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Trauma Survivors: It's OK to Stop Trying to Forgive and Grieve Instead

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Have you ever been told forgiveness is the ultimate key to healing? That if you could fully commit to this practice with enough diligent persistence, you’d find relief and finally get over the past? I have too.

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Unfortunately, when processing trauma, this advice isn’t always helpful. In fact, attempting to forgive too soon can set trauma survivors back and actually complicate their healing process.

Real trauma recovery is messy and unpredictable and, whether you’re aware of it or not, society still tends to blame and shame its victims.

Instructing wounded people to forgive is oppressive and it forces them, once again, into the powerless state of submission.

It’s important to know progress won’t always look the way we or others believe it should.

True progress isn’t only epiphanies and rainbows. More often, it’s incredible discomfort (and often physical pain) accompanied with episodes of emotional volatility and instability.

Healing work is strenuous and there are no shortcuts. Practicing forgiveness, before the survivor is ready, only reinforces denial, guilt and self-blame, keeping many stuck in an endless loop of frustration and despair. It can encourage victims to disconnect from themselves and their true feelings, and this only leads to dis-ease.

I learned the hard way relief only occurred when I got honest about and actually felt the feelings I wanted to escape. Initially, this had nothing to do with forgiving anyone.

Don’t like what I’m saying? I get it.

Avoidance was once my modus operandi. The sensations and feelings associated with my trauma made me so irritable and reactive, I resorted to merely telling my stories in therapy, hoping sheer repetition alone would offer relief. And it would for awhile, but the pain inevitably resurfaced and, once again, I was off to the races.

My sister’s suicide finally forced me to get real with myself. It left me heartbroken and too exhausted to resist or run. It slowed me down enough to face the reality of my past so the healing could actually begin.

Recovery is never linear; there are many ups and downs, and I’m not going to lie… I still rage and struggle on occasion. I hate the setbacks and sometimes deeply resent the people who hurt me.

Why shouldn’t I? I’m only human and the one left to clear the wreckage of other people’s inconceivable choices and actions. I witnessed in horror as family members disconnected, disintegrated and died as a result of it.

Should I have to “practice” forgiveness to heal my pain?

No, and neither do you. Here’s why: Any and all healing work naturally releases us, one messy and validated feeling at a time, from the grip of further denial, depression and self-harm.

We didn’t cause the trauma we endured, but we’re the only ones who can release its grip by recognizing it for what it really was and giving ourselves the kindness and respect we’ve always deserved.

We must give ourselves permission to acknowledge our realities and grieve in our own unique ways.

Forgiveness will happen naturally when we no longer resonate with the distorted messages we absorbed during perpetration. There’s never a need to “practice” forgiveness or to “let go” of anything. Once we acknowledge and experience ourselves in the full, the feelings will move through us and we’ll find relief.

Forgiveness occurs when we give back what never belonged to us in the first place. This doesn’t require tearful reconciliations or compromised boundaries either. It’s simply the direct result of reclaiming ourselves, our worth and our place in the world.

Learning to trust ourselves again can be scary. We sometimes believe we’re undeserving, but that’s only because we were mishandled and brainwashed by confused people who were working their stuff out on us. They weren’t willing or able, for whatever reason, to address it themselves.

Once I began to feel into the rage, resentment and betrayal, I also allowed myself to (safely) express it. I screamed, wailed and pounded a couch cushion until I couldn’t anymore. Then did it again until I finally released the hurt beneath the anger.

I often felt as though I was going backwards or losing my mind during this process. I wasn’t.

Progress often looks like total destruction. It’s the arduous work of experiencing and integrating, and few will attempt it because it hurts and it’s ugly, but it’s well worth the effort.

Do your broken heart a favor, and stop believing you must forgive to move on… it’s counterintuitive. Allow yourself, instead, to feel into and grieve your losses.

If you’re doing this work, I honor you and I’m here with you. I know it isn’t easy.

I also know relief and restoration are on the other side of this mess, and we’ll only find it if we encourage ourselves and stop trying to disconnect from our truths.

Love and authenticity are what our hearts long for, and we can only experience them by opening up to and loving ourselves.

There’s really no winning or losing in this; there’s only reclaiming what was meant to be ours in the first place: love, acceptance and respect.

So, if you’re feeling anxious, unsteady, scared, confused or out of control as a result of trauma, you might be on the right track.

Keep seeking support and don’t give up.

There really is life after heartbreak and, today, you can create it on your terms.

Forgiveness will meet you along the way.

Photo by Erick Lee Hodge on Unsplash

Originally published: June 28, 2019
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