Forgiveness

Lately, part of my communication with the chronic illness community has covered some territory that the broader, more healthy, community doesn’t normally consider. For example, if one woman in a particular group I am a part of said she had multiple physical ailments that limited her ability to move and function, most healthy individuals might think about all the ways that would be physically limiting for her.

You might cite her inability to go out, or get herself out of bed, or bathe, eat, go to work etc. You might imagine she has nurses/aides, special medical equipment, and various medications. You might think about the ways jobs or other groups would need to help accommodate her so that she could participate. After all of that, many people unfamiliar with the Spoonies community might think they’d covered all the struggles of having physical illness that requires assistance.

So, you might be surprised to find out that the people meant to help her have harmed her. This woman told us a story about her medical aides who had stolen from her, physically harmed her, and mentally abused her for months before someone in a position to do something about it was alerted to the problem. That meant months of trauma she had to endure. While trauma is a worthy topic, I’d prefer to talk about forgiveness.

First, the definition of forgiveness is as follows based on The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary:

1 : to cease to feel resentment against (an offender)

When people talk about forgiveness, many times it’s said from a perspective of victim blame (even if they don’t mean to): “How can you move on if you don’t forgive?” Then there’s the phrase an acquaintance of mine got recently: ” If you don’t forgive them, how can others forgive you for your mistakes?” These are both pretty problematic; the first needs to be framed in a non-harmful way, and the second is just harmful.

“How can you move on if you don’t forgive?”

  1. For some, forgiveness means going back and trusting their attacker/abuser. This can feel like a phrase that invalidates the pain that person inflicted.
  2. When dealing with PTSD most people have a hard time even thinking about their attacker, let alone focusing on the event long enough to let go of their animosity for that person.
  3. Sometimes animosity can be a good thing. Too much can be toxic, but a lot of people use their negative feelings towards an attacker/abuser to push themselves to be healthier, go after opportunities, be themselves, or move on in their lives without having to let go of the feeling that their trauma was horrible.

To frame it differently, I think most people’s intention with this one is to say “you can’t be free from it until you stop letting it bog you down”. Most people don’t literally mean “forgive and forget” (some do); but unfortunately, how the word forgiveness is evaluated is usually based on what you learn as a kid. “Give them a hug, shake hands, and be friends again.”

It’s also extremely difficult without active treatment, or similarly based resources, to mitigate the body’s response to trauma triggers. Your Amygdala is the brain part responsible for fear and conditioning, and when it comes to trauma it’s pretty stubborn. This is humanity’s greatest survival method, but it can also be a hindrance. Asking someone with PTSD or C-PTSD to stop having the reaction or feeling they do about a certain person is like asking someone with motion sickness to stop vomiting after riding the tea-cup ride at Disney World; it’s an automatic response their brain and body have.

“If you don’t forgive them, how can others forgive your mistakes?”

I generally try to reserve severe judgement on this blog; my goal is to provide a place for everyone to gain insight into their own lives or learn something new, or just be distracted for a while. However, for this phrase I’ve got pretty strong feelings. Here they are:

This is toxic as heck. It’s hurtful, it’s gaslighting, and it’s victim blaming/shaming. There is nothing good about this phrase. It isn’t helpful and it actually teaches people to accept abusive situations.

I’ll break all of that down :

  1. It’s gaslighting.
    • To learn about gaslighting in all its forms, checkout this article.
    • This form of gaslighting is a more subtle version of trivializing:

Trivializing: This occurs when a person belittles or disregards the other person’s feelings. They may accuse them of being too sensitive or of overreacting when they have valid concerns and feelings.

What is gaslighting? Examples and how to respond. (2020). Retrieved February 04, 2021, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/gaslighting#gaslighting-examples

This is trivializing because it implies that the victim is simply being too sensitive about the situation. That it should be simple to let an action, like the one their attacker/abuser took, go, and simply forgive them for the pain they caused. It implies that their own actions, even if they never caused severe physical or mental harm to someone, are equal to that of a physical or mental abuser.

2. It’s victim blaming/shaming.

There’s a common cycle in abusive relationships where the abuser harms the victim, apologizes, the victim forgives/forgets believing the abuser won’t do it again, and then things go back to normal and the abuser fails to address their issues. They don’t go to therapy. They don’t stop harming the victim. They don’t change. But time and time again the victim will forgive them and remain in the relationship because of this “forgiveness narrative”. Because someone told them that if they couldn’t forgive their abuser, then they also don’t deserve to be forgiven.

Now, this statement might make sense, if the two people have done the exact same thing to harm the other. The part where this gets convoluted is when the victim’s “negative actions”, are lacking in the severity of the abusers. They start to believe that if they can’t forgive their spouse/friend/sibling/parent of the physical or mental harm they’ve done to them, then that person won’t forgive them for the things they believe are just as bad. These things vary because they tend to revolve around what their abuser believes is incorrect or flawed; it could range from spilling some food on the floor, to simply smiling at the wrong time.

By telling someone that no one will forgive them if they don’t forgive others, or that “everyone deserves forgiveness”; you’re quite possibly framing abuse in an “it’s okay as long as they seem sorry” way even without meaning to.

3. It makes the victim feel like they were put through their own trauma because they just couldn’t be kind/forgiving enough, or because they’d hurt the other person in the past.

This goes along with point 2; if someone continues to be hurt out of spite or anger for some small thing they did, this narrative can make it seem like that’s only happening because they aren’t really letting go of the past. They can’t stop flinching when around their partner, so that makes their partner angry. They feel anxious when their partner is home so they can’t focus on the cooking and burn the food. I could go on and on, but the point is while this “forgiveness narrative” can be helpful for some if the thing they need to forgive is small or the other person is truly regretful and is taking steps to get help/make amends, but for abuse victims or survivors this narrative is harmful and toxic.

4. It teaches people to accept abusive situations.

Being told that maybe someone hasn’t forgiven you because you haven’t forgiven them is a harsh narrative for victims of abuse. It implies that the yelling or hitting they’ve dealt with is simply a cycle based on their lack of forgiveness. That if they can forgive their abuser for the harm they’ve caused, then their abuser will forgive the infraction caused by some minor inconvenience (such as burning dinner) and stop being abusive.

This thought process can cause someone to continuously forgive and stay in an abusive situation simply because the other person says they’re sorry, or because they blame the situation on the victim’s inability to complete tasks the way they want (more gaslighting). Fixing a situation and getting real forgiveness starts with the person who caused real harm going out and addressing the issues that made them harm in the first place. Therapy is usually a pretty good start, but just because you go to therapy and try your hardest doesn’t mean the other person has to forgive you.

No one owes you forgiveness. You don’t owe anyone else forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t like consent, it doesn’t have to go both ways and it’s not required. Looking for someone to forgive you because you’re struggling with your own guilt over your own actions, is a personal issue, not an issue for the person you hurt. Forgiveness is a feeling, not a choice. You either feel like the situation is resolved and you can trust that person again, or you don’t. You can accept an apology and still not forgive someone for their actions. If you don’t feel less resentful of what that person has done to you, that’s not something that will change over night.

When you use these two statements, even if you have the best intentions, especially on a broad platform like a public Facebook page, blog, YouTube channel, or in a seminar you might teach in, you never know what your listeners have been through. Many Spoonies are Spoonies because they’ve gone through some kind of mental or physical trauma, or some have gone through those things as a result of being disabled. This community is filled with people who hear these phrases as invalidating and harmful.

Letting go of a situation is not the same as forgiveness. Getting out of a situation is not the same as forgiveness. Ceasing to allow an abuser to continue abusing you is not the same as forgiveness. Not pursuing revenge/retaliating against someone who harmed you is not the same as forgiveness. Always make amends properly by getting help and stopping hurtful cycles. Always allow yourself to take steps to become more free from a past trauma. Being healthy and happy after a trauma does not always mean you must forgive the person who traumatized you; and it does not mean you aren’t worthy of your own forgiveness when it does come to you.

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