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Forgiveness and Trauma

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

It doesn’t take too long after scrolling your way through Instagram to find a smug and characteristically vacuous quote about forgiveness. Usually, it will be thoughtfully stamped (using either Comic Sans or Edwardian Script, for an artistic flair, of course) across an archetypical dreamy background of some mysterious and edited mountain range.

Ah… here we go… recognise this? Behold, a quintessential piece of 21st century passive toxicity. However, we cannot hold social media directly accountable for this as the idea of forgiveness harks back to centuries old religious scriptures and even natural instinct (yes, research shows that primates such a bonobos, mountain gorillas and chimps can kiss and make-up too). For centuries, forgiveness has been used as a powerful tool in helping to bind fragile communities as well as strengthen economic systems (I am talking about the Roman Empire here). We owe credit to religion for some of those great one-liners such as:

Hebrews 8:12, NIV: "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more. ... or this other absolute banger:


Great! All of your problems have disappeared! Either that, or you are suffering from amnesia now because you can’t remember them anyway. They’ve exploded and are scattering away as flecks of dust into the vast nothingness of the universe! Wouldn’t that be nice? Not to have to re-live your own trauma anymore - as if you could just switch it off.

This concept of forgiveness being an essential pit-stop along your journey to healing from past trauma needs some serious addressing. There seems to be a general consensus that by forgiving someone we are therefore emancipating ourselves of the unwanted feelings of resentment, bitterness and rancor that we hold towards someone who has wronged us. There is room for the argument that this approach does of course work for some people and don’t get mistake me in that it I believe it is great if it does. But what about those of us who just aren’t ready to forgive and move on? Those of us who are battling trauma and are mere survivors just trying to get through each day. In many ways, forgiveness is about taking a few back-steps from punishing the offender and striving towards a more balanced (and possibly emotionless) approach to the situation. But it is fair to say that some people have committed atrocities that have had a devastating effect on someone else’s life. Why should they be readily forgiven because we live in a culture where the ideas of ‘healing’ and ‘forgiveness’ are simultaneously partnered together? These concepts are about as comfortable together as Christmas cake and cheese, Macaulay Culkin and Mila Kunis, Trump and Kim Jong Un or ice cream and chips. Yes, maybe they do work together, but let’s face it, they are two separate entities that you wouldn’t consciously pair without questioning yourself first. This idea of readily forgiving others is one that has wormed its way into the media recently. Luckily, we are living in a time where people are becoming more comfortable with challenging unacceptable behaviour. When Justin Timberlake recently admitted his wrong doings from his infamous 2004 Super Bowl performance, Janet Jackson took to social media to respond in vindication. She sermoned; “Always choose to heal, not to hurt. To forgive, not to despise.” Sure, there is definitely something to be said in finding ways to rid yourself of those negative feelings that are ultimately holding you in a darker psychological place. Moreover, who wants to live in a world where resentment and hatred is more commonplace than it is now? But when it comes to recovering from trauma, do we always have to forgive to find our own peace? Forgiveness and Healing:

It is interesting that Janet Jackson chose those all-too-familiar words ‘to heal’ in her plight to forgive Timberlake for his comments. Forgiveness can be a hard pill to swallow and the reality is that when we experience trauma, it is not instigated by a simple ‘on’ and ‘off’ switch that many people seem to believe. Especially if the perpetrator has inflicted significant trauma and unbelievable suffering to the survivor. The phrase “you must forgive to heal” can prove to have toxic (even if well intentioned) consequences on the survivor. It can make their struggle to overcome what they are suffering from seem invalid and redundant too. Moving on or away from something does not by default mean that forgiveness has to be included along that journey. It is not a simple one-size-fits-all way of “healing”. Being the Grudge Holder If you are unwilling to forgive easily, it seems that you are quite easily labelled the” grudge holder'' or you are “unwilling to move on” simply because the time frame other people have measured your unhappiness-to-trauma ratio has run its course. More often than not, it’s usually our loved ones or family members who are the ones who apply the most pressure to forgive the perpetrator in a bid to “heal” from the experience. This can add further complications to the survivor’s journey to recovery as they not only are struggling with the after-math (physically or mentally) of what they have experienced, but now feel guilt towards their loved ones for not “moving on” quickly enough. A great example of this is from a recent MailOnline column where Piers Morgan scathingly accused Meghan Markle of ‘ruthlessly disown[ing] her father Thomas and refuses to have anything to do with him, despite the fact that they now live 70 miles from each other.’

This is a classic example of how society prioritises the importance of maintaining family bonds over the survivor’s need to heal - regardless of the damage it may have caused an individual. The truth is that we just don’t seem to be at the point of accepting that the act to remove oneself (or being unwilling to forgive) from the cause of their trauma is an act of self-care, rather than a “ruthless” act of punishment and aggression. On that point, isn’t it interesting how the narrative begins to change as the survivor then becomes the perpetrator because of our belief that not forgiving is actually a form of inflicting punishment? Again, this is invalidating the survivor’s experience. Pushing someone to forgive when they are not in a position to do so can actually instigate further resentment. It just doesn’t qualify that in a world where we are becoming more aware of the importance of self-care that we do things that are perpetuating our own unhappiness. Putting the needs of another human being (who has actually caused significant damage in our lives) before our need to work through past trauma does not offer us an opportunity to heal at all. Neither does having a reluctance to forgive automatically translate as being a nasty, passive-aggressive and revengeful act of bitterness either. Instead, to heal from trauma, it is necessary to use guided strategies to be able to differentiate between the past and the present. Further to this, the survivor can learn to; affirm effective boundaries, learn how to confidently assert themselves, mentally grow through forming new healthier habits, prioritise their own needs without feeling selfish, not participate in toxic behaviours and allow ourselves an opportunity to flourish from what has endlessly deer-stalked them from their past. Forgiveness isn’t a “must”, it’s simply an option that the survivor can choose to investigate it at some point themselves. It has nothing to do with their own path to heal - it’s actually a completely separate entity. Decisional forgiveness ** can be a toxic and at best a counter-productive approach, yet it is generally accepted as a way of “moving on” or “healing”. I’ve even been told to “pretend” to forgive someone before. The effect of doing this can actually force the survivor back into facing the subject of their unresolved trauma again. They have been thrown into deep water where they are expected to mask their emotions, while their feelings chew away underneath, rising steadily in a boiling furnace of internalised magma.

If someone is feeling ready to emotionally forgive another, then great, but that is their choice and will be something they will actively choose to do when they are ready. What I am trying to say is that forgiveness is a journey that is not for everyone to take and needs to be severed from this counter-productive idea of being an integral part of healing. Yes, we all want our loved ones to be freed from the chains of their unhappiness, but that comes from an established healing process, not false forgiveness.

** There are two different types of forgiveness; decisional and emotional.

  • Decisional forgiveness – You have consciously decided to forgive them and so you subsequently change your behaviour towards them, even though you might still dislike them inside.

  • Emotional forgiveness – This is when you experience an internal change towards the other person. Instead of feeling resentment, you actually feel more empathy and compassion towards them.

Jimi D Katsis is a Bristol based consultant psychotherapist at specialising in recovery from trauma, depression, and anxiety

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