Heal & Forgive: Forgiveness in the Face of Abuse

Before I begin this review, I need to apologize. Nancy Richards had sent me a copy of her book months ago, with the promise that I would read and review it here. At that time, I knew it might be some time before I had the chance to read it, and expressed that, however I really have no excuse for it taking this long. Simply put, I allowed other things to get in the way. Nonetheless, I made a promise and I am keeping it.

When Nancy first contacted me about her book, and said it was a completely different way of looking at forgiveness, I was excited to read it. As I read it, much of it seemed very similar to my own experiences, constantly being told the only true way to heal was to forgive the people who hurt me. I hated that advice, in fact, I’m convinced that advice simply did more damage to me.

When she writes about divorcing her mother, not forgiving her, but simply saying “enough is enough”, leaving for her own well being, I wanted to applaud. You rarely see anyone give survivors permission to be selfish. The bottom line is that your first priority is taking care of yourself. You’re a survivor because someone failed to take care of you as a child. Perhaps even many people failed you. As an adult, it is your job to take care of yourself. The people who tell you that you haven’t “truly” healed until you can confront your abuser, and tell them you forgive them, are more than likely setting you up to be hurt all over again.

That was why, for the majority of this book, I completely agreed with what Nancy was writing. I could see a lot of my own story in it. I recalled the conversations I had with my therapist about how I needed to decide what sort of allegiance I owed my parents, and what sort of relationship, if any, I wanted to have with my family. I remembered my own feeling of freedom when she told me I didn’t have to do anything in regards to my relationships with the person who molested me, or the parents who failed to protect me, I only had to decide what was right, safe, and healthy for me.

Once past this point in the book, however, Nancy’s story and my own deviated quite a bit. She goes on to discuss the fact that only now, after doing some immense healing, is she ready to start the process of forgiving. While I appreciated that, I’m just not sure I agree with the word, or the concept of forgiveness. If you’ll allow me to get theological for a minute here, biblically speaking forgiveness is only meted out by God when a sinner asks for it, and repents. To me, forgiveness is about reconciling our relationship with God the only way that we can, by admitting we are sinful and need His forgiveness. The call for survivors to forgive is backwards, to me. I can’t forgive and enter into a relationship with someone who will not even acknowledge the pain they caused me, in fact, who continues to cause that pain. I can only decide what boundaries need to be in place within that relationship to prevent them from hurting me. I need to take care of myself.

Now, Nancy, however, obviously defines forgiveness differently. She, and many others, regard forgiveness as “letting go” of the anger and rage directed at those people. While I can certainly understand and agree that is an important part of truly healing, I don’t call that forgiveness. In my own history, I refer to that more as the point where I quit caring about those people who hurt me. I did what I needed to do in those relationships to be safe, and quit caring about the consequences of those actions. I quit mourning the things I didn’t have, and simply accepted that this is the way things are, the way those people are. I took the steps necessary in my life to find what I was lacking previously, in a healthy way that works for me. You might call that forgiveness, and we may just be arguing semantics here, but I would love to get survivors focused off the idea of forgiving their abusers, and onto the idea of taking care of themselves first, and letting their anger and rage be replaced by the simple contentment that comes from that.

So, if you’re sick and tired of being told you need to forgive your abusers, before you’ve managed to heal yourself at all, I highly recommend taking a look at this book. It will serve as a great reminder that there are others out there struggling with the idea of forgiveness and give you the freedom to not forgive when you need it.

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  1. Hi Mike,

    Thank you very much for posting your thoughts on abuse, forgiveness, and my book. I very much appreciate you comments. I whole-heartedly agree that the definition of forgiveness is a matter for further discernment.

    Certainly, I agree that full forgiveness requires confessions that rarely come from a perpetrator. I think we also agree that it is necessary to set aside the notion of forgiveness in order to focus on self-preservation, healing, and the re-evaluation (or severing) of the relationship with an offender.

    I believe the point in which we differ is the question of whether “letting go” would be defined as forgiveness, or simply no longer caring. Either way, I think we have the same opinion that pressuring anyone to forgive – is very damaging.

    I’m grateful that you have opened up the much needed – and often dismissed viewpoint that our focus should be on healing the self – rather than on forgiving.

    All my best,

  2. Hi Mike,

    After sleeping on the question of the definition of forgiveness, I have another comment: If I look at forgiveness as an “action,” then I would agree – I did not forgive. Without acknowledgment, an apology, and an “act” of contrition on the part of my mother, I did not perform the “act” of telling her, I accept your apology and I forgive you.

    If I look at forgiveness as a “feeling,” then I did forgive. I “felt” forgiving. Even though (or because) I no longer had a relationship with her, I healed to the point where I felt “peace” towards her.

    After the publication of my book, my mother did call me for the first time in 14 years. She apologized for my abuse and asked if we could reconcile. Her acknowledgment and apology provided a new level of healing and forgiving previously unavailable to me without her participation.

    During the last year since her call, we have begun the slow process of building trust and reconciliation. The most astounding thing she said to me was, “I’m happy you used your experiences to help others.”

    So, in that vein, whether we define forgiveness as an action, or a feeling, or both; full forgiveness, does require participation with the person who cause the harm.


  3. Mike,
    Your post here is a very timely one. This is exactly where I am at in my healing and it is a very difficult place to be. I’m finding it even more difficult in light of being a Christian and understanding what the Bible says about forgiveness. For example, my father was one of my perpetrators. These last 2 months, more information has surfaced from my siblings directly relating to my abuse. At first, I didn’t think it affected me too much but now I’m seeing otherwise. My father has tried to call me twice over the past week but I can not bring myself to pick up the phone when I see it is him calling. I’m very angry at him.

    Now, having said all of that, am I a bad Christian because I am giving my father the “cold shoulder” treatment. I feel like I am. Why can’t I give myself permission to not talk to him if I am not emotionally able to?

    I have not seen my counselor in almost 2 years. I have an appt. with her tomorrow. I called and made the appt. because I’m seeing signs of depression setting in again. More has happened in the last 2 months that I have not shared and I feel stuck. I’ll check back after the appt. and let you know how it goes. 🙂

  4. Thanks for stopping by Nancy. I do appreciate your book giving survivors the freedom to focus on healing themselves. It is definitely something that we both feel needs to be discussed more often!

  5. Thank you for this thoughtful post and dialogue. For me, “forgiveness” was a goal I set for myself…for myself! I saw it as a way to release some of the hate that was hurting me–eating me up inside. Anger, on the other hand, can still be a healthy part of healing for my recovery journey.

    Would you be willing to continue this dialogue in the BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE? I think it would be great for that!

  6. I agree with you, Mike. How can you ‘forgive’ (and I don’t like this word because of all the varying definitions) someone who will not even acknowledge that you have been hurt? You are absolutely right when you say that you owe it to yourself to take care of yourself and you should be allowed to do that even if it means not ‘forgiving’. The thing I find sickening, is that when survivors are hurt, angry, in pain — people do not hesitate to declare their feelings wrong and to blame them by telling them to forgive or by subtly condemning anger, which is simply another emotion. I get so sick of seeing comments on blogs like, “forgive so you can heal”, “choose to be happy”, “let go”, etc. ad nauseum. What these people are really saying is “just get over it”. They don’t even know that they have been brainwashed by society and by their own abusers — just like when they were kids, and they are still responding to this early programming that demands certain attitudes. When was the last time you saw someone go to the abuser and tell THEM that they are wrong and should stop their feelings and consider others instead? When was the last time you heard of an abuser being confronted by their contemporaries and brow-beaten into ‘forgiving’ their children for just being children? When was the last time people ganged up on your parents and pressured them to change, forgive, discard themselves and just BE WRONG? Yeah. Me either. This treatment seems to be reserved for the victims.

    Congratulations, Mike! You are a flippin’ genius and don’t you let anybody tell you different. Now you have seen the truth and no one take it away from you.


  7. The only concept of forgiveness I’ve remotely been able to swallow was one propounded by my therapist (who has been to seminary). She says forgiveness means giving up the right to seek vengence – giving that over to God. She explained that it is NOT letting go of any right to seek the imposition of legal consequences. But it means not taking the act of revenge into your own hands. She pointed to David and how he prayed to God to deliver consequences and even death unto his enemies.

    I’m not even there yet. If I found out my abuser hurt another child, I think I would struggle not to hurt him. But it’s the only concept I can remotely consider.

    I might have to pick up this book sometime. thanks for sharing your post and the thoughtful dialogue.

  8. hello,

    my name is ramone and i was physically and also emotionally abused by my own mother because she hated me and also my own father and his family because of that he is a very influential part of life and she hates it

    i have more scars both physical and also emotional from my own mother because she never knew how to be a parent

    my mother hated the day that i started my first business and she still does

  9. Absolutely I agree that our responsibility is to ourselves and our safety and healing. I don’t much believe in telling an abuser I forgive them. It’s far too likely to make them think I’m saying what they did is okay with me. I do believe that ultimately it’s in our best interest to let go of rage/anger so that we can use that energy to do things that make us happy. At the same time, I believe we need to first honor our anger because it is saying–against all odds and against what we were told at the time–that what was done to us was wrong, what was done to us hurt and did profound damage and that our feelings do matter.

  10. http://www.guardian.co.uk/worldlatest/story/0,,-7235582,00.html

    I hit the anger stage of my healing process, that took a year. I forgave my father, that was easier, he was family and it was general emotional stuff as well as some beatings – when it’s physical, I just found it easier to dump off, also because he’s dead.

    Now when I hear the abuse excuse from those who have “passed it on” (link above) that makes me mad, you cross the line into offending deal with it and don’t expect anything from your victims.

    Channelling anger into making yourself better seems to be working. I’m just not down with the Christian ideal for people outside my family, whether that changes or not, I’ll let you know.

  11. I am with you Mike.
    I think being told to forgive and being expected to forgice is debunkem.

    We all need to support our inner child and a forgiveness in most contexts denys our inner child.

    Good for you Mike.

  12. I have been following this post and comments and I’m confused. I read “Heal and Forgive” and it was the first book I read that said I didn’t have to forgive! In fact the whole focus of her book is about healing the self. Ms Richards describes in depth the process she went through to come to this realization. She had read many books on child abuse and all of the books were telling her she had to forgive in order to heal. It was very clear to her that this wasn’t working. After many attempts to have a healthy relationship with her family she eventually realized that whether it was acceptable or not it was necessary for her healing to limit if not curtail her contact with her family of origin. Through this process she discovered that it was possible to reach a place of peace and forgiveness within herself.

    I agree there are many definitions of forgiveness. Wikipedia is a great source to further that debate. There is also a wonderful book about anger by Thich Nhat Hanh called Anger. As Ms Richards says in her book, anger is a necessary, acceptable and healthy part of healing. On the other hand, she also says, as does Thich Nhat Hanh, that looking after yourself includes healthy ways of experiencing your anger.

    I do not hesitate to endorse this book. It helped me recognize and break the cycle of abusive relationships that began in my childhood and continued throughout my adult life. I’m still learning!

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