Imagine that someone put a hot coal in your hand. Instead of dropping the coal, you carry it around, and it continues to hurt and burn. One day, you finally decide to release it. Your hand starts to heal. It takes time, and there might be a scar, but the constant pain that came from carrying the coal begins to fade.

Forgiveness can be like dropping that hot coal. If you forgive people involved with your abuse, it can help with the process of healing. Understandably, forgiveness can be a difficult topic for survivors. Many question whether someone who caused so much pain and anguish deserves forgiveness. The truth is that a perpetrator doesn’t deserve your forgiveness; you deserve to forgive that person for you, not for them. Here are some ideas that can help forgiveness be beneficial and healing. And remember, you always get to decide how, when, and who you forgive.

The difference between forgiveness, excusing, and reconciliation

People often associate forgiveness with excusing someone else’s actions. A survivor might think, “If I forgive the perpetrator, it means I’m saying what he did was okay. It means I’m saying that he’s off the hook.” The truth is you can forgive someone while still holding them accountable for their actions. You can say, “What you did was wrong, and you need to bear the consequences of your actions, but I choose to be free from you.”

Some survivors also think that if they truly forgive someone, it means that they need to reconcile with that person. This can be especially challenging when a perpetrator is a family member. A survivor might think, “If I really want to forgive the perpetrator, it means that I need to talk to him at the next family gathering.” You can forgive someone without reestablishing contact. In fact, forgiving someone doesn’t require any contact if you don’t want it to. If you want to talk to someone as part of the forgiveness process, then do it. But do not feel like it’s a requirement. You can forgive someone while still maintaining boundaries and having as much (or as little) contact as you want.

So what is forgiveness?

If forgiveness isn’t excusing and it isn’t reconciling, what is it? Forgiveness is an internal change that you make for yourself. Forgiveness involves acknowledging that something bad happened in the past and there’s no way to make it go away. It means acknowledging that while you didn’t have control over other people’s behavior, you can develop control over your own reactions to situations. In his book Forgive for Good, Fred Luskin says, “Forgiveness is the powerful assertion that bad things will not ruin your today even though they may have spoiled your past.”1

A survivor might think, “My perpetrator ruined my childhood. He should apologize to me. He should be punished for his actions.” All of that may be true, and forgiveness allows you to find peace even if you don’t get all of those things. As one survivor put it, “A lot of the intensity in my feelings is gone since I’ve forgiven [my perpetrator]… I was able to say, ‘Your face no longer scares me. Your name no longer puts me in fear.’” Another survivor put it this way: “When I forgave him… I wasn’t pardoning him or wiping the slate clean. But I was letting go of hating and vilifying him; I was letting go of my desire for vengeance.”2 Forgiveness allows you to find contentment in the present and escape the hold your past might have on you. You set down the hot coal and stop feeling its pain.

Throughout the forgiveness process, make sure that you are true to your genuine feelings. Many survivors experience a lot of anger toward their abuse and their perpetrator. These are totally understandable and legitimate reactions. Don’t ignore them and don’t feel bad about them. Just try to remember, “Hurt and anger are meant to be fleeting emotions, not permanent fixtures.”1 Do things on your own timeline. Don’t feel like you have to forgive someone and don’t feel like you have to forgive quickly. Just consider forgiveness as a process that could ultimately bring you relief in the present.

The importance of self-forgiveness

Forgiving yourself can sometimes be the hardest part of healing. Sexual abuse survivors often experience intense guilt and shame that they carry into adulthood. A survivor might think, “The abuse is my fault. I should have fought harder to stop it. I didn’t do everything that I could to prevent it. I feel guilty that my body responded during the abuse.” You have nothing to blame yourself for. We have resources that can help you overcome guilt and shame, but you also might need help from a therapist and trusted friends and family members to overcome these feelings.

The benefits of forgiveness

Forgiveness has been associated with a variety of both physical and mental health benefits. Researchers have shown that forgiveness can lead to healthier hearts and immune systems. Forgiveness also contributes to people’s happiness and sense of self-control.3 As hard as it might be to forgive people who have deeply hurt you, the benefits are worth the challenge. After describing the real struggle of forgiving her perpetrator, one survivor said, “I’ve let go of the anger and by doing that I’m not carrying it on my back as much. Forgiving her is a way of healing myself.”2 See if forgiveness is a way you can heal yourself.

1. Luskin, F. (2010). Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. New York: HarperCollins.
2. Bass, E., & Davis, L. (2008). The Courage to Heal: A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. New York: Collins Living.
3. Toussaint, L. L., Owen, A. D., & Cheadle, A. (2011). Forgive to Live: Forgiveness, Health, and Longevity. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 35(4), 375-386.

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