Healing from Trauma Does Not Hinge on Forgiveness

GoodTherapy | Healing from Trauma Does Not Hinge on Forgiveness

by Bren Michelle Chasse, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

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.  

Force-Fed Forgiveness?

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!

References

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.

© Copyright 2021 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Bren Chasse, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

  • 2 comments
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  • Abraham

    September 21st, 2021 at 1:39 PM

    Interesting concept. I can see this as controversial in some ways. However, as a therapist, I understand where this is coming from. One would naturally assume forgiveness lets go of anger. Regardless, we should not force our values on others as a therapist. I like this article and plan to add this to my blogs in the future for trauma therapy at truetherapy.org. Thank you for your work.

  • Daizy

    February 17th, 2024 at 8:24 AM

    Hi!
    I am dating a man (I’m sure he’s on the spectrum but he doesn’t realize) — he’s 60 years old and has had trouble his whole life making and keeping friends even though he is actually very talkative & social when meeting new people. He tends to way over-share and is brutally honest and people don’t understand that he’s on the spectrum; he just comes across as an ass. For the longest time I kept wondering how he could say the things he did to me and then not understand why I was upset. I knew he was not a mean evil person but that’s how he was presenting with what he was saying. I’ll get to what he says. He didn’t seem to understand when I was joking and took everything literal. He talked non-stop, often repeating the same stories over & over to me but didn’t seem interested in any of my stories of anything I had to say really. But on the other hand would ask how my day was. or ask things that completely confused me because he appeared interested at times. He would send me photos upon photos of his like in pictures and I always commented and was interested.. I’d send a photo and get met with silence or a thumbs up. This lack of interest and the mean comments didn’t really go with the person that I knew him to be.
    I met him right after he lost his wife to cancer, they’d been married for a very short time but together for about 6 years. He quit his job to care for her and she died in his arms and I’m positive it was a completely devastating and awful thing to go through for the 3 years that they did. He would always say the same thing when talking about her. She was my best friend, my soulmate, and the love of my life – most people will never know what this is like, no one knows until it happens to them. But I did have some inkling of knowing. I’d lost my 27 year old son to a drug addiction and I’d been to hell & back with him over the years. In fact, this is why I started the friendship with this man.. I know what losing someone is like. I saw him as a gentle soul and I wanted to be there for him, I wanted him to have that someone to talk to because I didn’t have that and it was pure hell. All i wanted to do was talk about my son and no one cared to listen. I wanted to give John the outlet and the listening ear that I didn’t have.
    He lost his wife in April and we met the beginning of July – he was very much grieving, he talked about his wife very often and I listened. Sometimes he would trigger a memory with me and I would chime in with a story about my son and he statted saying things like “not to compare” every time I mentioned my son dying. I tried to explain that I wasn’t comparing but his talk often times would remind me of something that I wanted to share. I would reassure him that I would never compare grief, grief is grief and everyone’s grief is their own and they are entitled to it. He still continued to say “not to compare” every time. And then one time said that his wife would have loved to have my son’s problems and that drug addicts are awful people that basically don’t deserve to live. Oh my. Talk about anger, it just boiled up and over but I somehow managed to stay calm in my response. But I did tell him that I thought maybe we were both too much into the grieving process to help one another and that we should cut back on talking and take a step back. (by this time he was calling me hun and kind of planning a future for us that just confused me.) I told him that I didn’t think he was ready to give his heart to someone else just yet since his loss was so recent and he reassured me that he was ready and that I didn’t get to determine when he was ready or not ready. I stated I was stepping back and if he wanted to just remain friends with some boundaries I would be happy to be his friend.
    Our relationship continued and about 2 1/2 months in he was speaking with his mom on the phone and the realization that he had Autism hit me by something his mom said. She said to him that he didn’t say “switching gears” when he changed the subject — I had often heard John say switching gearts with every subject change when talking and I always found it odd .. and I finally realized why! From then on I thought ok, I can handle this now. His responses no longer have to elicit me seeing instant red .. he literally doesn’t realize that he’s saying or doing anything wrong and I understood and could work around that. That explained why he didn’t understand alot of times when I would try to explain how his comments made me feel.
    Our relationship slowly went back to him calling me honey, babe .. planning our future. I tried to put the breaks on periodically because I still knew he was not anywhere near ready to give his heart to someone new. He still very much was in love with his wife and I heard about his pain & grief daily. He got memorial tattoos, took over her telephone number, bought property right across from where they lived because they no longer owned the place she passed at,he planned elaborate memorial things with doves & homing pigeons – all the while still saying his wife, soulmate, best friend and love of his life every time he mentioned her name. I started feeling like a therapist and I was slowly sinking down the grief hole because I was not being heard in my grief but just giving, giving, giving — all the while being told about how wonderful his wife was. I’ve said many prayers for her, I love that he loves her – I wouldn’t love him if he didn’t but it’s just too much obsessing about her and not seeing why that would upset me. When I try to explain he just says that I shouldn’t be jealous of her because she’s not coming back, she’s a part of his past and we are moving forward together. He doesn’t understand that it’s not jealousy, it’s the comparison and the knowing he’s not ready but him not admitting it or acknowledging why this would be difficult for me. I love this man, he’s wonderful & special is so many unexpected ways and I honestly have never felt love like this for another.. when he hurts I take on his pain & feel it too. I just can’t take feeling like I’m second, he says that I’m the most important thing in his life but I take a back seat to his wife every day. I just don’t think it should still be this way. He still wears their rings around his neck, still tells me personal details about their sex life, still calls her his wife, still calls me crying almost daily. I just can’t continue on in this as more than his friend when he clearly needs help with grieving, professional help. I’m not a therapist. He says he loves me, he jsut told me that the other day and I believe him because he does not lie. But I also believe he loves me because of what I give him, not a romantic kind of love. He says that I’m his best friend and best friends always fall in love. No, they don’t. I try to break it off and he just has an answer for every objection I raise and just does not understand why I would break it off when he loves me and I love him. There’s no words to make him understand what this is doing to me or how it’s making me feel. And i stay in it because I worry about him, I want nothing but the best for him because he’s a beautiful tender soul that deserves nothing but love and good things. I just don’t think I’m the person for him, right now in his journey. It’s been a bit over a year now and his grief does not seem better. I understand that he can love his wife and love me too .. but he doesn’t understand that it’s not fair to me to be constantly bringing her up. At some point it needed to become less & less and it just hasn’t.
    Any suggestions?

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