Core issues of abuse: forgiveness

Core issue: forgiveness

For many people the idea of forgiving someone who has abused them and devastated their life is totally unacceptable – even repulsive. Why forgive someone who has deliberately caused you untold amounts of pain and suffering? Surely forgiving means you will loose even more power to your abuser?


What is Forgiveness

Forgiveness is not about denial. Forgiveness is admitting it was that bad – that abusive. Many people think forgiveness over looks and forgets the harm done. This is not the case – we have to fully acknowledge the atrocities against us. Forgiveness is also not forgetting. We do not “forgive and forget”.

We always remember, but the pain in time can diminish.


Forgiveness Is A Process

Forgiveness is a much more complex process than many people think it is. It takes time. Getting in touch with the pain, anger, grief and loss is all part of the process of forgiveness. All these stages are not to be rushed. To the extent you have been abused will be equal to your pain and anger. Walking towards forgiveness is a long road and some events are so traumatic you could not possibly forgive them in one go. David Ausburger in his book “Caring Enough To Forgive” says:“Forgiveness is a journey of many steps, each of which can be extremely difficult, all of which are to be taken carefully, thoughtfully, and with deep reflection”. (Source: “Caring Enough to forgive” – David Ausburger – Regal Books – Published 1981 page 30)


Who We Forgive

We have to forgive several people or groups of people:

  • The abuser
  • The other members of the family who allowed the abuse
  • The society/church/community that allowed the abuse to happen
  • Ourselves – for the actions we took because of being abused


Why Forgive

The most important phpect of forgiveness you need to remember is – it is for you. Rev Desmond Tutu who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa says “Holding onto your resentment means you are locked into your victimhood – and you allow your perpetrator to have a hold over your life. When you forgive, you let go, it sets you free.” (Source BBC News website: 27/2/2006)

  • Unforgiveness hurts us because when we are consumed by hate and unforgiveness for someone – they become our focus and we remain tied to them and remain their victims
  • Forgiveness releases us from that person
  • Forgiveness separates us from bitterness and anger
  • Forgiveness stops us from projecting anger and bitterness onto others who remind us of the person who has hurt us


Forgiving Ourselves

We never have to forgive ourselves because of the abuse. The abuse is always the responsibility of the abuser. However we do have to forgive ourselves for the negative choices we may have made because we were abused. This could be destructive relationships, addiction problems or negative behaviour patterns.

Letting go of the angry feelings you may be holding against your self and getting support to deal with difficult issues is a way of forgiving and caring for yourself.


Forgiveness Does Not Mean Being Re-Abused

We fear forgiveness because when we have anger and unforgiveness it acts as a wall of defence. When we forgive it leaves us open and vulnerable again. However forgiving someone does not mean being re-abused by them – or anyone else. We can forgive but we do not let that person carry on harming us. John Townsend calls this “helpful hiding.” He says we need to “set appropriate limits on the irresponsibility or selfishness of others … hiding can be the most caring and responsible thing to do in many situations”. He describes hiding as: “Setting both verbal and physical boundaries which may involve saying no or geographically leaving the room or house and calling for help”. (Source: “Hiding From Love” – John Townsend – Nav Press – Published 1991 – pages 143)

We need to build up healthy boundaries that let the good in and keep the bad out. This may well mean keeping the abuser – and other unhealthy people out of your life. If the abuser is a close family member you may need help and support in this. This is especially true if your family is unlikely to believe you. If you are under sixteen you must get help in this area from either your school, social worker or contact Childline as a first step – their number is 0800 1111.



If you are thinking of confronting your abuser you have to think carefully about how you will cope afterwards. Confrontation rarely leads to acknowledgement of the abuse. Nearly all abusers deny the abuse. Confrontation should only be done with extreme caution and a lot of outside support before and after.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

There is a big difference between forgiving someone and being reconciled to them. The only real chance of restoration of relationship with the abuser is if they have truly shown signs of accountability and change.

The abuser must do the following:

  • Agree the abuse happened
  • Accept responsibility for the abuse
  • Show grief and acknowledge the harm done
  • Get professional help
  • Be accountable to a professional body – e.g. Social Worker or Probation Officer


Unburdening Instead of Forgiveness

Forgiveness could be a word that has too many negative connotations or seems too pressurising. Perhaps another way to look at letting go/forgiveness would be to consider the world “unburdening”. This may fit better with coming to terms with so much pain and damage. This word unburdening was quoted in in Richard Schwartz’s book Internal Family Systems Therapy.

This is a letting go process:
Letting go of the power the trauma has over a person, expressing and releasing anger and other strong emotions about what happened without criticism or expectation of what needs to come next. This includes allowing a person to have as much time as is needed to feel whatever he or she is feeling. This may include rage, hate, and resentment, among other emotions.

It is equally important for others to refrain from pushing someone into forgiving a perpetrator. Even if the intention is coming from a good place, trying to get someone who has been violated to forgive can feel like being victimized all over again. Instead, it is more helpful to validate that the person is entitled to his or her feelings. Being a listening ear instead of trying to fix the issue is much more supportive and healing. The person needs to be able to have a voice and express what he or she is feeling and thinking without the fear of judgment. The brain and body are so intelligent. It is important to allow the natural process of working through trauma to happen and to remove any barriers that may get in the way. This includes the belief we aren’t supposed to feel “negative” emotions or that we have to forgive. Once we remove that expectation, the natural process moves through. Even if someone doesn’t get to a place of forgiveness, he or she can still move on, unburden themselves, and thrive.

Source: Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, Posttraumatic Stress / Trauma Topic Expert Contributor “Why I don’t use the word “Forgiveness in Trauma Therapy” Good Therapy Website


Things to think about:
  • Have you ever hated someone because they remind you of someone who has hurt you?
  • Do you feel that you have forgiven too easily?
  • Have you felt pressurised into forgiving when you did not feel ready?
  • How did that feel?
  • Are you afraid to forgive?
  • Do you think it is because it will leave you vulnerable to hurt again?
  • How could you protect yourself against abuse from others and still be open to relationships?