Contrarily to popular views, in therapy more often than not the concept of forgiveness is something that rather hinders progress than enhances it. In my psychology practice clients frequently open up about their horrible experiences. They had to go through ordeals like sexual abuse by a family member, physical and emotional cruelty or neglect. Why on earth should one forgive such a person?
Many religious and spiritual movements consider forgiveness as an ultimate goal. It is regarded as a necessity to carry on in life without remorse. But forgiveness is something quite different from coming to terms with yourself, with finding your emotional balance. In therapy, the latter is the best that can happen to a client. In situations where a parent is the abuser, strong beliefs like “’honour your father and mother’ can do much harm and can delay or obstruct the therapeutic process in a serious way.
Martha (45) was sexualy abused by her father between her seventh and 15th year. She feels that forgiveness is not possible.
Not only because she can’t, but more importantly because she doesn’t want to. The father (her mother divorced him and he lives in another town) has never taken his responsibility, and he has never shown remorse. All her life Martha had to cope with feelings of low self-esteem, insecurity, depression, emotional numbness and fear of intimacy.
Martha has forgiven herself in the sense that she has let go of inappropriate feelings of guilt. For example the feeling of guilt that she should have stopped the abuse much earlier than at her 15th. Forgiveness in general can be important to mend broken relationships, but Martha has no reason to wish for a normal contact with her father. She has gone through the process of coming to terms with her feelings of anger, depression, betrayal, helplessness and pain. She feels much more balanced than she ever was and she is finished with her father.
In order to be able to forgive, the perpetrator should take responsibility, there ought to be acknowledgment by the outside world of the damage done, you should acknowledge your own feelings about what has happened and you should take the time to come to terms with your sufferings. Forgiveness is a choice. In Martha’s case forgiveness was not possible and she is a clear example of how you can continue with your life without it.
Very often, there is the danger of wanting to forgive too quickly. Because you hope that forgiving will bring you the inner peace that you long for, or because you have been taught that it is the (religious) done thing to do, or that you want the relationship to be normal again at all costs, or that you want to make a beautiful highly moral gesture. In all these cases, forgiving usually brings you nothing.
What if the perpetrator doesn’t take his responsibility, doesn’t repent and doesn’t acknowledge that he has hurt you a lot? Besides this, the most important thing is to feel your emotions like anger, hurt and revenge. You have to ‘wade’ through these and more painful feelings in order to find emotional balance. At the end of this journey you have the choice whether you feel if the person responsible for your suffering is worthy of your forgiveness. Many people don’t forgive and they have fulfilling and meaningful lives.
People who hear from their therapist that they must forgive ought to think twice and should consider changing therapists. If not, they will stay captive in the position of the small child that thinks it loves its parents, but in reality continues to be controlled by the abusive internalized parents and they will remain powerless.
An abused child has the illusion that if it continues to behave ‘good’, one day its abusive parent will give it the love that it needs. By refusing to forgive as an adult, you abandon this illusion and you can experience your true painful emotions. As an adult, we ought to feel the suffering we were forced to endure as a child. In this way, the cycle of child abuse will stop with the next generation. Alice Miller, a Swiss psychotherapist, has written extensively about this topic (www.alice-miller.com).