Forgiving is a liberating act of love to self and others. It can free us from pain, resentment, from feeling separate from others and life. But forgiveness, if not felt deeply and given with enough rooted authenticity, can be a means of bypassing uncomfortable feelings (spiritual bypassing), the truth of one’s raw inner experience.
Long held as a virtue in religious teachings, cultures and, more recently, in new age / personal growth circles, we have and continue to be taught and even expected to forgive; to let it go and move on, for it is the kind and moral thing to do. “Be the bigger person.” “Get over your past!” “Stop playing victim!” “You are better than they are.” “Don’t let them get to you.” “You are past that now.” “Forgive and forget!” These and other trite narratives drive shallow immediacy and moral ground ideals into what is, for most, a long, painstaking process of healing.
In a culture of quick-fix solutions and spiritual bypassing these narratives should be no surprise. Euro-western societies are bereft of slowness, depth and empathy, three ingredients necessary to feel—feel into forgiveness. The “realism” of progress, being strong and “moving on” keep us looking ahead rather than within. They overshadow our inner shadows calling for kind attention. There’s little room for the slow burn of healing and authentic forgiveness.
Pseudo or inauthentic “forgiveness” inevitably takes shape. Inauthentic because “forgiveness” is more a surreptitious means of coping and denying. Fed from age old and new age dogma pumping the narratives of family and societal “values”, what’s real in our body—our emotional pain—is bypassed in order to gather strength, survive the reality of our difficult situations, carry on, and “return to normal”.
Clients of mine speak of how they, years ago, chose to forgive their parents for the abuse or neglect experienced growing up. “I made the decision,” my client tells me, “to accept what was happening in our home so I could just move on.” Many of them also confess that part of their reasoning for not “putting up a fuss” was that they didn’t want to add to the existing storms in the household: “I forgave my parents because I didn’t want to be an added burden in a household already struggling with so much chaos.” And so they chose to simply “accept” the neglect, abuse, etc; to make things easier for everyone and “forgive”.
Despite their noble intention, “forgiveness” was, in truth, more an act of normalizing dysfunction. If my clients could “forgive” their parents’ actions or inaction (make it “okay”), the dysfunction “wouldn’t be that big a deal.” Even though, for many children, they know deep inside that it is a big deal. Something isn’t quite right.
Normalizing is more often than not a necessary coping mechanism if raised in an unsafe home. Without anyone to safely talk to about one’s feelings and without anyone to protect from hurt, normalizing is a mindset of self-preservation. It helps to makes sense of and therefore minimize the environmental failures and their internal impacts.
For this reason, the survival instinct to normalize must be respected.
Normalizing through “forgiveness” insulates us from the devastating truth that our parents are not there for us in the way we need; that they neglect us, suppress us, control us, hurt us. “Forgiving” is a way out, a means of rising above, or shielding oneself. It mitigates the overwhelm of emotional pain.
Yet, decades later, authentic forgiveness still has yet to land in our body. For, underneath the survival mask of “I’m okay, it’s okay”, remains long-standing, untapped reservoirs of anger, shame, resentment, sadness, bitterness, hatred, rage and fear, much of which was and continues to be towards the very people “forgiven”.
The Forgiveness of New Age Dogma
As already alluded to, I particularly notice the forgiveness as a moral virtue narrative play out in new age literature and personal growth courses. “Forgive Your Past” titles a particular chapter in the latest quick-fix, self-help book. The writer expounds upon how our parents did their best, and how pain is toxicity in the body, and how if we just forgive we’ll stop carrying that toxicity. They write and teach as if forgiveness is that simple—a choice, one we can make, it seems, with a snap of the fingers. From my own personal experience and from working with clients for years, I see it quite differently.
Many, if not most personal growth courses perpetuate this just-choose-to-forgive myth as well. Their oft-rock star-like leaders push people to “stop playing victim” and forgive their parents after only four days of workshop time. Yet, in selling this agenda, they discount how much the person was indeed a victim, while simultaneously making victimhood seem weak or bad and something to quickly overcome.
It’s like “victim” is a pejorative. The divide and conquer, patriarchal and colonial mentality of Euro-western cultures serves to perpetuate this idea by encouraging us to abruptly progress beyond our wounds. The truer nature of forgiveness, one might say, has been coopted for this more masculine agenda.
Personal development leaders can lack sensitivity towards the nuances of trauma and what it takes to heal because so many are not trauma-informed. They are catharsis-informed, and often use confrontational or aggressive processes (such as beating a pillow with a rubber bat) to trigger participants to release trapped emotions and “empower themselves”. While this can help many, and has, it can also re-traumatize someone, particularly if they are severely dysregulated and/or come from a lineage of significant trauma.
Missing in new age dogma and personal development workshops is knowledge about and attunement to the fragility of the nervous system; and, in particular, the slow, subtle and gentle means needed to help someone regulate their nervous system and build the inner resources to heal from difficult and tragic early life experiences. Missing is respect for the nervous system itself, its lineage, the long line of sufferers and survivors whose trauma has been passed down epigenetically. Missing is respect for the inner victim, the rights of a person to exist as a victim, to feel victimized. Missing is the realization that you cannot pull, force or motivate someone out of victimhood; that they must be met there, in their deeply sensitive and dysregulated nervous system, with kindness, patience and wisdom. Missing is the true honouring of one’s heavy-hearted story and the impact it has had on their life.
Sometimes it’s helpful to beat a pillow, to yell and scream, kick and push. Healing sometimes demands that from us. But when we make this more linear, overt approach the default, when we encourage hurt people to beat their story out without care for the nervous system of victimhood, not only can healing not stick, but we can, as already stated, re-traumatize someone.
The myopia of “forgiveness” entices us to do just this. Impatience and quick-fix idealism tempts us to “get past” historical pain that carries not only the weight of our personal story, but our portion of the collective trauma inherited from generations past—trauma that research now tells us goes back 14 generations. We are speaking of lifetimes of ancestral trauma from generations of slaves, refuges, prisoners, segregation, suppression, impoverishment, torture, genocide—survival. Because, looking back a generation or two, you’ll see that our parents generally had it much harder, and their parents likely had it worse. Life back then was not about thriving, but conforming, fitting in, just getting by, surviving.
Trauma and the nervous system are part of a much more complex, fragile and, painful inner terrain and outer story than most understand.
Knowing this, and more importantly, feeling this, we can open to the sacred responsibility that healing holds—to move slowly and reverently through the process of feeling into and integrating the devastating impact one’s experiences, and the long-standing story of human tragedy, have had on one’s physiology and life. And if assisting others, sacred responsibility invites us to walk with others, step by step, meeting them right where they are, as they gradually sink into the sensitive, estranged body they lost touch with years ago. This, a veritable right of passage into the unknown.
When approached this way, with honour, patience, respect and feminine wisdom that recognizes psychobiological nuance, victims can more fully travel the deep, dark and difficult journey of healing with dignity. And they are more likely to feel safe and open enough to have an inner, embodied experience of forgiveness naturally arise.
Forgiveness as an embodied experience
Forgiveness is not simply a choice. The groundwork of forgiveness is far too complex for that. Rather, authentic forgiveness is something you feel that arises organically, naturally from, usually, years of deep inner work, healthy conversations, serious contemplation, and, ideally, a community of support; from being gentle with oneself and being with others who offer the tenderness, compassion and skill necessary to honour the victim you were and are.
Like the mystery that is love, forgiveness arises gradually from the body when time, not from the linear mind. It arises from the body because patient healing has allowed for the stored trauma and emotional pain to be felt, integrated and released. Space is made internally, which is what people often feel after trauma resolution. They experience spaciousness in the chest, belly, throat, mind, etc. And in this space, love can finally enter—love of self, other and life.
And it’s love that makes the “choice” to forgive for us.
It cannot be helped. With love’s graceful presence taking residence in our body/mind, our eyes change and hearts expand. We know what we could not know before. We soften, bend. We can hold more space in our hearts for the light and dark of our personal life and of life as a whole; for all that has happened. And in this widening sweep of integrated awareness, we can also hold space for and embrace those who once hurt us. Light is brought into the dark regions of our heart, and thus can be brought to the dark corners of our life, past and present. We can make way for those who once hurt us to return to our heart because there is now more room for them to enter.
It’s our heart, in all its vast intelligence that far supersedes the intellect, that must rise from the shadows of consciousness if forgiveness is to take place. The mind is secondary. Only from our heart do we for-give, for it’s only from the heart that we can give.
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Check out Vince’s book: Wild Empty Spaces ~ Poems for the Opening Heart