Why Your Focus Should Not Be On Forgiveness After Surviving Sexual Abuse

This post is to speak to survivors who were told or pressured to “forgive.” Everyone is welcome to their own opinions and beliefs, however, I suggest reading until the end, and you’ll see why. This blog post is probably so far one of the most important ones to read if you are on your healing journey as a sexual abuse survivor. It was difficult to write a title that included the two words that make us all cringe if put near each other: forgiveness and abuse. Now, the way I am going to talk about forgiveness isn’t the way your priest or pastor probably did. I’m not saying that they are wrong and I am right. These are just thoughts and realizations that I had about forgiveness a few years ago. Not only did I come to an understanding of what forgiveness really is, but I also came to this conclusion: Yes, it is possible to forgive anything (rape, sexual abuse) HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean we need to or should. IN FACT, I don’t recommend that ever being the focus for a survivor. Instead, I am going to discuss the definition of forgiveness and what would be more beneficial to you when it comes to healing from abuse. 

 I always shuttered at the word and would feel so frustrated by my teachers in catholic school who said “we need to forgive to go to heaven.” I remember thinking, How and why would a God make you forgive something so awful?  I’ve had people tell me “to never forgive my abuser,” and I’ve had people say, “you have to forgive to move on.” As an extremely creative kid, I was always painting, writing poetry, and piano playing as a kid. Most of them were expressions and reflections on the abuse. Even as a 7, 8, and 10 years old, I wrote some dark shit. It was something that was constantly in my thoughts, and the PTSD wasn’t helping. My focus for years was on the limitations and troubles it had caused, sometimes my focus still goes back there from time to time. 

Three summers ago I took a public speaking class at my local community college. Over the semester, we gave multiple speeches. The last and longest speech presentation was the “Persuasive Speech.” Our topic was up to us. That week I began brainstorming ideas such as: Why Fear Is The Root Cause of The Worlds Problems, Why We Should All Learn To Abide By The Ayurvedic Diet, or The Power of Thought and How It Creates Our Reality. They interested me but instead I chose to persuade the class on something I actually disagreed on: “It is possible to forgive the unforgivable.”

By the end of the research and presentation, I realized that forgiveness isn’t really what we understand as forgiveness. Thinking you are a bad person for not being able to forgive or that you won’t be able to heal if you don’t forgive is one of the most significant myths that hurt us. I want you to know that you do not ever need to forgive your abuser and that it should not be your focus at all. There is another way to heal, a much less shameful way, a way that lets your empowerment rise again. This other way incorporates certain aspects of (the true definition which I will state later on in this) forgiveness, but I want you to know that forgiveness right now should not be your focus. Before I go into explaining why and what will be more healing for you, I am going to briefly describe what forgiveness is and what it isn’t:

What is forgiveness? What isn’t forgiveness? (this explanation isn’t pertaining to abuse, I am talking about the overall definition) The definition of it for many of us is very cloudy. We hear often that forgiveness is the act of letting go and how choosing to not forgive is holding onto an attachment to suffering. Many of us (if not all) at one point lived in continual pain because of something that has happened in the past. A major obstacle that inhibits one from forgiving is that our happiness is still dependent on that person’s actions. Many of us refrain from forgiving because we fear a lack of control over the situation. Regardless of who we are forgiving, we all have had the thought “If I forgive, what if they do it again?” Forgiveness is a state of being, it’s not a one-time thing. That doesn’t mean you need to continue relationships with them. It’s a continual internal practice. We must remember that we are forgiving the person and not the action. It is the act that caused the feelings of hurt, anger, resentment, not the human itself. Now here is what I realized what it means to forgive: 

Forgiveness is letting go of the person’s actions in the past, present, future. It is taking our power back and saying “I will not let your actions have a continual effect on my life.” 

Now that I described what forgiveness is and isn’t, I’m going to talk about why that shouldn’t be your focus as a survivor and what would be more healing for you. In fact, this is what lead me to start this blog, and you’ll see why.

Firstly, whoever is telling you to forgive your abuser needs to fuck off. Whether it is a family member, friend, therapist, or religious figure, it doesn’t matter. They have no business in your decisions and personal journey. The reason why some people urge you to forgive is that A.) they cannot emotionally handle accepting or hearing what happened, and this is their way of sweeping it under the rug. B.) they may be relating your situation to their own or someone they know and believe if you do what they did then you’ll be healed. C.) their religious beliefs and inability to accept any other way of living except for their own. D.) either they have done the act or something similar or know someone who has done it and they are trying to obtain relief from their guilt by needing validation from your actions and current experience. Basically, if someone is pressuring you to forgive something like this, it actually has nothing to do with you and your situation. Instead, it has to do with more of their own personal or selfish reasons that have to do with themselves.

Secondly, the focus shouldn’t be on the abuser or even your relationship with them (if there is or was one in the past.) It needs to be on the person you are in this moment, and what limitations are present because of the abuse. What we are going to do is to pull out pieces of the meaning of forgiveness, and apply it to your own life for you to live the life you deserve and return to who you truly are. So, instead of it being about the abuser, focus more on the effects the abuse has left and how it is currently influencing your life in the present.

Instead of “trying to forgive” reflect on these questions:

Are there any “personality traits” I have that I don’t like about myself that were rooted in the trauma?

Are there any things that I want to do but I believe I can’t because of the abuse? (ex: sex or intimate relationships)

Are there any traits I admire in other’s yet don’t believe I can be myself because I was abused?

Are there any mental/physical blocks or limitations that the trauma has caused?

Are there things that I wish I could do but feel like I can’t because of triggers and PTSD?

Are there times when I wish that “I was normal” and not who I am because of the abuse?

Are there places or situations that I wish I could visit or experience but have a difficult time because of the trauma?

Are there relationships I want to have, yet am afraid to pursue because of the trauma?

Do you see? There are so many ways the abuse has confined us into this tiny cage, almost creating an identity of things we considered “personality traits.” Where in fact, they were symptoms of abuse, those things aren’t you. I’ll be honest, for most of my life I didn’t like who I was and that is because I wasn’t being who I was. It was like I had this agreement with life that was “ok this happened, so now I am this person.” I became tired of living my life based on the past. “It is taking our power back and saying “I will not let your actions have a continual effect on my life.”

Trauma impacts so many parts of one’s life so much so, that the trauma can become our identity. What I mean by that is, a lot of us (because of PTSD, our brains protecting us, and human nature) have learned certain behaviors, core beliefs, and ways we perceive the world to protect us and make us feel safe. The problem is that we are living in the present while being in the mindset of protecting ourselves from something that happened in the past. These behaviors and beliefs served a purpose and were there for a good reason: to feel safe, protected, and soothed. Sometimes though, they deter us from living the life we deserve and wish to have.

Forget focusing on forgiving your abuser. Instead, focus on shedding all of the beliefs and behaviors that stemmed from their actions that you feel are limiting your life. It’s not about letting go of the past. It’s about letting go of all the armor and limits we have put up to feel safe in this world that is no longer serving us so that our true inner power can overflow our entire being.

We may have learned that power is a dangerous thing and that it can be used to hurt others. Because survivors (including myself) have seen the ugly side of power, we may tend to shy away from any sort of power, even down to the minuscule things such as decision making, speaking up for ourselves, disagreeing, saying yes when we wanted to say no. What true power is- is what you’re about to do. It’s looking at the abuser/abuse and saying “I will no longer let your actions have a continual effect on my life.”

Were there times after this realization where I had fallen into the cycle of thinking, “the reason I do _ is because of the abuse?” Yes, in fact, that’s a story I told myself pretty often when I was addicted to Xanax. It wasn’t until I got treatment for it was when I realized: I can be the girl who is addicted to Xanax and drinks with it to cope with the pain of abuse and PTSD OR I can be the girl who WAS addicted to the combination of Xanax and alcohol but decided to walk away from it once she realized she was living a constant state of numbness because it was more familiar than allowing herself to feel the pain and enter the new chapter of her life where she sheds those limiting effects and lets her power flow.

The focus is on shedding all those aspects of yourself that were never you. It is about reconciling with the heartbreaking truth of what happened, and knowing that it’s not going to be easy. But it’s going to be worth it. Listen, that abuser and their actions placed so many limitations on your life, don’t give them any more attention by focusing on reconciling and forgiving them. Focus on letting your inner power, which was once blocked, begin to flow. The trauma may have blocked it temporarily, but the biggest gift you can give to yourself is by turning this obstacle into an opportunity to break the agreements that abuse has us agree to.

We all come to rock bottom at some point in our lives, but many of us will climb the ladder up towards where we were once before. Instead of climbing back up out of rock bottom, what if we broke through? If we broke through we’d have a different perspective looking back at our rock bottom.

So basically, forget about forgiving your abuser and letting go of what they did. Focus on letting go of the limits the trauma imposed so that your inner strength can overflow and be a gift to the universe and yourself.

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