How Forgiveness Could Set You Free

Photo by Ruslan Zh on Unsplash
Photo by Ruslan Zh on Unsplash

Forgiveness is often a controversial subject
among survivors, and while I don’t think anyone
can tell another when to forgive,

forgiveness is not always what we’ve thought it was.
Here is a guest blog by my dear friend Amelia Ponder
who is both a survivor and a therapist.

A quote from Google:

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.

The topic of forgiveness could take many moons to cover.  Most of us have heard the way the body benefits from forgiveness.  How dangerous cortisol is.  Though there is much to explore on these points, I will be taking another direction.

When I think about forgiveness, I think of why we are afraid to forgive.  This might seem like a rabbit trail, but what I’m about to say relates.  In my work with clients, often I will get a question about whether trauma treatment warps memory or not.  I am an EMDR therapist, and the client asking me this question is trying to understand what will happen to their thinking by receiving the treatment.  What I’m being asked is ‘will this process change the way I feel about what happened to me?’  This question is not saying ‘I hope I don’t feel better when the treatment is all over’  It is really asking ‘Will I agree with the perpetrator and all the others who minimized what happened?’  ‘Will I become nonchalant about things so horrible that now I can hardly put words to?  I don’t want to be OK with the molestation, with the beatings, with lies.  I don’t want to agree with all those who would not take seriously what happened.’

This desire to honor what has happened is related to the struggle with forgiveness, and is misunderstood by those who either distance themselves from hurting others as a way of distancing from their own pain, or by those have not been harmed (since there are very few of these types, I’m guessing it’s usually the first.)

Comments will be made –

  • you love to live in the past
  • just a wallowing in your pain, aren’t you
  • get over it

And so we work hard to get over it.

Many of us who have been hurt have not realized it, but we have agreed with the one who harmed us by working hard to “get over it”.  We also agreed by taking on the blame ourselves.  If I had just acted differently, if I had said something, if I had been more quiet, I should have known he was in a bad mood.  I should have left the house.  When I do not squarely place the blame on the abuser, I am living dishonestly.

A person who is living dishonestly about what has happened becomes what we call symptomatic.  When I lie to myself, my body decides it has to turn up the dial – trying to get my attention that I’m off track, kind of like the way I feel when I start to veer over the line on the freeway – my anxiety my go up, my depression may increase, my sleep becomes troubled, I overeat, I drink, I use drugs, I become angry, I become resentful and hurt – and still, with all these symptoms, don’t allow myself to identify clearly what has happened.  It’s at this point that someone sees my misery and suggests that I forgive my abuser.

Some would say its never wrong to forgive, it seems to me, however that forgiveness can be premature.  In other words, for me to say I forgive you, I need to first tell myself the truth about what you did to me.  My body is trying to remind me of the harm by the triggers, the anger I feel, by the anxiety, by the sleepless nights, my body tells the truth, however, I haven’t told myself the truth.  Encouraging a jump to forgiveness is often used to avoid the messy steps of dealing with what has happened.  The power of forgiveness is knowing the full ugliness of what actually happened, and from that place forgiveness is strong. I become strong when I forgive the fullness of what you have done.

Forgiveness is not forgetting.
It is, in fact, quite the opposite.
Forgiving is admitting that
a wrong has been done.
To forgive you is for me to admit
that what you did was not ok.   

Like so many things in life, the idea of forgiveness has been misused as a way of diminishing harm done.  A quick, get over it, forgive kind of gesture we give to each other.  When really, forgiveness honors the harm done by its very nature.

An important reminder.  Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  Forgiveness does not mean I will ever see you again.  Reconciliation is possible after forgiveness, however, it takes both parties to reconcile.  We won’t go into reconciliation here today, however, just remember forgiveness is not necessarily contacting the person who harmed you.  In many cases, it is not recommended that you contact that person.  Forgiveness is a choice you make in your own spirit about the harm done.

A few additional details about forgiveness:

  1. When I forgive, I remind myself I also need to be forgiven (I admit to myself that I have caused harm to others at times, even if I hadn’t meant to.)
  2. When I forgive, I am sending the message to myself that I don’t have to be perfect.  I give myself permission to make mistakes.  Because I forgive, I can be forgiven.
  3. When I forgive I don’t need another person to apologize and ask for forgiveness.  I forgive even when the one who has done the harm won’t admit guilt.
  4. When I forgive, I am not forgetting, I am not condoning and I am not excusing offenses.
  5. When I forgive, I’m able to live in the present.  That provides me a chance to grow.  When I don’t forgive, I’m stuck.  Holding onto pain, resentment, anger, hurt does not harm the offender.  It harms me.
  6. When I forgive, it’s not a gift to another, it’s a gift to myself.
  7. When I forgive, I am allowing myself the opportunity for future healthy relationships.  It’s easy to see why I don’t want to forgive a monster, however, when I don’t make a habit of forgiveness, all my relationships suffer, even the ones I care about the most.
  8. When I forgive, I don’t have to feel like forgiving.  I simply have to choose to forgive.  I might still have rage, loathing, even hate, and can choose to forgive.  Each time the feelings present themselves I can choose to forgive again.  That’s about the time joy peeks itself around the corner of my life.
  9. When I don’t forgive, I have a narrow view of life.  When I forgive, my view becomes broader. Both for others and myself.

In conclusion, the very thing that prevents us from forgiveness, the attempt at honoring the truth of our experience, is the thing that will dishonor ourselves the most.  Because not forgiving causes me to re-experience the harm again and again.  I shouldn’t have had to experience the harm once, let alone over and over.  Rather than forgiveness causing me to dishonor the harm that has been done, forgiveness gives be a wide and high view, allowing me to honor more deeply the meaning of what has happened, and allows me to have a better understanding of the perpetrator and myself.

-Amelia Ponder is wife, mother, grandmother, singer, quilter, and reader who, when she is not busy with her family, works as a marriage and family therapist. You can follow her blog at