If you have been open about your past trauma with people, you have likely heard things like: “You won’t heal without forgiveness!” “You need to forgive to gain back your peace of mind,” and “If you don’t forgive, you’ll end up angry and bitter!” Statements like this are entirely false, and end up causing more harm to the victim. But why is it wrong to forgive your abuser?
Forgiving your abuser isn’t wrong. If you truly feel that you need to forgive to move on, then that is what you must do. However, everyone heals differently, and everyone defines “forgiveness” differently. Some people think that it simply means accepting the past, or letting go of negative emotions. Others think that forgiveness means that you must reconcile with your abuser and release any ill-will you have towards them.
With so many definitions of forgiveness, and so many ways of healing, it isn’t your place to tell someone that they must forgive in order to heal. Forgiveness means something different for everyone, and healing is a different process for each victim. Some people genuinely want to forgive and move on, but some may want to focus on other aspects of healing and growth that don’t involve forgiveness.
Nobody can tell you how to heal – only you know the best way for you to cope with your past and heal beyond it. While there are negative ways to cope with trauma (like drinking, doing drugs, gambling, etc.), refusing to forgive someone is not one of them.
Likewise, it is not your place to tell anyone else how to heal. Not even therapists do that. Therapists talk to you and understand your needs and wants in order to help you plan out the right path towards healing for you. Therapists don’t tell people how they should heal, and neither should you.
Telling someone that they need to forgive in order to move on is a negative and harmful thing to say. Why? It places blame on the victim, essentially telling them that it’s their own fault that they can’t move on. To many victims, forgiveness means condoning the behavior – so telling someone that they need to forgive is essentially telling them that they need to be okay what happened to them.
Why wouldn’t someone want to forgive their abuser? Everyone’s stories, thoughts, values, and beliefs are different, so the reasons greatly vary. Some people are forced to forgive their abuser as the abuse was going on. Either the abuser used emotional manipulation to beg for forgiveness, or they were denied any opportunity to speak up about the abuse at all. In many situations, victims are pressured to allow abusive behavior to continue.
For this reason, many victims find strength in finally having the ability to refuse forgiveness. Being pushed over for a long time can make you feel like you are no longer able to stand up for yourself or assert your boundaries. Refusing to forgive someone doesn’t make you angry or bitter – it can make you feel powerful, like you are finally reclaiming your voice. Some people don’t want to forgive – they want to say, “What you did was not okay, and you don’t deserve to be forgiven for the way you treated me.”
Many victims feel the pressure to forgive, but never realize that you do not need to forgive in order to move on. Healing is about letting go of the past and not letting the trauma continue to hurt you in the present. While many people find that forgiveness allows them to do this, many do not. They believe that forgiveness is excusing the abuser’s behavior, even if they do not believe that the abuser is deserving of forgiveness.
Instead, encourage friends and family to find other ways to let go of the past, that do not involve forgiveness. Many survivors bottle up all the pain and emotions that they have felt over the time they were abused. In this case, encourage your loved one to fully feel these emotions and work through the pain. Or, simply be a listening ear to them. Many times, people just want to vent about their past without getting feedback or advice. Most importantly, let your loved one know that their emotions are valid, and that they should not have to forgive anyone if they don’t want to. Forgiveness is always a choice.