I do not understand why the principle of forgiveness is held in such high esteem. Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” Gerald Jampolsky wrote, “Inner peace can be reached only when we practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past, and is therefore the means for correcting our misperceptions.” And finally, Lewis B. Smedes wrote, “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” The thinking is that forgiveness frees one from one’s own resentment.
The process by which we come to terms with the past is through mourning (see “Mourning is the Key”). Mourning is the process that diminishes resentment. There is nothing wrong with carrying resentment and hate towards your abuser. If it is unmourned, it will eat you alive. If it is mourned, then you can move on with your life. When somebody harms you, how does forgiveness free you? I would say it not only doesn’t, but it may inhibit mourning.
The basic principle for living a good life is respect and love. Respect means honoring the boundaries of others, while engagement with others is through love. The antithesis of respect and the criteria for what is not moral is violating the boundaries of others. Violation is the antithesis of love and respect. It creates the evil in life. The precipitant of violence is violation. It’s all about boundaries.
All the way through our development, our personalities adapt in relation to our emotional environment and are mapped through the limbic system – love through oxytocin and vasopressin, and violation through serotonin, adrenaline, and cortisol. The environment that fosters our thriving and fulfillment is one of good enough emotional responsiveness. The environment that fosters darkness and psychiatric symptoms is deprivation and abuse, i.e., trauma. In the formative years where our personalities get established is when we write our play of consciousness. Throughout the rest of our lives, in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, additional traumas such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, deaths, losses, war, bullying, poverty, disease, etc, can rewrite our plays to create darker, more problematic ones.
However, trauma doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is incorporated into our personalities on the basis of our temperaments. The four aspects of temperament are as follows: we may be an Internalizer or Externalizer, Extrovert or Introvert, Active or Passive, Participant or Observer (see “The Nature–Nurture Question”). Each position is a matter of degree. And one or more of the temperamental positions may be more prominent that others in the construction of our personality. Each of us has a unique constellation of these four positions. We digest our emotional environment and adapt to deprivation, abuse, and responsiveness by virtue of our particular array of temperament. The consequence of trauma is that it writes plays infused with sadomasochism, rather than love.
When trauma is significant, it generates the whole host of psychiatric symptoms. What might generate anxiety in you, might present as depression in me, depending on our temperament. Or it might present as hyperactivity, or obsessive symptoms or compulsive symptoms, or anorexia, or binging, germ phobias, frank rage states, panics, phobias, paranoia, delusions, emotional isolation, narcissism, echoism, sadism, masochism, low self-esteem, and psychotic and manic states. Our temperaments generate symptoms from how we metabolize trauma. Regarding our psychiatric symptoms, trauma is the source, while temperament determines the form. None of these symptoms are biological. They do not come from diseased neurotransmitters or other faux brain mechanisms.
Psychiatric symptoms are signals that need to be heard and felt to address the something that they signify. It is the sadomasochistic play in the theater of the brain that is the pernicious situation that damages the patient. This is what needs to be addressed. Our unique human story is the only subject of psychiatry – the cortical top-down characterological drama in the theater of the brain. The subject of our psychiatric endeavors is characterological reality and its play.
The presence of psychiatric symptoms comprises the built-in crisis of problematic characterological worlds. “Crisis” in Chinese ideograms is drawn as the intersection of ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Psychiatric symptoms put us in ‘danger’. At the same time, the crisis provides an ‘opportunity’ to address the real issue. The real issue is the problematic characterological play. Psychotherapy is about dismantling the internal war, and the recovery of the authentic self and the ability to love.
The key to psychotherapy is to mourn the problematic sadomasochistic play, in the context of a trusting relationship with the therapist. Symptoms drop away all on their own after they are deactivated. Mourning is the biological process that allows us to relinquish and deactivate the brain mappings that result from trauma. By facing the pain, we can truly put it behind us, where it no longer rules us. In so doing, one writes a new play that is infused with authenticity and love. By not facing and mourning the pain, it will continue to rule us. Keep in mind that traumatic experience remains present in the brain mappings of our experience. Given certain stresses, it has the potential to rear its ugly head and affect us. However, it is manageable. We are biological organisms, not machines.
Being a therapist is an odd choice. Anybody with common sense will try to avoid pain. A therapist, on the other hand, has to be willing to sit with pain of all kinds. What makes it particularly difficult is that a therapist has to sit with plays that are dark. These unfortunately are the plays that generate symptoms and struggle. In the service of mourning, one has to be willing to feel and resonate with all kinds of impulses and feelings that have been put into our patients as the result of trauma.
The therapist does have to sit with and resonate with unacceptable and often uncomfortable impulses in himself. This comes with the territory. As a therapist, one has to always sit still and never act on anything. This allows the unacceptable impulses in a patient to come forward to be mourned. The therapist needs to be sufficiently anchored in his Authentic Being to be in a position to rid himself of the pains that he is willingly feeling with his patient. ‘They’ are not ‘sick’ while he is ‘healthy’. ‘They’ do not have some ‘brain disease’. A therapist needs to deal with his own issues so that they don’t get in the way of the therapy. A therapist must be comfortable with knowing that the worst and the best of humanity is a potential in his own self. He is not better or worse than his patient.
Here’s a simple situation: Let’s say you pick up your heel and you stomp on my toe. It hurts. This physical violation puts two pieces of aggression into me. First there is the requisite aggression to get your heel off of my toe. Second, it puts sadistic aggression in me to want to retaliate and do to you what you did to me, plus a little extra. This is the regular human response – an ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. If I am powerless to respond, these two responses which have been put inside of me fester and remain inside timelessly. This is just a mini example of abuse. The sadomasochistic abuse is mapped in the brain with the attacker persona attacking the victim persona. It is mapped through the limbic system as sadistic aggression mediated by serotonin, cortisol and adrenaline. What happens with major abuse?
Let’s look at something far more serious – sexual abuse of a girl, where the abuse rewrites the play of consciousness itself. The most difficult aspect of sexual abuse is that sex generates sexual responses. Consequently, sexual and murderous impulses are put inside the victim. It is common that the victim will dissociate from these perverse impulses and not consciously identify with them. But nonetheless, the sexual and murderous impulses have been put inside of her, and are in her. Even though she may be dissociated, the victim believes she is bad. Very often she doesn’t necessarily blame the abuser because she identifies with her secret impulses and feels that she is the one who is responsible. She will feel ashamed and guilty. She may feel she is bad, dirty, perverse, as if she is a whore. So many sexually abused girls end up living out the porno side of life through no fault of their own. I have seen this so many times. I have also seen how early incestuous sexual abuse has generated schizophrenic psychoses.
The process of healing takes place with a trusting emotional relationship with the therapist (not that easy to establish because trust has been betrayed), when the victim dares to acknowledge to herself that there are ‘bad ‘impulses in her, but not of her. It’s very hard to accept the presence of such perversity. Eventually, through the rage and sadness, the abuse loses its power. This is the result of mourning. As far as I can see, to ‘forgive’ the abuser has no place in this process. As a matter of fact, it is extremely common that when there is pressure to forgive, it is used to try to bypass the rage and the sexual intensity. This attempt to help the victim believe she is a ‘good’ person will result in burying her own false belief that she is bad even deeper.
It does not make you bad to have aggressive and retaliative abusive impulses inside. What in the world is the relevance of forgiving an incestuous father? He has emotionally orphaned and destroyed his daughter. The resentment is completely appropriate and should never be turned back into shame or self-hate. The process of mourning allows her to free herself to have a life, to not have the abuse rule her. That is the point.
What about the common accusation, “You’re being judgmental?” There is nothing wrong with judging, we all do it. Each individual navigates the world though his own personal moral compass. Without judgment there can be no moral choices. To be grounded, one has to know what you know and know how you feel about it, and then take action out of your own discernment. That is judgment. No two people are the same and we each carry an individual morality derived from our experience of the world. Of course, who’s to say my values are better or worse than yours? Should I impose my judgments on you, or you, me? The question is how do we tolerate moral differences, and when is that appropriate and when is it not appropriate? Yes, we all judge, but that is not the same as being judgmental.
One of the essential groundings that is present in our Authentic Being is judgment itself (along with conscience, creativity and the fount of our innocence). Judgment provides a guide that certain impulses ought not to be honored, but mourned instead. The real orienting guidance comes from the inner voice which is authenticity and love, not cruelty. Mourning is what frees us from our constraints. It allows our Authentic Being to recover. This allows us to move on in our lives, not be ruled by the abuse and live from a more wholesome place. The abuse mappings, although deactivated, are still there and exist with a potential to be reawakened. But it is manageable. This allows us truly to not inhabit the sadomasochistic scenario. Due to that fact, resentment is not active.
In terms of forgiveness, I understand that it is supposed to be liberating. Many religions preach its virtues. But I don’t get it. There is no value in forgiving an abuser. They should not play a role in one’s life. The only time forgiveness is relevant is if there has been a positive relationship with relatively minor betrayal and abuse. And the individual truly regrets hurting you and goes out of his way to make it up to you. Then it may be germane to let him back in your life. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up for more mistreatment from someone who has shown his true colors. I’ll leave you with a quote from Oscar Wilde, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.