After Past Abuse, The Four Stages of Forgiveness

Reader’s Question

I was abused throughout much of my childhood and teen years by various people, including my parents. I’ve just started in an online abuse forum. It’s my first attempt to heal from all that’s happened to me in my past. I’m sure seeing a therapist would help, but I can’t get the money up to see one currently. For the past 6 months or so I’ve been slowly going back through my childhood and I’ve come to a point in my “recovery” that I feel the need to forgive my parents. I need to forgive my mom for being passive and unable to stop my other abusers (and her abuse as well), and my father for being so erratic and violent. (He was in Vietnam and was untreated for trauma himself until a year ago. Before he got treatment, he was very violent and “self-medicated” with various drugs, which made him even more erratic and violent.)

Although I’ve felt this need to forgive them for what they’ve done for some time now, and the thought of forgiving brings me some sense of peace, I’m beginning to suspect that I might be fooling myself. I say this because when I think back to my early childhood and all that happened, all of my old feelings are still there. It feels as though I’ve never tried to face my past before, and I still get the same overwhelming sensations when I think about my past, like nothing has changed. I still feel overpowered by it all, which makes me wonder if I am really moving toward forgiving or just avoiding dealing with it all. I wonder if it isn’t simply easier to say “forgiven” than it is to actually face the realities of abuse. Sometimes, to think that my parents intentionally hurt me or let me be hurt by others is simply overwhelming.

I don’t know what I should do. I DO want to forgive and to feel better, but I almost feel like my mind is playing tricks on me, like a part of me is trying to make me say “forgive and move on” while another part feels like I haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg in dealing with my past abuse. I denied the reality of my past for many many years until recently. I was also sexually abused by my mom’s boyfriend and I blocked all that out, too. I don’t want to wake up 40 years from now realizing I never “really” dealt with my issues and still having panic attacks, troubled relationships, unnecessary fears, etc. I’m young still and don’t want my life to be ruined by my past but lack the proper perspective to really understand what I should be doing to overcome it. Please help.

Psychologist’s Reply

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What you describe is very common among abuse survivors. Your early denial and repression were ways of defending yourself against pain too overwhelming to process. Now that you’ve begun the process of healing, you doubt yourself and your degree of readiness to move on. That’s perfectly normal.

Some professionals recognize 4 stages of forgiveness. In the first stage, after all the denial and repression are gone and you realize the full extent of your pain, you’re typically too angry with those who hurt you to forgive. In the second stage, you come to realize that anger itself can be a problem. It doesn’t feel good and it can affect your life in many negative ways. In the third stage, you start to weigh the benefits of forgiving and recognize that you have the power of choice to let go of your pain. In the fourth stage, the decisions to let anger go and to forgive are purely voluntary and are a pro-active means of keeping your life more vital and healthy.

You might be having some ambivalence right now because on a purely intellectual level, you are already aware of the likely benefits of forgiving. But perhaps you are not as prepared on an emotional level just yet to truly let go. In whatever effort you make to “recover” (whether through formal therapy or a support group), you will need to give yourself permission to feel okay about whatever you’re feeling. Remember, the only really valid reason to get rid of the anger, forgive and move on, is because to do so is good for YOU. And only you, by staying in honest contact with your deepest and truest sentiments, can know what stage of forgiveness you’re in and when you’re truly ready to make the decision to let go.

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