Forgiveness or Denial? The Answer is Key to Healing

Contemplative teen girlPeople who are depressed due to childhood trauma often tell me they don’t want to blame their parents; they think it’s healthier to forgive them. They may even tell me their spiritual practice tells them to forgive, and that they can’t heal until they forgive everyone, especially their abusers. This is a very confusing issue.

One of the problems I keep running into is this: Children naturally prefer to blame themselves for whatever feels bad in their relationships with their parents, and without help take self-blame into adulthood. That self-blame becomes shame, and shame gets expressed as self-condemnation, negative self-talk, beating up on oneself, and low self-esteem, among other things. All of that interferes with potentially every aspect of one’s life—relationships, work, friendships, creative expression, parenting, happiness, resourcefulness, peace, resilience, handling life’s challenges without dependence on something harmful, etc.

People come to me with problems in these areas, and our challenge is to reprogram them at the root of it all, which is blaming themselves for what felt bad in their relationships with their parents (or siblings, or peers, or other significant relationships during childhood). The reprogramming has to involve understanding that they were innocent, defenseless, and inherently lovable as children, so what went wrong was not due to their fundamental defectiveness, lack of lovability, or worthlessness.

From a child’s point of view, trouble with parents is caused either by the child’s badness or their parents’ badness. If it’s their parents’, the child’s own survival is in peril because he or she depends on the parents’ competence and goodwill to survive. This is why children sacrifice their own senses of worth to preserve their faith in their parents. This faith is very powerful, and causes severely abused children to choose to return to them even when they have a chance to be raised by loving, nonabusive people.

This paradigm follows children into adulthood. Not only is the self-hate continuous, but the myth they created to protect their parents holds on tenaciously. In order to maintain this myth, people have to perform some mind tricks. Chief among them is denial. If an adult fully acknowledges how much a parent hurt him or her, and how wrong the parent was for doing that, the deeply rooted system threatens to come apart. This adult minimizes the parents’ hurt and responsibility. This is denial. It protects the system he or she has relied on throughout life, but it also perpetuates the belief that he or she is fundamentally bad. If the parents aren’t to blame, it must be his or her own badness that caused the problems.

So the problem with “forgiveness,” as most people define it, is that it perpetuates the denial, which perpetuates the self-hate. If what the parents did wasn’t so bad, or didn’t hurt that much, they can more easily be forgiven. When people force themselves to forgive because they believe it’s healing, they often aren’t actually forgiving—they are denying. There is an appeal to this direction—more preservation of parents—but it actually stalls the healing process, the opposite of the intention.

What, then, is forgiveness that actually does heal? I believe healing forgiveness is a longer process than the peace normally associated with forgiveness. Healing forgiveness must not skip over the anger, and is not possible when one is stuck in the anger, either. The anger must be fully embraced, not diluted with denial and guilt, and healed before forgiveness can be completed.

I believe forgiveness is not a forced opening of one’s heart that allows one to transcend the feelings and thoughts that come from being hurt. I believe it is a process that involves grieving—acknowledging and expressing all the anger and sadness, then letting go, and forgiving or accepting at the end of the process.

Here’s a proposal for a three-step map of the process with regard to parents, which can be the most complicated scenario for forgiveness:

  1. Grieving: Honestly feeling and expressing all the hurt, anger, sadness, and other feelings you feel in response to being hurt by your parents. This is really a grieving process—you are grieving the loss of the parents you deserved but didn’t get, or the loss of parents who weren’t hurtful at some points and were at others, or loss of your innocence, trust, faith, hope, etc.
  2. Letting go: As in letting go of the expectation the parents will change; giving the parent the power to determine your worth, goodness, or identity; denial of how badly they hurt you; desire to retaliate or pass on the hurt; ignoring your own needs, especially for boundaries; and identifying with the perpetrator.
  3. Forgiving or accepting: 1) Forgiving if the parent is no longer hurting you, especially if the parent has acknowledged his or her impact on you and has attempted to repair the injury caused. This can only happen honestly if all of your anger has been expressed and you feel released from it. Or, if forgiving isn’t possible or merited, 2) accepting the undistorted reality of how the parent hurt you. Accepting means effectively protecting yourself if more hurt is possible; acknowledging the good and the bad of the parent’s treatment of you in accurate proportions; seeing the parent as human, with his or her own good reasons for making the mistakes that were made; acknowledging that the hurt is over, if it is, and committing that you won’t let it happen to you again; and embracing your own healing without ambivalence.

Now, if someone steps on your foot carelessly on his or her way somewhere, this process usually goes so quickly that you may not even notice most of it. You may feel momentarily hurt, and say, “Hey, WTF?” (Step 1) and the person may say, “Oh, I’m so sorry—are you OK?” and you may say, “Sure, no problem,” and mean it, and that would be Step 3, with not more than a momentary glance at Step 2. It’s the same process, but happens very fast. In more complicated relationships, the process may include an extensive exploration of all three steps.

This is a work in progress; let me know what you think!

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cynthia W. Lubow, MS, MFT, therapist in El Cerrito, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • jay

    jay

    November 13th, 2012 at 4:08 AM

    When would it ever be in your best interest to try to forgive someone who had done something so heinous to you? I am all about the processing of the grief and the pain and trying hard to let it go. But forgiveness is a pretty strong word, and well, I am not sure that if this happened to me or my child then I would ever find it within me to extend an olive branch to that person. Maybe it would make me a better person to do that but maybe it wouldn’t. Not sure at that point that I would even care. All I would care about would be moving on or helping my child move past that hurt. I don’t think that it is healthy to deny what may have happened but I don’t necessarily think that you have to always forgive and be best friends either.

  • L NE

    L NE

    November 13th, 2012 at 7:08 AM

    I completely agree. As an adult child growing up between an addict (mother), and my more reliable parent, a self pitying rageaholic (father) I encountered far more abuse and neglect than any child should, yet still only a fraction of what other children endure. I’m grateful it was no more than it was, yet I grieve for the extent I suffered then and suffer still as I struggle to shake the shackles of my family of origin from my spirit. This, lately, has been exceptionally critical.

    One thing I learned in the process of therapy (and I should mention that I’m hit and miss on my feelings regarding therapy) was the necessity of recognizing myself as a survivor, aka someone who struggled, aka someone who faced adversity, which means there was adversity, etcetera, etcetera. Because I grew up in an invalidating environment, I couldn’t see my own suffering. Which makes me sad just to think about now. Why would I see my suffering when I couldn’t even see myself? I was only as important as I was treated, which meant my needs were invisible. It’s hard to shift a paradigm you’re unaware exists, within a person who – at least to them self – doesn’t exist (or doesn’t want to).

    For people like me I think the most important thing is being heard and understood. And sometimes, after opening up, you may feel we say the same thing on repeat and cut us off thinking you’re redirecting us to see the point but because we didn’t finish, you didn’t see the point, and by railroading us were reinforced that what were saying doesn’t matter. Listen. Listen wholly. At the same time we do need to understand if we demand too little or too much from people, and be taught what is and isn’t appropriate in terms of expectations. It would literally be like teaching someone who hasn’t ever seen a dishwasher, how to use it. My therapist would get annoyed when I’d ask her what the thing she’d said would look like, because frankly I didn’t know but I wanted to, particularly because she said that was the appropriate thing and I believed if I was as “appropriate” as possible maybe my life would work. I had to seek many of the answers elsewhere.

    That is not to say I didn’t still learn there; obviously my paradigm with my family of origin, mother particularly, has been mimicked a la relationship with my therapist. I do not think I had conscious control of that or even awareness it had happened until I stopped going (one year ago). I do think I’ve been able to grow exponentially since quitting. However I also value what I was able to get and know much of the growth I’ve encountered may not have been possible without it.

    Best of luck in treating the abused; once I had allowed myself to be a victim, then a victim in remission, then in recovery, and recognized there would never be a time i could look to the past and see their treament of me as okay – despite their shortcomings – then hold my parents accountable for what they had(nt) done back then, I made stride.

    Best of luck helping those who have the courage to ask for it, because trust me, it’s not easy.

  • Larry B

    Larry B

    November 13th, 2012 at 7:20 AM

    I used to work in a psychiatric residential facility for children. These children were hospitalized due to behavior and emotional issues during the week and then went home on the weekends. Some of the kids were in foster care and only saw their “real” parents on limited occasions. These visits often either didn’t happen as scheduled because the parent failed to follow through with the visit, or the visit went poorly for any variety of reasons that were the parents fault. What absolutely amazed me was that every time this happened, without exception for ten year, the kids ended up acting out the entire next week. And, when you talked to them, it was apparent that these kids weren’t mad at their parents for messing up. They put all the blame on themselves or someone else. It appeared to me that a kid’s parents are his parents no matter what and they are infallible in their eyes. Now, towards teenage years and adulthood, I’m sure these same kids became very angry at their parents. But, as young kids, the parents were never at fault.

  • E E Hunt

    E E Hunt

    November 13th, 2012 at 7:22 AM

    Oh, boy. Expressing anger and hurt towards to your parents for what they’ve done in the past has got to be the most awkward and uncomfortable thing I’ve ever done. Not worth it!

  • JONATHAN

    JONATHAN

    November 13th, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    For me forgiveness and self-beating are two completely different things… Forgiving is letting go of the past and of the wounds and moving ahead while self-beating is, well, blaming yourself for everything… You are not getting past the issue in that, you are blaming yourself and are still weighed down by the issue, now even more because you think you are responsible… That has to be one of the most unfair things one can do to himself…!

  • k dawn

    k dawn

    November 14th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    When you are unable to forgive, you don’t hurt anyone but yourself. You have been hurt enough, right? It is the best thing for anyone to let it go and try to move on with your life.
    I would not wnat to be at the end of my life feeling how much better it could have been if I had not always been so stuck on hating someone.

  • Tanuka

    Tanuka

    August 5th, 2013 at 7:47 PM

    I completely agree with this article. Only yesterday was talking to a friend who is into spirituality but is not able to heal because of unresolved and unexpressed anger from childhood. He says forgiving seems empty and is not reaching his subconscious. Even in spirituality before forgiveness knowing and understanding self is the first step. Forgiving self is important before forgiving others.

  • Karen

    Karen

    August 6th, 2013 at 8:11 AM

    I thought your article was well written and particularly relevant. As someone who suffered many years of sexual abuse, I am finally on the road to recovery, and I have no need or desire to forgive my abusers. Simply put, once I accepted what happened to me, and made a decision to be honest about who I am, they become irrelevant and I became apathetic towards them. Moving on does not require forgiveness. It requires strength, acceptance and love.

  • Aishah

    Aishah

    August 15th, 2013 at 5:28 PM

    Denial is easier. You cant forgive a person who ruined your childhood, hurt your self esteem to an extent that you cant make a decision on your own..
    You cant forgive a parent who gave you nothing other than negativity and criticism.
    Even if i say to myself that i should let it go.. the repercussions of it doesn’t stop affecting my daily life, relationships, work & career.

  • Jim Elliot

    Jim Elliot

    May 1st, 2014 at 12:39 PM

    Excellent article dealing with a huge problem around the idea of “forgiveness” vs. “Denial”..Most common for people to be told by therapists, ministers, parents and others (including abusers) that they have to “forgive” and move on..I’m appalled at the prevalence of this notion. To heal, people need to tell the truth, if only to themselves. What happened happened, how you felt was how you felt, how you changed and adjusted was what it was and sweeping it under the rug, keeping the “dirty laundry” in house, and pretending it didn’t happen are are almost certain to make the results worse – and are pretty likely to see them repeated in another generation.

  • K

    K

    June 30th, 2014 at 5:16 AM

    Forgiving, as you say, “as most people define it,” is indeed a perpetuation of simple denial. Forgiveness is not denial. No one forgives anyone who suddenly now needs to believe what was done is okay. Let’s just start with that. Forgiveness is always about something we don’t want to have anything to do with. Forgiveness is about the one forgiving, not anything about the one forgiven. The one forgiven may never know or may never change. Its not about the ones we forgive!! Its about how we feel about ourselves and wanting to separate ourselves from the definition of how we were treated. Hopefully, even children’s young belief in themselves can let them know instinctively if it makes them feel bad, that is their own self-worth speaking up for themselves! Many of these comments define recovery as being without forgiveness, but the very acknowledgement of moving on–especially *without the abusers– is the definition of forgiveness, not whether or not the abusers have anything **more to say about our lives! No! The only time an olive branch is extended to ones we have forgiven is when its clear they are truly changed. That’s a different story. That is allowing someone else to move on passed their own mistakes (if they have– or merely want to.) We all move on passed our own mistakes or mistakes someone else has made in our lives. Same thing. Your second part of step 3 on your map is another good aspect of forgiveness as most people *don’t understand it! Yes, protect oneself from an acknowledged harmful reality. That is recovery. But to be unforgiving in the face of someone else’s past mistakes is to hold the same blame against someone else as we want to recover from ourselves. That said, no one says we have to have relationships with anyone other than ourselves!! except I see how sad it is for children who are so helpless and defenseless. I have a prayer in my heart for these recoveries, that good will and happiness will shine thru to inspire us all with the sense of worth and esteem we all inherently deserve.

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