If you’re reading this, you are probably tired of carrying feelings of blame, hurt, resentment or shame. You may have become distant from someone you once loved (or at least thought you did) because they have done so much wrong. Perhaps someone has taken advantage of you financially - they owe you a debt, but it burns you up to think they simply haven’t, or won’t pay it. Maybe what they have stolen from you is emotional, such as your sense of self-worth, happiness and dignity. Holding onto these hurts can make people very depressed, untrusting in relationships (perhaps even ‘cold’) and in extreme cases unsure if they want to keep living.
Sometimes, a person’s actions have caused so much damage that even if they seek amends, it feels impossible to forgive them. Maybe they don’t even acknowledge or recognise that they have been deceitful, harmful and toxic towards you. In situations where the perpetrator of trauma has murdered someone you love, or been serially violent, they may have taken such a chunk out of who you are, that you never seem to feel whole or complete again.
Holding on to hurt and pain never allows the injuries to heal. You decay emotionally, especially if the offence is deeply significant. Yet working through these feelings is so crucial, as you may never regain your sense of happiness and comfort without at some level overcoming the negativity associated with the person, or what they did. Failing to address wounded feelings sometimes serves to give the person who caused you pain continuing power over you. They hurt you then, and might still be tormenting you now. It may be that they are still an important part of your life, and whilst they are not actively hurtful anymore, the memory of what they did (or perhaps did not do, when you needed it most) plagues your mind.
When the kinds of scenarios described are playing out, you would be expected to feel anger and a strong desire for justice or retribution. Of course, every step should be taken to make the offender accountable for what they have done, and to try to prevent it ever happening to anyone else again. Depending on the situation, this might mean involving statutory agencies such as the Police, Social Services or Courts. However, there must come a point (if you value your own sanity) that you let go. It is less about releasing the offender from their ‘prison’, but having the courage to walk out of the prison that the hurt and shame has imposed upon you.
It may seem impossible, even an insult to injury, to consider ever forgiving these hurts. However, forgiveness is personal power (see 10 Scientifically Proven Life Skills for Health and Happiness by Luskin and Pelletier, 2005). In its essence, forgiveness is about letting go. It is a physical, mental and emotional act. Something that the “doer” needs to actively accept and decide to do. It is possible only when you feel ready, and never before.
Being able and ready to forgive releases you from the negativity attached to a situation, time, place, person or incident. The circumstances that cause anguish and trauma are never a choice. You probably had no control over what happened. If you were abused or victimised by another, it is certainly not your fault. You do have power, or can rediscover it, if you can be supported to choose how you react and work out a way to move forwards. It’s not that what happened was ok, or in any way acceptable – the hurt is completely unjustifiable. All people must stand against injustice in all its forms, and offenders who have robbed others of dignity, hope and happiness should be held to account. Yet there are many occasions where prosecutions do not stand, or victims simply can’t go through with disclosing what has happened, such that the offender gets off scot-free. If you stay stuck in the negativity, more of your life is stolen. You have to work through what has happened, otherwise the fire of rage, shame, fear or revenge will consume you.
Whilst it may not help right now, it is often the case that a perpetrator of abuse, exploitation or violence has been a victim too, at some point in their lives. That’s not to say that all victims go on to pass their experience onto others – not all victims become abusers too. However, there is compelling evidence that someone who hurts, is in many ways hurt themselves. After all, how can anyone who is harmful to another be healthy in respect of their own mental and emotional health? You should never allow this kind of analysis to keep you in an abusive situation, because you are too precious to lose yourself in empathy for the person who is abusing you. However, it may help you (when you arrive at a point of safety and freedom from the abuse or exploitation) to consider the perpetrator as someone who may have had very limited emotional choices or insight.
According to research conducted by Dr Robert Enright who founded the International Forgiveness Institute, people who are more forgiving are happier and healthier than those who hold on to negative emotions. It isn’t easy, and it may take years. The first step is acknowledging (rather than ignoring or repressing) what has happened to you. Then, consider what feelings are associated with this event or set of experiences – have they changed over time, or are the emotional consequences variable from day to day? Might you be traumatised – has the situation had such an impact, that you could be suffering with PTSD? Are you still at risk, and are you still vulnerable to being mistreated or hurt?
In scenarios of abuse and exploitation, it isn’t psychologically healthy to jump to forgiveness. That might just be an avoidance or other complex psychological defence, and it could leave you feeling even more invalidated or unimportant. Rather, find someone you trust to talk through what has happened. Let someone know if you are still at risk. You need not suffer alone, and it need not feel so bad forever. There are many therapeutic approaches that help with managing very difficult human emotions. There are ways to reduce trauma, manage stress and work through angry feelings without hurting others, or yourself. No matter how impossible it seems, you can be supported to overcome the emotional pain.
If you need help for what you have experienced, there are some good organisations out there who can assist and offer advice. For experiences of childhood abuse get in touch with NAPAC. If you are worried that a child may be being abused in the present, or is at risk, then the NSPCC can support you. If you are currently a victim of domestic violence, or want to help someone who is, visit the National Domestic Violence Helpline. For bereaved parents, there is someone to talk to at Compassionate Friends. If the matter is one of PTSD, and the stress is affecting you in day to day life, then please look at Assist Trauma Care.
Most of all, remember that you have a right to feel safe, to thrive and flourish. Don’t let anyone, or anything, take that right away from you. Whatever the past has stolen, you can be helped to reclaim your sense of being and purpose.
Pinder Chauhan Birdi
Pinder Chauhan Birdi is guest writer for Solihull Well Being Clinic. As a Human Resource Management Graduate, she is now working to get parents back to work through child care schemes, employee programmes and consultation to global organisations. She is also a public speaker at well-being conferences, as also being an author.