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Forgiveness and the Process of Healing

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Ultimately, healing is within each of us. But have patience with the process and recognize you may address the issues at different levels until one day you realize that you haven't been reacting in the old ways and that you have healed.

The following letter from a website user brings up a number of issues regarding forgiveness, particularly towards a toxic parent:

I found your essays while searching for information about the inability to forgive. I prefer your perspective to many others. I also have a question for your consideration: if I'm finding an old issue that I had sincerely forgiven in the past comes back up with intense resentment and anger within me, could that mean...that somehow I believe that the anger and resentment will 'punish' me enough to make me learn and prevent me from making the choices that have resulted in this particular situation? It keeps my thoughts in the past which makes it very difficult to function and make good decisions NOW, but at the same time it keeps me so afraid that it creates large distances between me and the person I resent which, in the larger perspective, is protecting me from the threat.

I mean, perhaps I cannot change this about myself. Perhaps although I am offended at my emotions and behavior, it is a defense mechanism that works better than not having it at all. Perhaps when I hear criticism of my childishness, resentment, inability to let go, inability to forgive, I should just accept it and say “yes, that is true about this particular issue,” and I am going to have to be okay with it rather than continue to feel guilty and ashamed for my shallow character and lack of ability to overcome this.

This person is struggling with how to forgive a toxic parent so that she can move on in her life. However, she finds herself returning to the resentment and anger because the parent is still part of her life. The question here is “how can she forgive so she does not continue to be harmed by the anger and resentment while still maintaining a relationship with this parent?” I will address the following issues in this article:

  • Forgiving too quickly.
  • How we heal from betrayal and trauma.
  • The special case of toxic parents.

Before I address these issues, I want to clarify how I see forgiveness. I'm referring to the concept of forgiveness in this article because the writer asked about forgiveness. However, I think of forgiveness not as something that addresses the other person but as a completion of the healing process. It is not about saying “I forgive you” to the transgressor, but is about feeling at peace and no longer reacting intensely to the past transgressions of the other person. It is about being able to have compassion for the transgressor (which will have to be addressed in another article).

The Demand to Forgive

Good people believe they need to forgive. Sometimes, though, good people have been harmed by toxic people. And continued to be harmed by those people or people similar to them. This demand to forgive often causes them to forgive before they are ready.

I often find that people who say “I have forgiven” usually haven't. Why do I think this? Because when we have fully resolved a situation and forgiven, it usually sneaks up on us and we aren't even aware that we have forgiven unless something brings our attention to it. People who declare “I have forgiven” are too intent on proving that the issue is resolved. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" those who are defensive are frequently indicating the opposite of what they say.

“I should be able able to forgive.”

Why do people feel the need to forgive immediately? Several possible reasons can create this demand which is a form of denial of the emotions involved in the grief process necessary to resolve transgressions:

1) Religious or moral beliefs. Sometimes people believe their religious beliefs demand immediate forgiveness, and therefore, if they don't forgive right away they are displeasing God. However, many times this is a misunderstanding of the religious beliefs and most spiritual leaders understand forgiveness as a process that may take time. If you believe immediate forgiveness is demanded by your religion, I would encourage you to discuss it with your spiritual guide to determine if your understanding is correct.

2) Feel defective. Some people believe they are defective if they don't forgive easily. This may be an internal belief which probably arose from childhood teachings or observations of the ease at which others seem to forgive. However, we don't observe others' process, only the outcome. Or, it may be that others expect you to forgive and will admonish you for not doing so. Often such criticism is due to the other person's discomfort. Frequently, such a demand comes from the transgressor or from someone close who has a goal of keeping the peace. In those cases, they have a personal agenda of wanting you to forgive so they don't have to feel bad.

3) Demand to move on. Just as the transgressor doesn't want to feel bad, you don't want to continue to feel bad, either. Frequently, people demand of themselves to forgive so they can quit feeling bad. They want to put the situation behind them and move on in their lives—to get past it. What they are trying to bypass, however, is the core of the process of forgiveness—we need to go through the emotional states caused by the loss to truly come to a resolution (the process of grief). Also, people fear what might happen if they don't forgive. Sometimes people are afraid that if they don't heal, they won't be happy, they won't find a good relationship, or a multitude of other desires for their life. So they demand a quick solution.

“I thought I had already dealt with this issue.”

When you thought you had resolved and forgiven a transgression and it arises again with intense anger and resentment, it could be due to several reasons:

1) The transgressor is still causing hurt. Don't be too quick to assume that anger and resentment is due to unresolved issues, and if you forgive, the anger will subside. Anger is also a protective mechanism. It alerts us to problems so that we can protect ourselves and prevent further harm. In the writer's situation, the parent is still engaged in toxic behaviors such as diminishing the writer's feelings and shaming her. Therefore, the anger is a message that says “It is not about you. You are doing nothing wrong. It is how this other person is treating you.”

The writer stated, “it keeps me so afraid that it creates large distances between me and the person I resent which, in the larger perspective, is protecting me from the threat.” In this way, the anger subconsciously directed her behavior to protect her. However, she can do that more directly by listening to the message of the anger, shoring up her defenses and protecting herself from ongoing hurt in the way she thinks is best rather than letting her subconscious choose for her. Perhaps she can't stop her mother's behavior, but she can stop the impact of her mother's behavior. Instead of feeling guilt and shame, she can use her anger to stand up for herself: “No, you are wrong to treat me this way.” These words don't need to be said to the parent (although it is okay to do so) but at least need to be said internally so that she doesn't continue to doubt herself.

In addition, keep in mind that forgiveness does not mean you have to trust someone. Nor does it mean you should put yourself in a position where they can continue to hurt you.

2) Something in the present requires your attention. Similar to when the transgressor is still causing hurt, sometimes other situations may cause similar pain even though the toxic person is not involved. For instance, if someone criticizes and shames you, it may bring up the anger and resentment towards the original transgressor, the parent. Again, the purpose of this anger is to protect you. By recognizing the similarities and that someone is treating you poorly, it allows you to take the necessary steps to protect yourself. Perhaps another way of thinking about this is that the old feelings have been triggered by something in the present which means you need to attend to the present situation.

3) It was not truly resolved. This is not a bad thing. As I will describe in the next section, healing is a process that has multiple layers to it and even though you may have resolved one aspect of the issue, there may be other aspects for you to address. Therefore, it does not mean you haven't forgiven, but means that you forgave at one level but there is yet more to resolve.

The Recursive Process of Healing

spiral staircase

Often people think of healing, if shown on a graph, as a straight line rising upward showing progress. Although they recognize healing has its ups and downs, they still expect movement to average out to a straight line showing improvement. Thinking of progress this way, if they return to a familiar issue they believe they have already dealt with, they think of it as backsliding and feel like they are starting over.

However, I like the concept of “recursion” which I think describes more accurately what people experience when they are healing. The word “recursion” comes from computer science and refers to a method of programming where the ultimate solution to a problem depends upon having solved previous aspects of that problem. To best explain the recursive process, think of a spiral staircase. What you see, instead of a straight line, is a line that proceeds in a circular fashion but rising from level to level. When you walk to a higher level on a spiral staircase and look at the view it is the same as what you saw at the same point on the lower level but your perspective has changed. You now see it in a different way from the higher viewpoint.

Many times my clients will say “I thought I resolved this issue. Why am I dealing with it again?” If you think of progress as a spiral, you can see that it is rising from level to level. However, as you proceed through each level you come back again and again to the same point—the same issue. But you're returning to that issue at a higher level with a different perspective.

I think this describes how we heal from the emotional traumas, losses, and suffering in our lives. We return to an issue again and again. Although this may seem to be regression (going backwards) if we represent it as a straight line, if we think of it as a spiral we can see we are moving upwards and dealing with the same issue albeit in a different way.

For instance, many people are familiar with the stages of grief: denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance. What they don't realize is these stages may overlap, proceed in a different order and reoccur as we face different life challenges. A toxic parent has caused much devastation for a child, now adult, much of which may go unrecognized initially. Therefore, as a survivor of a toxic parent (or other childhood abuse) proceeds through life, s/he may be slapped in the face again and again with the consequences of such an upbringing. A person who is working on resolving the impact of the childhood trauma may think s/he has moved on but then discovers another emotional reaction or consequence of the toxic parenting. Maybe s/he attends the deathbed of the spouse's parent and sees the loving family relationships, the pure grief, and the celebration of life in the normal family experience and the contrast with her/his experience of conflict, love as an obligation, and fear and confusion.

The consequences of trauma impacts a person repeatedly and profoundly throughout the lifetime, but a person can only process a piece of that trauma at a time. Otherwise, it is overwhelming.

So, instead of saying “I've moved on” it is more accurate to say “I've resolved this level but I'm sure I'll revisit it again.” I know this is not comfortable for people. We want to put pain and suffering behind us. We don't want to visit it again. But one thing I've found in my own life is that as I proceed through the levels it becomes less and less painful. In fact, sometimes I can anticipate the next level with curiosity “I wonder what my next lesson will be?”

I think this comes with the change of perspective and not expecting that life should be pain-free. I see life as an ongoing process of growth—there is always more to learn. The straight line concept implies one path with a a final destination. The spiral seems to be more consistent with concept of life-long learning.

One way to think of this process of growth is that each of us has our primary “life issue” which we will return to again and again if we allow it. By accepting that it is never fully resolved we can be more at peace when we do return to it. Instead of fighting it with “But I thought I was done with that!” we can recognize that this issue is part of the puzzle of who we are and begin to perhaps even enjoy that path of self-discovery. Many people like being able to take a walk and see something new around the turn of the path or traveling to another country to visit with different people or see one of the wonders of the world. Self-discovery can be similar,, looking forward to finding the next nugget of treasure that is who we are.

I know this perspective may not be the view you have at the present time. When people are judgmental or critical of themselves, they are fearful of what they may discover. And that is what I mean by changing perspective. As you move up the levels in your journey, at some point you may not need to be critical of yourself and can view the situation in a different way. At some point you may develop a greater tolerance of pain or may not even experience pain in the same manner. At some point you may be able to look forward to the next life lesson.

But the point here is that you cannot “will” that to happen. The desire to bypass all the uncomfortable aspects of self-growth shows there is still much to learn. The desire to be at the top level, to be finished, is an indicator of what still needs to be learned because that desire shows a lack of understanding of the value of life's lessons and the inability to tolerate discomfort.

Sometimes we will be in denial about our “life issue” or want to avoid it. And that is okay. That is part of the journey. During these times, when I see myself on a side path, I look over at my primary path and say “I know that's where I'm supposed to be but maybe there's something I need to learn from this side path. I will get back to the main path when I'm ready.”

The spiral concept allows us to accept where we are because we are sill proceeding forward even if we return to the same issue. Therefore, it is not that the issue was or wasn't resolved—it's that it was resolved at the previous level and now we are at another level.

Life gives us many opportunities for lessons if we allow it. But to allow it we may need to be uncomfortable. We may not be able to tie up all the loose ends and feel satisfied. Life provides many things but complete and ongoing satisfaction is not among them and if we can learn to tolerate that we can proceed through a lifetime of lessons with anticipation, curiosity, and even contentment.

Attachment to Toxic Parents and the Need for Protection

After contemplation of these issues I just presented, the website reader responded: “I have come to believe, since then, that the reason these things recur is because although I want to forgive something in order to be a better person, I cannot simply will it to happen. A perfect example is the resentment of being abandoned multiple times as a child only to be punished by my mother with resentment for having to be a parent upon return. I have spent my life either resenting her, or wanting life to be better so much that I decide that I can forgive and move forward, only to not like her at some point, and eventually become resentful of the present and the past. The real issue is the inability to let go of the attachment to her. I am actually worried that I will lose control of my mental stability, such as it is, when my parent dies because I do not forgive her and I cannot forgive myself for wanting her approval...or for wanting to be better than I am and rise above...both of which have not been successful because her approval comes only when I put myself below her. I seek a way to heal before she is gone because I fear it needs to involve her and I could miss my opportunity. On the other hand...it is always available within us...like an attitude...like a belief...like a memory...something that we have to put forth effort to maintain.

When a person has a toxic parent, several issues regarding forgiveness often arise causing an abnormal “attachment” to the parent which interferes with the need for protection. Many people with toxic parents say “I don't understand it. I KNOW my parent continues to hurt me and doesn't care for my needs, yet I feel I need to be there for her and I'm afraid of losing her.” By understanding this attachment, you can more easily move through the process of forgiveness and be better able to protect yourself from the parent and other similar people.

1) Fear of abandonment. Part of this issue is that the fear of abandonment is greater than the fear of being hurt by the parent. Often this is due to neglect, abandonment, or the threat of abandonment in childhood. It feels worse to the child to believe “My parent doesn't love me” which is translated, then, to “I'm not lovable” than to believe “She's right—I'm bad. I need to be better.” As a result, some people hold on to the attachment even though it means viewing the self in a negative way rather than accepting that the parent is incapable of genuine and unconditional love. It is normal for a child to come to the conclusion that “if my own parent can't love me, I must not be lovable” but an adult can challenge that belief and recognize that the failing is in the parent, not the child.

2) Need to grieve the loss of the parental “image.” The other aspect of attachment, is that it is not necessarily to the parent but to the "image" of the parent. I have worked with people many times when they have been abused or neglected by a parent and believe that they have grieved and forgiven the parent. The problem is often they haven't grieved their true loss: the fact that their parent will never be the parent they want or deserve (their "image" of the parent). They are in denial of that loss and so they continue in the same pattern with the parent hoping they can have and trying to create the relationship they want which will never be. Once they have fully grieved the loss of the “image” and recognize they can never have the parent they want, then they can begin to determine what type of relationship is possible with the parent (based upon what that parent is capable of, not based on their "image").

3) Letting go of the outmoded messages. When you have a toxic parent, you learned certain ways of thinking that continue to impact you until you recognize them and release them. For example, many people who have toxic parents will protest, “I HAVE to love her. She's my mother.” Interestingly, I have never heard this statement from people who grow up in normal families. In other words, dysfunctional families teach certain rules. One such rule is “You will love your family because we are your family” which means “no matter how we treat you, you will love us.” In normal families, however, people love one another because of how they are treated. When you are treated with love, you return love. It is not love by obligation.

Other messages people learn is that they need to let go of their anger and forgive the transgressions by their family members. Interestingly, these same family members often hold grudges against others.. Yet, the truth is, we cannot “will” forgiveness and it does not make us “shallow” if we have not overcome a transgression against us. Forgiveness is a process that occurs at its own pace in its own way. We need to trust the process. By doing so, it allows us to experience whatever feelings are necessary for resolution—no matter how uncomfortable those feelings may be or how unacceptable we may believe them to be. If we decide in advance which feelings are okay and which are not, then we are not able to address them fully, may not be able to learn the necessary lessons from the process, and therefore, do not achieve resolution.

4) Healing doesn't have to involve the transgressor. Healing does not necessarily involve the parent. If the parent is able to listen to the anger in an accepting way, then the parent can be helpful in the process. However, that is often not true especially with toxic parents. So, healing often does not involve the transgressor. In fact, in some situations it is better to not involve the toxic parent as they are more likely to interfere with the process than help it.

However, one reason to heal prior to the death of the parent (if possible) is because having a different kind of relationship with that parent can empower you. For instance, when you don't accept the criticism, when you can confront the behavior of the parent, when you can see yourself as separate from the parent and value yourself no matter how your parent treats you, you will feel more powerful and confident in yourself. And not just in that relationship, but in all relationships.

However, that opportunity is not always available, but healing is. Ultimately, healing is within each of us. But have patience with the process and recognize you may address the issues at different levels until one day you realize that you haven't been reacting in the old ways and that you have healed.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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