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Why Trauma Survivors Don’t Always Need To Forgive

Trauma Survivors Dont Need To Forgive

“There is no timestamp on trauma. There isn’t a formula that you can insert yourself into to get from horror to healed. Be patient. Take up space. Let your journey be the balm.” – Dawn Serra

Key Points

  • Society puts a lot of pressure on trauma and abuse survivors to forgive, but this can actually stunt their healing.
  • Grief and mourning are essential to the healing process; forgiveness can come later, if at all.
  • Lack of remorse on the part of the perpetrator can make mourning more appropriate of a response than forgiveness.
  • Many abuse and trauma survivors return to therapy years later, realizing they never truly mourned their experience.

The new year can bring with it many pressures, including the push to move on from past transgressions.

The usual process of forgiveness is typically a rather simple matter. Someone does you wrong in some way. Maybe they apologize or attempt to right that wrong. Based on the level of accountability you sense in their response, you then decide the best option for everyone involved in that wrong is to let it rest and move forward.

This kind of forgiveness can work when the wrong was accidental, not done with malicious intent. Someone wrongs you, they apologize, and you move on because all of us make mistakes. This works great when someone makes an offensive comment or steps on your toe—but what about malicious and harmful actions? How do you let purposeful and damaging attacks rest?

Related: Why You Don’t Always Need to Forgive

Trauma survivors are constantly told by society that they must forgive: “It’s for your own good; It will help you move on.” Due to forgiveness being an integral aspect of their beliefs, many faiths place additional pressure on survivors to forgive. Think about how unfair of a burden this places on the victim.

Is forgiveness really something a victim should be responsible for giving? Should some measure warranting that forgiveness not lie in the hands of the perpetrator? If they feel remorse, granting forgiveness might come easier, but what about people who have no empathy? How can a victim forgive these behaviors if no one ever takes accountability for them?

In his work with trauma survivors, Dr. Robert Berezin has found that mourning is more essential to the healing process, especially to help survivors move through the depression, anxiety, and even rage that results from the abuse.

“Mourning is the biological process that allows us to relinquish and deactivate the brain mappings that result from trauma.” This statement echoes many of the experiences and beliefs of trauma-informed therapists, who have found that forgiveness is often not the best path for healing. Thorough and complete mourning is necessary to move on from trauma.

Mourning will be a unique process for every survivor, but I have several techniques to help you along the way. Following these steps can incorporate space for healing into your recovery.

Related: 10 Reasons Why You Need Not Forgive And Forget

4 Tips For Mourning That Can Help Your Healing

1. First, forgive yourself. 

This is the most important tip. With all of the pressure for survivors to forgive others, I frequently and consistently reflect that back on them. Survivors of trauma place a lot of guilt and blame on themselves for having gone through an abusive experience.

Forgive yourself for being vulnerable. Forgive yourself for not seeing red flags and “getting away sooner.” Forgive yourself for not coming forward and the shame that comes with “letting them get away with it.”

There is no rule that says all victims have to tell their stories. Forgive yourself for waiting too long to seek legal support and forgive yourself for any legal repercussions that the perpetrator ends up with—none of this is your fault.

trauma survivors
Why Trauma Survivors Don't Always Need To Forgive
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Kaytlyn Gillis LCSW-BACS

Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS, is a psychotherapist, advocate, and author with a passion for working with survivors of family trauma. She received her BA in psychology from Clark University, and her Master's from Tulane. Her work focuses on assisting survivors of family and intimate partner abuse and assisting survivors with navigating the legal system to receive protection. Her recent book, Invisible Bruises: How a Better Understanding of the Patterns of Domestic Violence Can Help Survivors Navigate the Legal System, sheds light on the ways that the legal system can perpetuate the cycle of domestic violence by failing to recognize patterns that would otherwise hold perpetrators accountable and protect survivors. Gillis provides training on recognizing patterns of domestic violence, treating the aftermath of abuse, and helping survivors move forward.View Author posts