As a psychotherapist, I am asked every day by clients how they can forgive people for horrible things that were done to them. Sometimes, the stories of abuse are so horrific, I truly wonder if they can ever be forgiven. To be perfectly honest, I’m not so sure that we even have to forgive people for terrible things they have done to us and I know I’m not alone in that. In her book, Toxic Parents, Susan Forward talks about “the forgiveness trap” and how we don’t have to forgive in order to let go and move on. In my mind, some things like rape or torture, are completely unforgivable. Should I forgive Hitler and the Nazis for murdering so many of my ancestors and my people just for being Jewish? I don’t even want to go there…
At the same time, one thing I have learned both personally and professionally over the years is that holding on to hate and seething anger suck the life out of us and often make us physically sick and end up repelling the people/things we most long for in life. Let’s face it- an angry person isn’t a lot of fun to be around.
I also feel that it is highly unproductive to constantly put ourselves in the role of ‘victim’- assuming that because people have done horrible things to us, that we should expect to have people treat us like dirt in the future. Just because it happened in the past, that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it in the present.
As I wrote about in Dump That Chump, it only took one horrible experience of a man assaulting me and abusing me to turn my life around and I am proud to say that because of the self-work I did back then, I have never been abused by a man again and have been with the greatest man I have ever known for over 12 years now. It can be done.
Instead of using the word “forgive”, I prefer to talk about “letting go of the past”. I find that most of my clients feel much more comfortable knowing that they can let go of hatred and anger without necessarily having to forgive the person who harmed them.
I think that the most important point to remember when ‘letting go of the past’ is that you are doing it for YOU- not to let the person who wronged you off the hook. When we recognize that anger seething away inside of us only ends up hurting ourselves and does nothing to right the wrong done to us in the past, it becomes easier to let it go for good.
To end, I’d like to leave you with some helpful tools in this regard:
- Write it out- write a letter to the person who harmed you (do not send this!) stating exactly what they did (the crime), how it felt to you at the time (your lived experience), and how it has affected your life as an adult (the repercussions/costs). Then write a second letter to this person telling them why you are letting go of your anger and hatred towards him/her and exactly how your life will change for the better as a result.
- Create a meaningful ‘letting go ceremony’ which you can do alone or with people you love and feel supported by. Some clients of mine have gathered friends around, lit candles, sat in a circle, and read the second letter they wrote to everyone present and asked for a blessing of some kind from each person in the circle.
- Grieve the losses associated with being abused/harmed in the past. These may be many and very painful to acknowledge, but you will feel a whole lot lighter and energized as a result.
- Lastly, if you’d like, you could find some way of helping others who have been victimized in some way. This can be extremely healing and empowering to you and so helpful to the other person. Some people I know volunteer on local crisis lines and find it incredibly healing or write about how they overcame obstacles for younger people going through similar situations.
I wish you the very best in letting go of the hurt, pain, and anger you have inside of you as the result of being treated badly in the past. It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t deserve it. And you can move beyond it.