On Forgiveness (And Bad Therapists)
In the trenches of my deepest trauma processing at 19 years old, living in New York City, I was on the hunt for a new therapist. I had seen 5 in the last 2 years already - all pretty painfully bad at being present and compassionate. I was weary from telling my story. I was tired of hearing myself talk. I was emotionally exhausted by asking for help but I knew I desperately needed it. Support groups like the Adult Survivors Of Child Abuse (ASCA) group weren’t enough. Just talking to friends wasn’t enough.
So I made an appointment and walked into a Chelsea Co-Op building. A young man in a cowboy hat greeted me and took me to his office. Once again, I spilled my story - the trauma, abuse, incest, my whole life, then took a breath to say “So can you help me?”
He sighed and said “Here’s what I think, but you’re not going to like it.”
Good. Honesty. That’s refreshing.
I would never forget what he said from there.
“I think you need to forgive your father. You’re angry with him and that’s what’s holding you back. The work I do requires you to find unconditional love and acceptance for people. Plus you’re too young for therapy. Come back when you’re 40 and you have some stability - a husband, stable job, and THEN we’ll do this work. Ok?….Ok.”
I was appalled to say the least. Absolutely speechless. Is it truly a requirement that I forgive my abuser in order to receive the support I needed right at this moment? I must have a ‘stable’ life in order to do the processing work that my body was already deep in? As trauma survivors we don’t get to choose when we’re ready, our bodies react anyways. It send us flashbacks, somatic signals, and emotional pain. If we take on that challenge of being with it, forgiveness is often last on the list.
What I learned in this moment (besides the fact that NYC is filled with unsuitable therapists and that academic training alone is not enough to understand the deep well of human experience) is that it is NEVER okay to demand forgiveness from someone. Forgiveness is not a requirement for healing. In fact, if forgiveness is the only goal of therapy, we miss HUGE critical steps that often come first such as experiencing anger and grief, kicking and screaming, release, acceptance of where we are now, forgiving ourselves, vulnerability, feeling the pain, inching towards compassion, and then reeling back into rage. All of this is so important on our journeys of healing through trauma.
Although forgiveness is not a requirement for healing - often after the anguish and processing, we reach a point where we realize the only thing left keeping us tied to the traumatic experience is resentment. I remember a very powerful moment in meditation where I realized the anger and pain I still had left in me was only hurting….me, not the person I was mad at. It seemed futile to hold onto it, although painful to let go. The choice to forgive was for my own wellbeing, to put down the hot coals and give myself freedom again.
Lets get a few things straight about forgiveness:
Forgiveness is not for the person you are forgiving, it’s for your own freedom and liberation.
Forgiveness doesn’t relinquish accountability or deny/minimize the harm done. It doesn’t mean what happened “wasn’t that bad”
Forgiveness is not a one time thing! It’s a process that happens a little bit at a time and must be done over and over again.
Having forgiveness doesn’t always mean you’re “done” processing or healing
Having gratitude for the lessons learned does not mean your’e grateful for the trauma or abuse, it just means you acknowledge your strength and resilience in the process.
In truth, forgiveness must always be about you and done in your own time. No one has the right to tell you how or when to forgive - not the other person or people, not our families, and certainly, not our therapists. If you see that guy in the cowboy hat, tell him I forgive him :)