I am sure that — like me — you have had many well-meaning (or maybe even some not so well-meaning) people tell you to find forgiveness for your abuser. Forgiveness is such a loaded term for survivors, and I think in large part that is because its definition has gotten a little lost. When people talk about forgiveness, they think of a pardon, they think of turning the other cheek. When a survivor lays responsibility for the abuse with the abuser, outsiders tend to think there is a lack of forgiveness. All there is, in actual fact, is a lack of willingness to subject ourselves to further abuse.
Let us reclaim forgiveness, as a tool for empowerment not a sign of submission.
What Forgiveness Is Not
Let us first look at that popular definition of forgiveness, the type of forgiveness that suggests we turn the other cheek. This type of forgiveness has its merit within healthy relationships. When people make mistakes, it helps us to move past those and repair our relationship. Where there is trust, compassion, and respect this type of forgiveness creates room for learning and growth.
Anyone who has been the target of abuse has practiced this type of forgiveness over and over again. We forgave indiscretion after indiscretion, only to set ourselves up for more and increasingly bad abuse. Even after we leave, we still consider whether we should have forgiven them one more time, if this would have been the time that it would have all changed. If only we just found the strength to forgive one more time, maybe that will mean we do not lose our partner/mother/father/job/religion.
When we finally free ourselves from the abuse, and the longing for the abuser, this is the type of forgiveness we think of when people suggest we need to forgive in order to heal. We immediately throw the breaks on. Hell No! Is our resounding response. We are not going through that again. We are not going back for more.
The people are right, you cannot heal without forgiveness, it is just not this type of forgiveness that is so essential in your journey.
Bring It Back to Yourself
When we are targeted by an abuser, we learn to look outward for many things. We look outward for validation, self-worth, and esteem. As we heal, we need to learn to find those things within ourselves. When we allow other to determine how we feel about ourselves, we give them all the power. The most empowering aspect of our healing journey is internalizing our feelings about ourselves, our lives and our worth. This allows us to become more resilient when life gets complicated.
Whenever I feel like I am lost, I try to bring it all back to myself. How am I feeling, how am I reacting, how am I talking to myself? All those are ways in which I get to decide how my life plays out. I will still come across challenges, but those I cannot control.
Something similar is true for forgiveness. I cannot control how my abuser will behave, all I can do is change my perspective on that situation. Forgiveness is not something you extend the other person, it is something you feel internally. Forgiveness is how I decide to feel about my abuser, and has nothing to do with their feelings towards me.
Empower Yourself Through Forgiveness
According to Wikipedia “forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, with an increased ability to wish the offender well.”
You may feel that this process is too much to even contemplate but like every aspect of your healing journey, you can take this one step at a time. You may start simply with the wish to forgive, and grow the feeling from there.
What helped me a lot, was to realize that my mother, too, had a traumatic upbringing. That did not justify her behavior toward me, but it did give me more understanding. It also helped me develop compassion for her. Nobody, including my abusive mother, deserves to be abused. What happened to her was not her fault, how she chose to deal (or not deal) with it is her responsibility.
These feelings and thoughts grew over time. The stronger they became, the more I was able to let go of the anger about my past. The more I let go of the anger, the more I empowered myself in building a new life. I began to be able to see how my past shaped me in positive ways. I began breaking away some of the shame and guilt I was feeling about the abuse. I felt lighter, I was celebrating more, feeling more positive.
When you hold onto anger, you weigh yourself down. It is hard to find your wings and fly when you have an angry anchor around your neck.
Originally published at swanwaters.com on August 3, 2017.