One of the most common non-helpful responses to someone suffering from the fallout of abuse is to push the victim toward forgiveness too soon. Usually it’s coupled with some form of shame that the victim “should” feel something other than whatever she is feeling. Sometimes, it’s coupled with well-meaning platitudes- “It’s the Christian thing to do.” It’s offered as the fix-all solution to help her “set it aside,” “snap out of it,” and “move on.”
Here’s the thing. Pressuring people to forgive prematurely only prolongs the healing process. The only way to fully process what happened is for the victim to feel her feelings, whatever they may be. People who have been psychologically abused by narcissists and other dark triad personalities have been brainwashed into all kinds of shame-based falsities that their thoughts, feelings, ideas, and opinions don’t matter. Essentially, they were taught to believe that they were nothing while having to make someone else’s whims and unreachable expectations everything. The only way to break the cycle is for the victim of abuse to reclaim their identity. Their thoughts matter. Their feelings matter. It’s okay- good and healthy even- to feel uncomfortable feelings such as sadness and anger.
This is exactly why suggesting that anyone “should” forgive their abuser is wrong. The goal is for the survivor to reclaim herself. If she, of her own accord, chooses to forgive, it can be celebrated. The celebration, being, of course, that she is now in control of her own choices, actions, and behaviors.
Many who push forgiveness on others, whether they realize it or not, are doing it for their own selfish motivations. They squirm at suffering, and would rather cover it up than sit with it. Many are in denial or refusing to shine any sort of light in their own dark places. Toxic enablers often confuse forgiveness with excuse. In religious circles, “forgiveness” is often used as a measuring stick of holiness when a more tangible measure is feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and clothing the naked.
In the world of narcissistic abuse, it is extremely rare that the abuser will ever acknowledge their wrong doing, and even more rare they will ever change their ways. Forgiving the unrepentant can only go so far. The unrepentant cannot receive forgiveness when it is offered, because they do not acknowledge behavior that caused harm. Therefore, for the abused, forgiveness is a deeply personal issue that does not extend beyond one’s own sense of mental health and freedom.
Before true forgiveness can occur for the abused, some essential acknowledgements need to be processed, reinforced, and fully ingrained first:
1. It really happened.
2. It really happened and it was wrong.
3. It really happened, and I feel ______.
4. It’s good and healthy to feel ______.
5. I am worthy of love, even when I feel ______.
6. It matters.
7. I matter.
8. Regardless of what my abuser does to discredit me, I know the truth.
9. I am in control of my own choices.
10. I am in control of my own choices, and IF I choose to forgive, I will do it when I am ready.
There are, of course, many others, but are the core messages of healing that need to be in place before anyone can decide to forgive.
Forgiving an abuser is not essential for healing, but forgiving one’s self is an important step toward emotional health and well being. Letting go of any residual shame that your healing “should” look a certain way is a great step toward a life that thrives.