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How to Heal Childhood Trauma Without Forgiving the Person Who Caused It

Apr 05, 2021

I used to believe in the power of forgiveness. Actually, I still do, but not the way many people profess it. Forgiving people who caused trauma did not make me my best self.

Desperate for family approval, I paid too high a price for forgiveness. I sacrificed my emotional well-being and lived in the space of mental smallness. Forced forgiveness made me a psychological victim for decades beyond my abuse.

Heart work ultimately moved me from victim to survivor and from survivor to thriver. Now, I believe in the power of healing.

Forgiveness is not a badge of honor. It is not more important than connecting to your inner child, taking care of your body, creating healthy boundaries, or letting go of secrets. Forgiveness does not override these critical aspects of healing.

People sometimes put forgiveness at the top of their healing agenda because it helps them fit into systems of family, culture, and religion. Support for the areas of healing that are actually about healing is harder to find.

The High Price of Forgiveness

I am a well-adjusted human with steady success in my life. I have forgiven many people along my journey. Some individuals disappointed me by not living up to my expectations, others willingly hurt me. Some female friends abandoned our relationships to pursue male companionship.

My husband once told me we should never have married. My son went absent from my life for two years. My mother made some parenting decisions that were not in my best interest. Love overruled disappointment in all these circumstances. Forgiveness arose effortlessly.

Forgiveness arises in hurt people when circumstances are met. But, no one can determine the conditions of forgiveness for another person. Forgiveness is a natural process. So is unforgiveness. We must trust that more important work needs to be done when we are in a state of unforgiveness.

More harm than good

When forgiveness is extended for the wrong reason, more harm than good may be done. Forgiveness out of fear is not forgiveness. Fear of isolation, retribution, or failure is still just fear. Forced forgiveness, like pseudo-love, will often lead to disappointment.

My family members never asked me to forgive directly. But they did ask for my silence. I offered my forgiveness because I didn’t know any other way to remain silent.

I could not show up for holiday dinners and family reunions and greet my violators without a heavy dose of forgiveness to underwrite my silence.
The violators were never asked to acknowledge their wrong or make amends. They maintained their positions as protected pillars of the family.

Meanwhile, I lived with wishes to die and perfectionism as peace. I suffered from fainting spells, asthma, fibroids, and digestive disease. Then, at age 44, back-to-back losses of loved ones forced me to look at my family differently.

My defenses broke down as I wrestled with losing the loved ones that made my world feel safe while still living in silence with those who had caused me so much harm.

The unaddressed pain of childhood sexual abuse exacerbated my grief. I needed self-care, an unadulterated focus on decisions that served me best. Ten years into my healing journey, I can definitely state that forgiveness is not the key to healing.

Five practices

Five practices open survivors up to do the heart work of healing. The key is to focus on how you feel about yourself, not others.

#1 Live Openly

I slowly dropped the secret of incest. I began disclosing to friends and colleagues to process the effect of the abuse and my family’s response to my disclosure.

I needed listeners to help me make sense of why people who loved me would choose a violator over supporting me. I didn’t tell everyone I knew, but I no longer cared about who knew.

Living openly, I discovered, was an ongoing process, not a task. My growth came from processing the pain, not from talking about the painful events constantly.

Once I came fully out of denial about my abuse through living openly, I invited other survivors to do the same. I needed to break my growing sense of isolation.

  • I started an online support group for survivors.
  • I wrote and produced a play that addressed the silence of survivors.
  • I began advocacy work in my community.

The more I processed, not just my pain, but the collective pain of survivors, the more I understood healing.

We are taught to hide our pain instead of heal our pain. So, survivors may find themselves living with more anxiety after they begin letting go of secrets. Mental doom may make you feel like you are waiting for the shoe to drop.

When you have committed to silence and you start to move away from that commitment, it doesn’t always feel right. You may feel like you are the one betraying someone. So you are waiting for the consequence for your decision.

Your fear takes over and leaves you with a feeling of anxiety. Your anxiety is trying to protect you from doing something you will regret, living openly. But, your desire to live openly is not the problem.

You are not responsible for protecting anyone. When you allow yourself the freedom of choice in how you live, the anxiety will likely lessen. But healing and hiding are mutually exclusive.

#2 Let Go of Toxic People

When I took forgiveness off the priority list, I looked at my family differently. My beautiful family was toxic, and I had to distance myself by eliminating contact.

In disclosing my abuse to a friend, I explained that my sister was my best friend and letting her go hurt deeply. My friend asked me, “What kind of best friend asks you to keep a secret that she is married to someone who violated you?” I cried because I didn’t have a response.

I confessed the sense of betrayal I’d felt for decades from my sister not choosing me. I had never evaluated my family. I just loved and forgave them. I missed the daily phone calls, visits, free advice, and having someone around who had known me all of my life.

For a long time I saw myself as weak instead of admitting that my family was toxic. Toxic people are unreasonably demanding or insensitive to your needs. The request for silence and requiring you to share space with people who harmed you is toxic.

Toxic people are not always mean. Sometimes, they are just manipulative. If you have to shrink yourself emotionally to be in the presence of someone, they are toxic.

Signs of toxic relationships

  • You have negative feelings you cannot express.
  • You spend most of your time in their company hiding what you really feel.
  • If you say anything contrary to the perception the person is trying to convey, you will be ostracized.

A focus on forgiveness may blind you from seeing the manipulation. But, you must be able to identify toxic relationships to heal. When you identify them, you must distance yourself from them.

Like living openly, distancing yourself from toxic people is a process. Some people cut off all contact with toxic people at once, going “no contact.” Other people distance themselves slowly, especially if children are attached to the toxic person.

Whether removing toxic people from your life is immediate or a process, it must be an intentional act. Do not allow preconditioned forgiveness to get in the way of your intention.

#3 Understand the Context

I was fortunate to have friends in the human services field, as well as teaching-psychologist colleagues. They helped me understand that the request for silence was toxic.

They asked me critical questions when I disclosed. They did not ask me details about the abuse. They wanted me to tell them about the environment that allowed violators access to me.

They also asked about family and cultural dynamics that made silence the rule. They encouraged me to consider the context of my abuse. I spent a decade unraveling the nuances. Part of that context included forgiveness as the denial of harm.

I had witnessed my father’s emotional harm of my mother and listened to her quote Bible scriptures to survive. My sister held her husband in high esteem as the perfect father in spite of knowing he sexually abused me. She requested me not to tell anyone, especially our mother, about the abuse.

My family held a lot of secrets, and men had a lot of power in my house. These family traits made me accessible to people who harmed. They also fostered my silence.

Understanding how this context influenced my response to harm opened up new insights. Those new insights empowered me to make new choices. I evolved from being a character stuck in a story of forgiveness to being the empowered narrator.

My mother, whom I love dearly, has continually revised my life story within the context of a complicated family history that includes more than the usual share of divorce, step-children, dysfunction, and obfuscation. I’ve spent most of my adult life attempting to deconstruct that history and separate fact from fiction.
— Melissa Gilbert

You may be tempted to try to understand why someone harmed you. But asking why will not help you understand your trauma. The “why” is not as important as understanding the “how.”

  • How did the person have access to you?
  • How were you unprotected?
  • How were you given signals to remain silent?
  • How did the perpetrator present themselves to you and your family?
  • How was power expressed in your environment?
  • How was power earned?
  • How were you targeted?

These are the types of questions that will help you build an empowering narrative based on your reality. You empower yourself when you ask the right questions. When you empower yourself to question and assess, creating boundaries becomes easier.

#4 Reconcile with the Inner Child

The boundaries you create will help you reconnect with your inner child. The inner child is the mind’s remnant of the traumatic past. The subconscious holds a space that remains child-like when the psyche is wounded. It can manifest as self-sabotage or destructive behavior.

“Caring for your inner child has a powerful and surprisingly quick result: Do it and the child heals.”
— Martha Beck

The measures I had taken to survive the trauma seemed stupid, immoral, or weak to the adult who chose perfection as a defense. As an adult, I needed to rescue my inner child and manifest love where there was judgment.

Connecting to your inner child is unlikely as long as your adult mind is making a priority out of maintaining relationships with toxic people. The inner child wants to feel safe, and will respond to unsafe environments by shutting down or acting out.

A nontraditional therapist guided me to suspend my current reality to look at the vulnerability and innocence of my inner child with love. I was fearful of acknowledging the pain at an emotional level.

Ironically, the pain we experience today may only be quelled by allowing ourselves to go deeper into the pain we felt (or denied ourselves) as children.

Talk therapy is not the most effective means of inner child work. We remain too connected to the adult experience when we use words to process information.

On your own, you can find pictures of yourself as a child and place them beside you as you write a letter to your younger self. Pick out a child at the playground who reminds you of yourself and silently state words of affirmation. Swing on the swings while you are there. Listen to yourself laugh out loud.

In seeking therapy, ask therapists how they incorporate inner child work into treatment. But avoid treatments that focus only on inner child work. Healing requires a lot of processing to understand the full scope of your trauma. Just getting in touch with your inner child will not suffice.

Every aspect of healing is a process. Inner child work can be overwhelming or unbearable. Don’t turn it into a task. You are likely to move into and away from the work throughout your healing journey. That’s perfectly fine.

#5 Go Against the Grain

You have to be willing to break some rules. Exert power over your life. Make your own rules and live life by design. Rules are made for functionality, but not necessarily to optimize anyone’s life.

We are taught not to break the rules, even when we are broken by the rules. Outdated, dysfunctional, or misguided rules often stand between you and your ability to design your optimal life.

No matter how many family members request your continued presence at the holiday gatherings, you can stop attending. You can also stop attending religious ceremonies and practice spirituality on your own.

Stop responding to stressful phone calls, lending money upon request, and sacrificing body autonomy to make others happy. Not everyone has to like or approve of your decisions.

At some point, all thrivers have gone against the grain. We’ve had to disappoint people, challenge the status quo, and live in isolation until we find our tribe.

We are not necessarily big on courage. Fear is often still present when we make our decisions. Determination to move away from patterns that no longer serve us fuels us to go against the grain.

Healing, Not Healed

Healing is a lifelong journey. These five practices have taken me much further on the journey than the silence and forgiveness in which I lived for decades. Since I have taken control of my life, I no longer contemplate ending it.

I evolved from being a character stuck in a story of forgiveness to being the empowered narrator. I now use my own voice to tell myself how my pain began and how my suffering ended. My healing did not start with forgiveness. It began with self-care.

As you heal, one day, forgiveness may arise. Or, it may never arise. Set your intention on healing instead of getting along. Your focus on heart work will keep you on your lifelong healing journey.

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