When Forgiveness Isn’t A Virtue

By Ijeoma Oluo

As a survivor of sexual abuse and assault, and as an advocate for survivors of abuse and assault, I hear a lot about forgiveness. I am forwarded stories on the power of forgiveness, I’m lectured on the need for forgiveness, I’m offered lessons on forgiveness.

But I also hear about forgiveness from survivors of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

“How can I forgive?” They ask.

“Why can’t I forgive?” They also ask.

“What is wrong with me?” They ask even more.

My own lived experience and the experience of reading hundreds of letters from survivors of abuse has led me to this conclusion: You don’t have to forgive anybody ever. Further, forgiveness can be bad for you.

We often talk about healing from wrongs committed against us as being a part of the revenge/forgiveness binary. Your base nature wants revenge for the crimes against you. You obsess and rage and it causes you pain. The only way to free yourself from this is forgiveness; you must let go of the harm done to you and to wish those who harmed you well, therefore releasing the both of you from the prison of anger and pain. Some take it even further to say that you must push past forgiveness and even into reconciliation — making amends with the person who harmed you, so you and the person who harmed you can become better people.

This may work for the person who stole your laptop — maybe even the person who stole your boyfriend — but is this really the only path to healing when you have been abused? When you have been assaulted? When someone you love was murdered? When your rights have been repeatedly violated? When your trust has been repeatedly or grievously broken?

When you have been grievously wronged, the pain it causes is real, and your feelings of hurt, anger, and fear are valid. In Psychology Today, Deborah Schurman-Kauflin PhD. reminds us that “Grieving and healing is a slow, slow process that cannot be hurried or skipped.” Not only is this process slow, it’s unique to each person and situation. You may have times you wish for revenge, times you wish for reconciliation, times you are numb with depression, times you are paralyzed with fear. That is all valid. But trying to push through all of these to get to forgiveness short-circuits the very necessary healing process.

For many people, the pressure to forgive comes with the pressure to return to who they were before they were harmed. It is seen as the only way to get back what was lost.

But you can’t return to who you were and you can’t get back what was lost. To pretend otherwise, or to pressure those suffering to pretend otherwise, is a silencing of the real harm and change done. Schurman-Kauflin recalls the types of pressure she has seen with many of her patients:

“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 . . . Under such pressure, victims will give in and comply. They say they have forgiven when in their hearts they have not. 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.”

Instead of focusing on healing and comfort, many survivors find themselves obsessing with forgiveness, trying to will away their trauma in order to “move on.” When they can’t do this, not only are they judged by those closest to them, they judge themselves as weak and trapped. The shame of being unable to forgive compounds the pain of the original hurt.

You can move through the pain and trauma without steeping yourself in revenge therapy, and without conjuring up forgiveness. You can do this by facing and accepting the real harm that was done to you. Nancy A. Stanlick argues in the Florida Philosophical Review for “reconciling with harm.” Stanlick defines reconciling with harm as: “to recognize oneself as harmed, and in the most serious cases, to recognize harm as part of who one is; but it is also to aspire to a vision of oneself as a person who is much more than simply harmed.” This is a recognition of what was done to you, and a path to empowerment and commitment to your own future wellbeing. Stanlick believes that reconciling with harm “thus affirms individual value and makes possible meaningful social relations by maintaining or creating the dignity and self-respect of the sufferer that may not result from forgiveness, revenge, or the traditional conception of reconciliation.”

For me personally, I was unable to heal from the pain of my past abuse until I was able to honestly accept the pain and hurt and anger from what was done from me. I had to acknowledge how it had changed me. When I did this, I started to realize how awful what had happened to me was, and that it was worthy of my anger and tears.

I started to realize that many of the things I had done to keep myself safe since were rooted in the fact that I hadn’t felt allowed to say “This happened to me, and I’m angry, and I’m hurt, and I want to be alone for a while.” Suddenly, I made more sense to myself, I wasn’t permanently broken, but I was trying to heal in the only way I thought I was allowed, and it just wasn’t working. And in the meantime, 20 years had passed, and here I was — a woman in her 30s who had built an entire life while dealing with this fear and pain. I was still hurting, but most importantly, I was still here. Only when I was able to let renounce this pressure to “move on” and forgive was I able to see how much I had accomplished and truly appreciate who I had become in spite of all I had endured. For the first time in a long time, I was proud of myself. And I began to heal.

I have not forgiven the people who hurt me so badly, and somewhere in me, that pain still exists, even if it has faded. But because I’m not hiding from it and because I’ve kept my focus on my healing and my future, the people who harmed me are no longer in my life — and my life is mine.

Some people can forgive, and if they can, that is a wonderful thing. But it is a wonderful thing only if it brings the person harmed peace and comfort. I am only concerned with the victim here, and if you have been harmed, you should be your top priority. Far too often, the pressure to forgive brings the focus back to the perpetrator and keeps harmful people in your life or on your mind, while pushing your feelings and your healing to the bottom of your priority list.

As Schurman-Kauflin says, “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.”

This is similar to the advice I give many young people who write to me tortured by the fact that they are unable to forgive their abusers, even though society says that they should. “Forgiveness isn’t what matters,” I say, “What happened to you is real, it’s there, and it has altered you. You can look at it and acknowledge that pain. When you stop trying to hide from it, it tends to stay there, instead of trying to assert itself in every day of your life now. Look at all that you have done to survive, look at the beauty you’ve created in spite of so much pain — and be proud of that strength and beauty, it is yours.”

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