Healing from Trauma Does Not Hinge on a Survivor’s Ability to Forgive
Forgiveness is an evolutionary phenomenon that, historically, has been a necessary part to building and sustaining community (Tooby & Cosmides, 2005)). In early times, it allowed groups to minimize conflict and helped support, foster, and preserve cooperation so that groups could function effectively, thrive, and achieve the goals necessary for their survival. In short, group members needed each other, a fact which didn’t change when a wrong had been done. They had to learn to deal with wrongs and stay alive. Over time, the concept of forgiveness has transformed into a modern-day virtue. Many consider forgiveness to be the moral high ground. There are even mental health providers who believe forgiveness to be the holy grail of healing, identifying it as a necessary therapeutic objective or clinical goal (Luskin, 2003). I am not one of them.
A Deeper Look at Forgiveness and Trauma
Research has shown that, in general, people practice forgiveness more readily within their tribe or primary support group, while more likely to withhold forgiveness from those outside their group (McAuliffe & Dunham, 2016). However, this research depends on an assumption of high-functioning group dynamics. Not every relationship we experience in our lives (or even within our own family systems) falls into this category. It is simply inappropriate to generalize and apply a forgiveness model evenly across the board to all relationships. Relationships, by definition, are nuanced and very complex—and so is the experience of trauma.
Additionally, not all transgressions are created equal. For example, I may be able to forgive a close friend who lied to me but find myself unwilling or unable to forgive the same friend if they were to assault me. A one-size-fits-all approach to healing simply doesn’t work! More specifically, the forgiveness model, when applied equally across domains, is fundamentally flawed. It fails to account for context, attachment style, cultural implications, personal moral values, organic individual differences, past experiences (including prior trauma exposure), and the depth and breadth of the transgression.
Unfortunately, I’ve found in my practice that many clients have a history of being force-fed (through various sources) the value and importance of always forgiving. Consider the Lord’s Prayer, which requires we stand humbly before God and ask, “Forgive our trespasses…” and challenges us to “…forgive those that trespass against us.” The pressure to forgive is often applied by those we hold in high regard. When family members, advisors, mentors, close friends, or spiritual leaders insist on this, many clients feeling gaslit, shamed, and forced to betray themselves by placing the needs of their perpetrator above their own.
Healing from trauma requires a focus on the self — not on the needs of another. When we claim that forgiveness is a necessary component of healing, we tell survivors that they cannot be whole again unless they extend forgiveness even to those who have committed the most physically and psychologically violent acts imaginable.
Making Change Happen
As a society and as therapists, we must begin to change the language and conversation around forgiveness. If we don’t, we maintain the status quo and risk becoming part of the problem. The language we use, especially when we are in a position of power, really matters.
We have to change the way we think about this topic as well. An unwillingness to forgive does not directly translate to anger, aggression, seeking revenge, or a refusal to move on, nor does it necessarily equate to a dysfunctional response to trauma. In many cases, survivors simply don’t relate to the concept of forgiveness. The healing journey focuses on creating and enforcing healthy boundaries, refusing to hold toxic secrets, learning to prioritize their own physical and emotional needs, and healing the younger parts of themselves that still feel stuck in the trauma of their past. If forgiveness isn’t part of a survivor’s healing journey, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong.
Be True to Yourself as You Heal
Let me be clear — for those that find forgiveness to be a healing part of your journey, I encourage you to embrace it. If you don’t relate to that, or if you feel forgiveness is a barrier to your healing, I encourage you to honor that. What I am arguing is that not everyone who experiences trauma will benefit from sharing physical, emotional, or psychological space with the person who has harmed them. Forgiveness is not necessarily a required stop along the path toward healing. Simply put, how you heal is up to you!
Luskin, F. (2003). Forgive for good: A proven prescription for health and happiness. Harper One.
McAuliffe, K. & Dunham, Y. (2016). Group bias in cooperative norm enforcement. Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B Biological Sciences, 371(1686). doi https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00688.x
Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2005). Conceptual foundations of evolutionary psychology, in Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, ed. Buss, D. M. Wiley, 5-67.
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