The headline is perhaps a confusing one to anyone who has experienced trauma and abuse in their life. The helping professions are full of practitioners who deal in the art of forgiveness. Religious, psychological and philosophical teachings all tell us that forgiveness is essential. “You have to forgive to be able to move on”, they say. “Forgiveness is the first step to processing the feelings you have”. We have been lead to believe, falsely in my opinion, that forgiveness is the only way to start healing.

Forgiveness is a major issue in therapy. Clients want to forgive abusers, parents, partners, sometimes children and others who have wronged them. They just feel they have to. Some of them start therapy with the bold statement they they have forgiven everyone who has done them harm and then spend the next hour proving the opposite. Many therapists early in their careers, myself included, buy into to the idea of the concept of forgiveness as part of the therapeutic process. As they become more experienced, they might see, as I did, that there are many flaws in the process. Primarily, by proclaiming forgiveness (sometimes when not ready), just avoidance tends to happen. By pushing natural feelings away and not working on them, we lose the chance to work through feelings of revenge, anger and sadness. Without working on these feelings, they will be left to fester and develop. We also in a way absolve those people who wronged us of their responsibility, especially in abuse cases. What often happens is that the proclamation of forgiveness means “let’s forget about what happened and pretend that it wasn’t as bad as we both know it is”. Hence, a fantasy of denial is built and maintained and responsibility goes inward when ideally it should go outward toward the people who did the hurting.

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In the case of codependency, it is always the case that the codependent was brought up in an environment of toxicity and dysfunction and maybe some form of abuse. In my experience of treating codependents, they often feel the need to forgive their parents and defend them to the hilt. They do this because they take the blame and responsibility for what happened and this was encouraged and consolidated by the parenting style they were subjected to. In fact, they often state that there is nothing to forgive them for as they did nothing wrong (or they are in denial). They are working with the same patterns as they did as a child. They remember the statements made by their parents which allowed them to take the blame for the lack of parenting.

Codependents are often sad and angry people who need to process the internal feelings of being brought up by people unable or unwilling to take them rationally through childhood. In much Inner Child and Internal Family Systems work that I do, that sadness and anger as well as confusion comes through. They have held onto these emotions, even sometimes when they have “forgiven” their parents. It has denied them a fruitful adult life and kept them trapped in the control of toxic parents long after that should have been released.

So when is it appropriate to forgive? Maybe, we are looking at timing here. We tend to forgive at the start of the healing process instead of where is more appropriate… at the end. Forgiveness can only come if the responsibility is firmly on the shoulders of the people who deserve to carry it and the emotions associated with the process are expressed fully to them. If parents are toxic, abusive or dysfunctional, they have to earn the right to be part of their adult “child’s” life. It is not a given, even if they probably think differently. By avoiding this process, the pain will continue. By processing and expressing strong emotions associated with childhood, you have a good chance of working through the process. There is always the chance that the relationship will improve.

If parents are willing to take responsibility for their own actions and work with their adult children, then forgiveness can come and a new basis can be set. If not and they continue to project their blame outwards, one has to accept the consequences of that and make decisions.

Without this process, one of a few things might happen. They all maintain the enmeshment created in childhood. Firstly, codependents cower down to dominant parents and “caretake”, avoiding their own needs or they shout and scream as a defence mechanism. Sometimes, codependents distance themselves physically from their toxic parents (sometimes across the globe) in an attempt to heal the pain but emotionally they are still affected.

Working through a dysfunctional relationship with your parents (even those who have passed away) takes courage and a willingness to confront them with what they own. Only then can forgiveness come into the picture.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. cyprian

    Thank you Nicholas for this article. It is an important subject. There is a tendency to expect from self to forgive and a strong judgment when not being able to “get there”. One more thing that I will add is the tendency to justify and defend parents or abusers. I have noticed that many co-dependants (including myself in the past) were rationalising the behaviour (“my mother had bad childhood too”) which does not allow to fully accept the damage experienced by abusers. In the end “mother’s trauma” is her responsibility and there should be no excuse for it. I think there is a time to look at the abusers with more compassion, probably after the true forgiveness come.