On the thorny subject of forgiveness

Many of us who have been wounded in childhood may have been told by others we won’t find any true peace until we forgive.  Most particularly if we are involved in church circles or other religious or spiritual communities forgiveness may be promoted as the ideal to aspire to.  But the truth is a forgiveness that is assumed or forced before we have really worked through, felt and owned all the complex feelings we have experienced about what happened to us, may come at too a high price.

This kind of forgiveness may be premature and may lead us to make excuses for others who really aren’t showing the necessary contrition.  It may keep us in denial or stalemated at the level of pure intellectual insight alone and it may keep us open to further abuse.  If it comes at the cost of denial or minimisation of the depth of pain we went through we won’t truly gain the opportunity to heal at a deeper level.

I was reading through a really wonderful chapter in the book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists : Coping With the One Way Relation ship in Work, Love and Family today which is a very concise and practical guide to understanding and healing from the childhood damage of being raised by narcissistic parents or those who put their own needs above and ignore, dismiss or minimise our own  I thought it was really worth sharing here.

Grieving the losses and wounding in childhood may also involve recognising the unresolved losses our parents suffered in their own childhoods.  As we see past the brambles of our own defences, we can also see past the defences of our parents.  Yet again this is another place we can get stuck, if we are not careful.

Although we have gained a credible sense that our symptoms have a connection to how our parents cared for us in childhood, we may now hit the wall of our desire to protect our parents from any self reproach.  We want to protect them from ‘blame’ and again fall back into our defence of denial. We would often prefer to believe that somehow we were the cause of painful parenting or stick to the cliché that ‘our parents did the best they could’ rather than look directly into our feelings of hurt and anger.  In addition, we have multiple messages from society and religious teachings that tell us that the only way to release these feelings is through forgiveness.  Here Alice Miller .. makes a compelling case in her book For Your Own Good.

‘Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but face it head on.’  She makes the point over and over again that when our history of childhood wounding is uncovered, then the repressed anger or rage will give way to the grief and sorrow that our parents were unable to treat us differently. At this point we can truly gain insight into our parent’s childhood and experience genuine, mature sympathy.  Alice Miller illustrates through all of her books that the child’s natural response to parental demand is always to try to understand and accept the parent’s narcissistic expectations as a matter of course.

‘But he has to pay for this pseudo-understanding with his feelings and his sensitivity to his own needs, i.e., with his authentic self.  This is why access to the normal, angry, uncomprehending and rebellious child he once was had previously been blocked off.  When this child within the adult is liberated,  he will discover his vital roots and strength…..To be free is to express resentment dating back to early childhood does not mean that one now becomes a resentful person, but rather the exact opposite.’

For the very reason that we are permitted to express these feelings that were once felt, but not allowable, we are liberated from the chains of our early defences and symptoms.

Being urged to forgive, or being told that we are doing something wrong for expressing these feeling of anger, rage or resentment before they are completely worked through places us back in repressive space.   We can only truly forgive when we have felt it all through, grieved, felt angry and integrated these complex and painful feelings.  It is a challenging process.

It is no one’s right to dictate to us what our forgiveness and / or healing process should be.  And in healing we need to look for someone who helps us work through our true feelings and does not encourage us to keep our understanding on a purely intellectual level alone.  As Eleanor Payson points out in her book they can only do this if they have removed their own rationalisations and denials and gained insight into the defences within themselves.  They need to be someone who has the capacity to hold us in the midst of intense emotional states without shaming or judging until the work is done and our feelings are resolved.

18 thoughts on “On the thorny subject of forgiveness

  1. I like that your wrote on this and I agree but from a slightly different worldview.

    There is a childish grade three-level, dumbed-down, apostate Christianity that has taken over where no one reads the Bible completely nor seeks to understand the deeper principles.

    Forgiveness falls under the umbrella principle of justice. Forced forgiveness isn’t just, especially when the injuring party hasn’t expressed remorse. In fact, that’s a perversion of justice, which is anti-God.

    I could lay out what the Bible has to say on the matter but I’ll just leave it at that there is definite conditions that must be met for it and that it resonates with what most people consider just. This injust new version of forgiveness that has taken over churches and secular society is cringeworthy and dangerous.

    I believe man was created to be healthy within justice and seeking to make right what has gone wrong as those made in the image of God. Anything else is unhealthy and is going to cause further injury and problems. As it should, because it’s unnatural and not how things were made to be.

      1. Thank you for the considered response. I certainly wasn’t expecting you to hold the Bible in regard if it doesn’t speak to you. You mentioned religion and I hope you understand that I only wished to separate what religions say as opposed to what their sources actually say. All the best to you.

  2. I love this. I have been working on forgiving both of my parents for years and it has been nothing less then a daunting process. Strangely I have not seen my dad since I was 8 and I have been able to more easily forgive him for the severe child abuse that he put me through when I was a toddler than I can forgive my mother who had me in her life until I was 17. I feel as though I processed what my dad had done to me long ago but my mother’s abuse still lingers.

    I recently obtained my father’s residential address and I have been thinking about simply ahowing up at his door. I want to tell him that I have forgiven him but I also want to tell him that I remember what he put me through. I’m allowed to be angry with him but I do truly feel I have forgiven. For some reason this step seems necessary in my life and I am prepared for the worst outcome, a completely narcissistic response on his end.

    I believe that the receicing end must also be able to accept said forgiveness. My mother still denies the abuse that she put me through so how can I forgive her if she can’t even realize ehat she has done. My father on the other hand has expressed that he is sorry for his wrong doings on the few occasions that I have spoken to him in my adult life.

    I am sick of people telling me that I need to forgive my mother. The wounds are still too fresh and she doesn’t acknowledged that they are there. I hope that one day we can both come to terms with this and work past it. But until then, I simply cannot forgive.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I think it is so important to confront our parents, even if we don’t get the apology we hoped for (which is deeply frustrating and painful) I do believe it is important that we do this.
      In the end it is about acknowledging the truth of what happened for us. If they fail to apologise then we know that is their issue and the lack the capacity. We then have to work through to forgiveness in our own way and if we cannot forgive that is fair enough too. Some things just hurt too much.
      I think there is much more emotional honesty in saying I cannot forgive my mother for what she did if that is the truth for you than in denying how you feel.
      Once again thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  3. I find the old testament really difficult and I did have a Catholic education and saw girls being abused there. I would have liked to write a longer comment on how people make all kinds of interpretations of scriptures bending them to their own purposes and this is what happens with the advice on the necessity to forgive without true regard to who is encouraging that forgiveness and why. I understand what you are trying to say. But I am not a reader of the bible and I don’t really relate to it very well. Something in the language grates on me. I love the words of Jesus. I love the teachings of Jesus but only in that he tried to get people to understand that our chief spiritual work is to individuate and to be aware of those who espouse good works but are judgemental to and hurt others with their ignorance.

    1. Ah, me too, what you said about finding the old testament very difficult. After being raised in the church where my abusive dad was the minister, then working at a major international TV ministry for several years and experiencing the craziness there, I was staunchly agnostic for much of my life.

      In 2003 I came back to being a believer and follower of Christ. However, although I now attend a church with my husband where the Bible is considered inerrant, from Genesis through Revelation, I cannot believe this. I believe much of the Bible was written by fallible men with their own agendas. But, while I do not worship an infallible book, I do believe in and worship an infallible God. Which apparently makes me a heretic in the eyes of most Christians, but oh well. They are not my judge.

      As for forced forgiveness…. oh boy. People trying to cram forgiveness down your throat when you have been horribly abused, are abusers themselves, in my opinion. I could write volumes on the subject.

      I believe genuine repentance and forgiveness is a glorious thing. My thinking on the subject is very much in line with what Prairie Girl commented above.

      Thank you for writing this post, it is excellent.

      1. Yes that is the reason I find the bible problematic. I believe it is for each of us to investigate our own heart and soul to know what is harmful and hurtful and what grows our spirit. There is obviously a loving creative force in this universe and counteracting that there are forces of destruction and that too is paradoxical as often good things can come out of destruction. That is one reason I find some of the eastern religions have more to offer on this subject of the mysterious complexity of life and creation.
        I appreciate those who have their beliefs. And I appreciate most when others show respect for each persons right to choose and define their own reality. I just don’t believe that reality should be forced on anyone else.

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