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Is Forgiveness Necessary for Trauma Recovery? Part 2

Amanda Ann Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Certified Therapist 

Forgiveness is not required in order to recover from trauma. After more than a decade as a trauma psychotherapist, I’ve treated many trauma survivors who’ve experienced recovering 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 additional reasons why forgiveness should not be imposed in the process of trauma recovery. 

Forgiveness blames survivors, perpetuating shame

Shame is often created or validated by trauma. Survivors often believe that they are “unlovable,” not “good enough,” “stupid,” “incapable,” “weak,” “bad,” or that they cannot safely exist in the world. In short, survivors often blame themselves for their own traumas, and a heavy-handed emphasis on the value of forgiveness contributes to a culture of victim-blaming that many survivors have unfortunately internalized. Requiring a trauma survivor to forgive their abuser can be perceived as the survivor being blamed for the actions of their abuser, or in some cases as suggesting a false equivalence between the wrong perpetrated by the abuser and the supposed “wrong” of the survivor failing or refusing to forgive their abuser, and this exacerbates feelings of shame and does more to center abusers than it does to center the standpoints of survivors. Consider this: A child believes that they are a “bad” kid because their mother yells and punches them. As an adult, they believe that they are a “bad person,” which has a negative impact on their self-worth and relationships. Then, a relative says, “That was years ago, you should forgive her.” If this adult cannot forgive (which is common when trauma experiences are unprocessed), this inability serves as further validation that they are indeed a “bad person.” 

Forgiveness encourages silence

When you forgive someone, you often don’t perceive the need to discuss or process the situation further. Consider a situation in which you have truly forgiven someone. How often do you need to discuss this incident with them or with yourself? It tends to be rare. In fact, one common sign that you have actually not forgiven someone is your need to continue to discuss the incident(s). As a result, forgiveness often carries an expectation of ourselves and of others that there won’t be a need for much discussion about the topic going forward, and may instill a false sense of reconciliation or closure. Trauma survivors need to be able to disclose and share their trauma narratives as often as needed, as this is a vital part of recovery. When we are pressured to forgive, we may feel as though we need not or should not continue to share or explore our narrative, which inhibits our ability to process and recover. Furthermore, forgiveness can inhibit survivors’ ability or willingness to report perpetrators, since seeking judicial accountability, vindication, or punishment is often seen as contrary to the “spirit” of forgiveness.

Forgiveness can be used as a means to avoid recovering 

Forgiveness can be the path of least resistance, which isn’t always a good thing. Trauma treatment is emotionally and at times physically painful. In order to avoid the pain of processing trauma, you might force yourself to forgive your abuser in the hopes that the impact of the trauma will dissipate. Yet, the relief that is experienced is usually temporary (if any comes at all). As Dr. Rosenna Bakari writes, “Trying to stop pain by forgiveness is like putting a box of cake mix in the oven and expecting to get a cake. That does not work, and you could burn down your house.” In short, you have to mix in ingredients before you attempt to bake your cake, and trauma recovery involves many painful ingredients such as experiences of intense grief, anger, shame, fear, and uncomfortable body sensations. 

To clarify, I’m not arguing that forgiveness should not be used in trauma recovery. In fact, many survivors have benefited from forgiving their abusers, and I have observed such benefits firsthand. My point is that forgiveness should not be regarded as a compulsory component of any trauma-recovering process, or as a pre-requisite for “moving forward.” I’ve noticed that when forgiveness is needed, it occurs naturally in the treatment process, without having to be forced or encouraged. I’ve observed many trauma survivors who never forgive their abusers and yet achieve successful trauma recovery, which they report leaves them with a sense of peace and hope for the future. 

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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