screw that for now. Anger and hate from this experience has empowered me to stand up for myself and go after him for a contractual agreement that he defaulted on. It enabled me to see things crystal clear, void of any romantic retelling of a horrid experience. It has enabled me to REALLY see him for what he is, encouraging me to not EVER let my guard down pertaining to that piece of vemon. Anger is a gift!

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