Whenever I remember my father and mother, I am reminded of the thorny relationship I shared with both of them. Physical and emotional abuse played such an enormous part of our time together. It is not my intent to tarnish their memory, I bring it up because, fortunately, I have been able to reach a level of understanding and acceptance that they were, in their own way, doing the best they could. This allowed me to absolve what they did or failed to do, but it wasn’t easy.
It is a struggle to give a proper definition to the concept of forgiveness. I grew up Catholic and my religious teachers drilled into me the first version of this idea. Christ, they said, defined forgiveness for us when he said, “turn the other cheek”. Even the Lord’s Prayer implicates that our own forgiveness depends on how we forgive those who hurt us.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
These ideals worked fine for me as an adolescent but, as I became more aware of the way of the world, they stopped making sense. For example, it makes no sense that you would tell a person who has suffered unimaginable rape and abuse at the hands of some unrepentant perpetrator that they cannot receive God’s forgiveness unless they forgive that person. I don’t buy it. Healing the relationship with those who abused us is neither necessary nor required of us. Emotional abuse can be just as traumatic as the physical kind and it can be just as difficult to heal those experiences.
In all these cases, although a victim may not be able to forgive their abuser, they would be best served if they can let go of their hatred and anger for that person and find some notion of inner peace.
Taking steps towards inner healing
Not all of us have experienced the kind of evil and psychopathic abuse aforementioned in this article, but all of us have experienced forms of rejection, betrayal and disrespect that left us feeling unworthy and unloved. To progress as human beings, we must learn to put these things to rest. These are the steps I have taken that have helped me overcome the effects of my life traumas.
1) Stop lying to yourself. It is a human tendency to minimize or rationalize the trauma we experienced by making up stories about them. This coping mechanism we learned as children when we tried to explain the irrational behavior of adults. These false tales have lived in us for so long that they have submerged into our unconscious and replaced our reality. For many of us, the version of our tale has us taking responsibility for having caused the adults’ bad behavior. In my case, for example, I assumed it was my flaws as a little boy that caused my parents to misbehave. But this simply was not true. I was a kid, a victim, they had the power to control their behavior; I did not.
But you don’t have to be a child to take responsibility for the behavior of your abusers. Adult abused women blame themselves for the beatings they receive at the hands of a violent husband or partner. “It was my fault; I should know better than to….” “He is such a wonderful person when he is sober” and so on. If you find you are taking responsibility for the bad actions others have perpetrated on you, chances are you are lying to yourself to keep the relationship going. To heal, you will need to see the factual truth.
2) Accept what happened. People make up tall tales to hide the terrible facts of what actually happened. Acceptance is hard because, when you stop excusing reality, it might trigger a response that frightens you, like moving away from that person or ending a relationship. It is not enough to stop retelling the fantasy you have created; you cannot heal yourself without acknowledging the seriousness of what happened and identifying the perpetrator. Only then can you accept there was nothing you could have done to change the event.
3) Choosing empathy over vengeance. Just as I was writing the word empathy, a voice in my head screamed,
“How can you possibly find empathy for someone who wronged you when all you want to do is beat the crap out of them?”
It is ironic to understand that our path to wholeness does not include some sort of punishing blow towards those who tortured us. I have learned that retaliating will only keep you hooked on to the issue. By now you should understand violence of any kind cannot amount to anything, nor will it ever. Two wrongs truly don’t make things right. You cannot fight abuse with retaliatory abuse. Hating or trying to get even with those who have hurt you will only poison and prevent you from realizing your highest potential as a human being.
Having empathy towards someone means that you realize their destructive behavior was not about you, it was about their lack of effective relationship skills or not knowing how to love. It may have also been related to the effects from an addiction or their own lack of good self-esteem. Empathizing means that, while you recognize their flaws, you can accept the concept that they may have been doing the best they could with the skills they learned. This is not dismissing their deeds; it is simply letting go of your grievances because they serve no purpose other than enhance your pain and suffering. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said, “turn the other cheek.”
I don’t think Jesus was implying for us to stay there and take another beating. It would be idiotic not to run for shelter and protect yourself from further harm. But perhaps what the Christ was trying to tel us is that it is necessary for us to realize we don’t live inside someone’s skin but our own. We don’t know what goes on inside a person to have caused them to adopt destructive behavior. Like you, they did not come equipped at their birth with a manual titled “How to Live Successfully”. Like you, their culture, upbringing and environment shaped them.
4) Distance yourself from harm. There are times we confuse our responsibility to family with guilt feelings for not being near them or sharing time together. We all know people who travel thousands of miles on holidays to visit family even though they know those times will be a painful wreck. My advice is, stay away from toxic people, even when they are your parents, siblings, children, extended family, coworkers, etc. Think about it, would you knowingly jump into shark-infested waters? Of course not. Then why would you expose yourself to mindless people who think nothing of insulting, degrading or harming you. It is important to protect yourself, period. Don’t let feelings of guilt rule. Feeling guilty is just another way of telling yourself you are not worthy of being respected and loved.
5) Forgive yourself. There is no better way to move on from a painful memory than to acknowledge you did the best you could. So many victims of abuse blame themselves for not having avoided the situation or thinking about what they should have done differently. None of that is true; someone’s abusive behavior towards you was not your fault. You were not responsible; there was nothing you could have done to prevent it.
Word to the abuser. If you are an abuser who has become conscious of your past actions, you cannot forgive yourself until you prostate yourself in true repentance in front of your victim (s) and acknowledge your wrongdoing, resolve to change and provide reparations. It is not enough to claim you didn’t know any better at the time. That may be true, but someone else suffered because of your actions. Only through your recognition and request for forgiveness can you lift the curtain of rationalizing and come in touch with your highest self.
6) Forgive the truly repentant but keep an appropriate distance. It is very possible that a former abuser may come to you with true repentance and reparation for their wrongdoing. if that is the case, you may wish to hear what they have to say, but your are not obliged to do it. If you do, you should do so with skepticism and a good measure of caution, don’t allow wishful thinking to confuse you. A person may be truly repentant for what they have done, but that is only a beginning. Even the passage of time cannot guarantee that they have truly changed. Opening the door too soon may leave you vulnerable to being taken advantage of or abused again. It is imperative that one forgives the repentant soul, but it is even more important that one remain protected. Proceed with caution. Trust but verify before proceeding to heal a relationship with a formerly abusive person. Even then, take tiny steps.
Remember, paying gratitude for your life forward will reward you with spirits of joy and contentment.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash