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Is Forgiveness Necessary for Trauma Recovery? Part 1

Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Certified Therapist 

“Forgiveness is for you, not the other person”

“Don’t let someone rent space in your head.”

“You need to forgive so that you can move on.”

Have you heard any of these popular sayings? Do you believe them? When it comes to recovering from trauma, perhaps you shouldn’t. 

Forgiveness is potentially problematic when incorporated into trauma treatment. It’s been said that forgiveness can help survivors to “move on” or “let go” of the pain of their past. Some believe that you must forgive those who caused or contributed to your trauma in order to recover. Yet, there is no statistical evidence that suggests that this is true. 

After more than a decade as a trauma psychotherapist, I’ve witnessed the benefits of forgiveness for many of my clients. However, I do not believe that forgiveness is required in order to recover from trauma, as I’ve treated many trauma survivors who’ve experienced recovery without forgiving their abusers. Furthermore, I’ve learned that mandating or encouraging forgiveness can be detrimental to trauma survivors and create obstacles in their recovery.  

Here are reasons why forgiveness should not be imposed in the process of trauma recovery. 

Forgiveness diminishes harms and wrongs, which inhibits safety

Imagine you are told that you must forgive someone who has harmed you. It does not matter what the situation was or its impact on you; you must forgive them. When you seek social support, you are being told things such as, “that was years ago, let it go,” and “you shouldn’t feel angry, move on.” These messages demonstrate a lack of acceptance and even empathy on the part of those who express them, and may cause you to feel as though your perceptions, emotions, and experiences are illegitimate, false, or misdirected; they might suggest that your pain or well-justified anger is simply less important than your ability to forgive your abuser. Acceptance is an important ingredient to fostering and maintaining safety for trauma survivors, and safety is required in order to recover and process trauma. A failure or refusal to accept and affirm trauma survivors’ lived experiences creates  environments and relationships that are detrimental to their ability to recover or truly “move on.” 

Forgiveness focuses on the abuser instead of the survivor

“Forgiveness is for you – not the other person,” is a popular, well-intended saying.  However, such a cliché doesn’t translate well to trauma recovery, as forgiveness focuses on the relationship that the survivor has with their abuser.  In contrast, trauma recovery ought to focus on the survivor’s relationship with themself. Trauma treatment is focused on the survivor’s individualized needs and internal processes. If a survivor has any type of relationship with their abuser, this relationship is addressed, but it is addressed from the needs and best interests of the survivor. Some survivors may benefit from forgiving their abusers, but others either may not derive such a benefit from forgiveness, or may in fact feel the need to withhold forgiveness, and both kinds of attitudes need to be received with equal respect and empathy. Moralistic attitudes to the contrary are not only counter-therapeutic, they tend to center the abuser at the expense of the victim, implying that the onus for righting a past wrong is to be shouldered by the latter, not the former, and in some cases even suggesting that a failure to extend forgiveness is itself a wrong, thus shifting attention and blame away from the real wrong that was the perpetration of the trauma itself.  

There are many more reasons why forgiveness isn’t necessary for trauma recovery. Read Part 2 to learn more. 

Symmetry Counseling provides trauma-informed individual, family, and couples’ therapy. Contact Symmetry Counseling to make an appointment. 

Bakari, R (2020) Forgiveness is the wrong response to trauma. Medium. Blog post retrieved from https://medium.com/illumination/forgiveness-is-the-wrong-response-to-trauma-37a002774ade

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