Mourning? – Yes; Forgiveness? – No. Healing from Trauma

Robert Berezin, MD
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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.”

60 COMMENTS

  1. I do not understand why the principle of forgiveness is held in such high esteem.

    How about when people say “let it go”, just let it go !

    That might be great advice when you are waterskiing fall and need to let go of the tow line or if I grab something to hot in the oven I really should let it go but if I am telling you about some drama or hate towards abusers please don’t tell me “let it go” cause I am not in reality “holding on to it”.

    Just let it go… Oh ya sure my memory just has a delete button like a Hillary Clinton e-mail account and its me that chooses to “hold on to it.”

    “Let it go” has be one of the stupidest things they say therapy.

    • Hi cat,

      For me “letting go” means letting go of the subjectivity of a situation – to see the full picture. When I see the full picture – I know how to approach a situation, and this depends on me, not someone else. I’ve never really looked too much at forgiveness.

      I attack the “services” because they are wrong; they have damaged me; they are damaging other people; I don’t believe “diagnoses”exist; and I know it’s possible to make complete Recovery

      • I think what we need to let go of is the desire for a different outcome, for our tormentor to suddenly understand their error and try to make amends. It is a form of mourning to let go of that, especially if the tormentor is someone who was supposed to love and care for us. But I agree, it doesn’t mean you accept that the other person is “OK” or that you have to forgive them. You have to simply stop imagining that there’s anything you can do to cause them to willingly reform. Their crappy behavior is their problem, not yours.

        — Steve

        • Precisely. What I do is mine. I own it and am responsible for it. What the other person is theirs and they own it. And I can’t do anything to change that person. The more I try, the more frustrated I get. In fact, most frustration in society is due to people’s urge to control the actions of others, which shouldn’t be done. Just set a good example, feel decent about yourself and if other people don’t like it, it’s their discomfort with you, their emotions that they have to deal with. I have learned to separate myself from other people’s bad feelings about me. And their good feelings, too. If they do not like me, I’m not their bad feelings. They own their like and dislike of me, approval or disapproval, however they feel. They should act responsibly either way. Liking me doesn’t mean I will agree to jump into bed with the person, either. Imposing sex is at least rude or worse.

          I’ve noticed that real anger is short-lived. About as long as saying a swear word after you stub your toe. After that it might be sore for a bit and then you forget about it. Actually after I am truly pissed it morphs to sadness and stays like that for a while and then goes away.

          • Well said! I realized that by wanting people to like me, I was not only letting them control how I feel, I was actually trying to control how THEY feel, too! People should get to feel however they feel, without someone imposing their needs on it, one way or the other. And it should not change that we act with compassion and responsibility toward all. But we don’t have to be friends with or feel sorry for someone just because their assholish behavior got them into difficulties!

            — Steve

          • Yes, Steve. Recently I had to inform a man that I didn’t owe it to him to compensate for his lack of sexual contact for a number of years in his past. I didn’t cause that, so it’s not my “duty” to act as person to compensate for the loss, if that’s how he sees it. Funny, I do not see “lack of sexual activity in life” as loss on my part since it was a choice. So I told him I am not a receptacle. Frankly, we don’t need to educate women to say no. I don’t understand why rape victims are told they didn’t say no loudly or clearly enough. We need to teach men that no means no, and to understand the meaning of the word no, and that just because they have penises does not mean someone else who happens to be in proximity has any duty or obligation to them whatsoever. Unless he or she says YES, specifically that, and is fully awake, aware, and a responsible adult. You would think anyone who claims to be intelligent would be able to tell who is a child and who is a consenting and willing adult.

  2. Hi Robert – I really appreciate what you’re trying to do here but you’re making unfounded/projecting statements about people in the sex trades and using slurs that aren’t yours to reclaim. (As far as I can tell, anyway. I don’t want to make assumptions about how you have/haven’t done economically.) Also, please don’t assume (or encourage an audience to assume) that self-hatred is an experience of all rape survivors. Ok? Thanks.

  3. I grew up in a family where blame and holding grudges were the norm, and I saw the effect this had on my folks, and also my siblings, very angry hearts and unsettled spirits–ungrounded as all get out. As a product of this upbringing, I also felt it in my own mind and body, like a chronic constriction, all this anxiety, very crippling. That’s what made me feel ill enough to walk into a therapist’s office in the first place, many moons ago.

    Years later, I was the first in my family to learn what it means to truly forgive and move on, and it has been an example to them. I’ve had conversations with my sister about forgiveness, which was so gratifying and healing because it was radical in our family. Thanks to the example of my family healing, my partner was also able to access his forgiving heart toward his family, where many issues had lurked. And we both practice self-forgiveness, for making ourselves so sick with rage, blame, and resentment for years. For us, this practice has moved us along well in life, while bringing us to peace with ourselves. Really made a huge difference, the biggest.

    Forgiveness, then, became my healing path, as it is for many people who practice this on a daily basis. For me, it is an energy of the heart which actually does expand me into my authentic being, unlike what you say above.

    I’m surprised that you would invalidate a healing path as you are doing, Dr. B. These are such personal matters, it’s a bit uncomfortable for me to discuss this in academic terms. Heart consciousness is the key to awakening and personal evolution. Brain consciousness perceives a linear and limited reality, whereas the heart is multi-dimensional, so it’s an entirely different paradigm of living, perceiving, and creating. Personally, I much prefer living from the heart, and it’s served me extremely well. and most definitely better than how I had been operating previously.

    Learning to get my own information and go with what is right for me was, indeed, extremely liberating. I know myself now, along with my self-resourcefulness, because my mind is not filled with clutter, chaos, and negativity due to an angry and blaming heart. Therefore, I can hear my self-validating heart and spirit voice, and I have clarity about myself and my life, and nothing feels better than that. It doesn’t go away, either, it’s a permanent connection with my spirit. That’s what I’d been missing, prior to practicing forgiveness and moving on with self-agency intact, and clarity in my heart.

    I know many balk at the idea of forgiveness, as you seem to in this article, Dr. B. And I’ve had a lot of hostility come in my direction when I talk about my own healing path via forgiveness. I get that the notion of forgiving an abuser is downright offensive to some, which I understand how that would come to be, given the heavy emotions that are generated by such trauma lingering into post-trauma. I don’t prescribe it for others, but I certainly don’t discourage it, either.

    We all have our way of moving on in life. All I can say is that after spending years blaming and feeling resentment toward my dad, learning true forgiveness (not an easy task, I did a lot of meditating and learning to feel this in my body) allowed me to not only see his virtues–of which he had many, despite his obvious blind spots which could make him rather cruel, controlling, and gaslighting–but it also grew me up to where I could easily discern how to navigate this relationship in a way where I felt empowered and loving. That was for my benefit, a healing gift to myself.

    As a result, my dad and I had 7 wonderfully heart-connected years together before he passed, which meant the world to me. We had our most intimate and revealing conversations during my occasional visits. I hated hating my own dad, and thanks to forgiveness, I learned to feel love for him, warts and all. Changed my self-perception a great deal, and my body was finally beginning to relax and feel good for the first time in years. And most definitely, my brain un-clenched. That was the end of what had felt like ‘mental illness’ to me for so many years. My mind shifted dramatically, and I began to live the life that felt like it was genuinely and authentically mine, in pure present time, and not as a reaction to past trauma.

    Didn’t mean I put myself in the line of fire again, because I learned to take control of the relationship and protect myself. The meant literally following the messages in my heart, as inner guidance. After all, this was my dad, and I was not going to give up in making this connection. I’m grateful for my tenacity and faith because the pay-off was huge, and it kept my family from falling apart. I learned from my previous misconceptions and errors in judgment thanks to my naïve trust, because forgiveness and love replaced resentment and anger. Brought me to peace, and changed my life–along with my character in the play. Isn’t that what we seek, regardless of how we get there?

    This is just about me, my healing path, and what helped me to turn an important corner. I believe everyone has to make these decisions on their own, when they are ready to take a leap in consciousness, their way. Extremely personal and individually guided matters. I cannot fathom anyone telling me, nor my telling anyone “Don’t forgive! It doesn’t work!” That’s a big stretch for me.

    Regardless, as always, I appreciate hearing your truth. We can’t agree on everything!

  4. As a Christian, the forgiveness question was one that I had a really hard time with, because one of the “sins” committeed against me by my Christian psychologist and Jewish psychiatrists was “the only unforgivable sin” in the Holy Bible. They drugged me for belief in the Holy Spirit, according to their medical records, and blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is “the only unforgivable sin.”

    Finally, I decided to ask an ethical pastor, and he agreed with me that it literally was not my right to forgive my former Holy Spirit blaspheming psychologist and psychiatrists, and the child molesters they were drugging me to protect. So I have in essence handed them all off to God to be judged. I did also try to awaken them to their DSM and psychiatric drug delusions, albeit unsuccessfully, thus I morn for their unrepentant and unredeemable souls.

    The odd thing about my tale, however, is my drug withdrawal induced manic psychosis took the form of a spiritual journey, which culminated in God supposedly calling the final judgement. And to this day I seem to be assisting Him in the final judgement, within my now semi-lucid dreams.

    I don’t know whether or not my dreams are possibly prophetic, but I do know sometimes they have turned out to be. Or whether I have the supposed final judgement going on in my dreams just because of my awareness and disgust at the injustices in this world, particularly those committed by today’s psychiatric, medical, pharmaceutical, paternalistic religions, and banking industries.

    “But of that day and hour, knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” Guess only time will tell. But this is proof that not all Christian leaders advocate forgiveness all the time. Although, as a normally forgiving person, I do agree with Oscar Wilde, attempting to offer forgiveness to the unforgivable drives them insane.

    • I tend to agree with quite a bit of what Dr. B writes, especially regarding our theater of consciousness. Mourning (or what I would call “grieving”) is resonant with me, I recognize that as part of the healing process as well. separating from the past. What surprised me here was what actually seems to be *invalidation* of forgiveness. These are such personal choices subjective to each individual, and perhaps, these words mean different things to different people. The word “Love” can send people reeling, as well, and is hard to define. I think these are human feelings to feel, and can be almost impossible to put into words.

      Forgiveness, as it were, works for a lot of people as a healing avenue, and it can, indeed, release resentment. That’s certainly been my experience, and that of many around me. This article makes it sound as though forgiveness is a ‘fool’s way’ or something to that effect. Not to put words in Dr. B’s mouth, but that’s how it came across to me. I was a bit confounded by this, and if that’s the case, it’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, it’s more a matter of invalidating the healing path of another, which is a bit troubling to me, as a general rule.

      • Alex,

        Is it necessary to forgive to move away from resentment. I’m quite capable of person resentment when I think along certain lines – but it doesn’t do me any good (so I like to move away from it).

        Beyond temporary personal feelings I don’t resent people too much.

        In my opinion The Psychiatric Services are Evil and it’s my job to demonstrate this – and to promote longterm successful alternatives.

        • Fiachra, I don’t like to sit in resentment, either. Makes me feel badly, constantly agitated and short of patience, it clouds my thinking and my judgment, and I end up making worse choices for myself. Forgiving past experiences brings me into present time with myself, which is clarity and ease.

          That feels much better and leads me to better experiences because I’m thinking more clearly, discerning better, and making more desirable choices for myself leading to better outcomes as well as healthier, mutually supportive relationships, as opposed to continuously repeating old patterns of self-sabotage. Forgiveness breaks the cycle, at least for me that’s to where it led, which is what led to relief, positive changes, and peace in and around me.

          “In my opinion The Psychiatric Services are Evil and it’s my job to demonstrate this – and to promote longterm successful alternatives.”

          Yes, I do think there is a purpose here. I think many of us feel this particular mission after what we’ve experienced and all that we learned from it along the way. More power to us.

          • And that’s for the greater good. Psychiatric abuse is not something I put in the category of “to be or not to be forgiven.” It happened to me and to tons of others, still going on. This is a grave social issue, to my mind.

            I, personally, got myself out of it, healed from the multiple traumas of it (that took a while, because it was so seriously insidious), and in that process, I got my clarity around the experience. So now I can tell my story with a feeling of neutrality–not without emotion, but definitely without resentment. It was not personal to me, it’s how that system/culture operates. I just happened to find myself in the middle of it. I’m the better for it now, having grown away from all this. That was my life experience to own.

            I don’t consider truth-speaking to be the product of resentment, but more so, as the way to create change, from the heart and with integrity. I believe it’s a positive and healing action–for the truth-speaker and for those who resonate with that particular truth–including when it is spoken with indignation.

            I think we are most effective when we speak our truth about social abuse directly, clearly, with certainty, unwavering, and with authentic feelings. I believe that is where we find our power, and I know it is felt, like strong ripples of energy.

          • In the same way, I don’t actually feel bad about a lot of the stuff that happened to me. Especially stuff that happened years ago. The reason is that I laugh over the absurdity of it. So in finding absurdity, I cannot feel hurt any longer. These things are just history, just a story, and nothing else. No matter how much emotion I put or do not put into a story, or how much vivid detail, it’s only a story and it cannot harm me. I am not the same person that I was 20 years ago, so if I am telling a story about that person, I am speaking of someone else, almost as if I am telling a fiction narrative or biography, even though that character is me. I may be speaking of my own feelings, but I am speaking of that girl long ago. Yes, I often call myself a girl if speaking of my adult self in the past. So I see her as an outsider looking in. That’s how I see these things with hindsight now. And, I must add, a bit of wisdom that I didn’t have before. I don’t think therapy can give a person this wisdom since it must come from within, not given to you from another person or source. And it takes time, that is, life experience. I often laugh over those therapy sessions, how clueless those therapists were, and how much they missed the boat entirely.

          • That’s exactly why I’m always saying your voice is so powerful, Julie. There is YOU, and there are your stories from life, your experience to tell your way, in your voice. To me, that demonstrates a strong sense of self.

            We are who we are, and we’ve had our experiences in life so far. We have fascinating and revealing stories to tell now, that can help educate, guide, and inform others, if they wish to hear us. Doesn’t mean we have to continue reliving them.

            On the contrary, as you say, we can even find amusement from it all once we detach and separate from all that. Stand-up comedy is all about taking life’s challenges (and some comics are quite extreme and daring in what they’ll tackle, much to the chagrin of others) and seeing the light in them. Life is what it is, for better or worse, and we learn as we go along. Theater of the absurd consciousness!

  5. Just because I haven’t ‘forgiven’ my abuser/s doesn’t mean I’m not *advancing* and *growing* on my own path.

    I thank Dr. B for this article; tired of the *forgiveness* for my ‘own’ sake pushed by various friends/former therapists as much as I’m sick to death of ‘thinking positive’…I’m actually doing pretty well, considering the brain damage and all. I have moved on with my life in spite of all the guru’s dire warnings.

    Peace out.

  6. “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.”

    Paint that on the wall of the locked ward lol. Seriously though, for me not forgiveness, but the knowledge that it is better to forgive, serves as a policeman who stops me from responding to evil with evil plus a little bit (well, okay a lot). I have not been allowed to mourn the death of the person I was before hearing the words “I am detaining you under S 29. of the MHA”. The killing of that person through being drugged without my knowledge and having a knife dropped in my pocket by my wife (with some assistance from a reputable therapist) was so horrific that there is no one left to mourn. The vacuum of emptiness has left me on the edge of suicide for 5 years now.

    So not forgiveness Dr B, but the knowledge that it is better to forgive? Holds me back, and with mourning, moving forward to a better, more productive life?

  7. I agree. Forgiveness is a crock of sh*t when it comes to serious abuse. To forgive some acts is effectively to condone them, which lessens one’s self and validates the abuser’s actions. There are some things that are not, and never can be, OK. Simple.

    Those things, when they happen, necessitate grieving and deep reflection on the echoes and responses they elicit within us, and when we get to the heart of those, then it is possible to move on in life free from, but forever changed by their effects. Not easy, and very painful.

    Thanks for this article at this time, Dr Breggin.

  8. When I was held in the hospital the psychiatrist told me, “Oh Stephen, you can never be well and move on with your life until you forgive your former stepfather.” I sat there and laughed in his face and told him that it was never going to happen and that I would get on quite well with my life while I hated the most arrogant, cruel, and emotionally abusive person I’d ever had to deal with in the person of my former stepfather. Healing and recovery does not depend on forgiving people who have abused you. My former stepfather died three years ago and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. Now the world is free from a very cruel and nasty person.

  9. Thomas Szasz — ‘The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.’

    I think it is about staying angry. If you do not forgive (you the stupid one), you stay with the feeling of anger, and constantly seek means for revenge or retribution.

    You do not want to be naive (forget), to be taken advantage of again. You do not want to be the opposite of naive, paranoid either, unable to enjoy the present.

    If you are too angry, you can’t get on with YOUR life, you are giving “free rent” to the person in your mind/head.

    • “If you are too angry, you can’t get on with YOUR life, you are giving “free rent” to the person in your mind/head.”

      markps2: I love your comment and the Szasz quote. I would not judge anyone who cannot forgive, but I believe that a person is better off is he/she is able to forgive. Forgiving does not require befriending the person who is forgiven or allowing him/her into your life; it is not about white-washing the abuse, and it certainly is not about forgetting it. Forgiving also does not mean giving up one’s legal rights. One can forgive a thief or a rapist even as one pursues justice. Forgiving is about moving on and letting go; It is about freeing yourself, from being consumed by anger, resentment or or any other corrosive emotions. It may take a very long time before one is able to forgive, and some may not be able to do it ever. That is OK, but if one can get to the point of being able to forgive, I believe it is liberating to the person doing the forgiving. Is one really free is one is consumed by rage or revenge fantasies?

      • I agree. I can add that I can look back now on various misunderstandings between myself and others and have clarity on it in a way. For instance, I was raped by a man a long time ago who I believe didn’t really understand that you shouldn’t do that to a woman. Many men are thus poorly educated. While it reflected gross ignorance on his part, the Privileged Penis Complex, which probably 50% of men possess, I don’t really think he meant to harm women. He simply thought he had the god-given entitlement to do use force, even threats or violence, and that women “liked” it. I am amazed at the number of men who do not realize they do not possess this entitlement and seriously need re-education. It’s not that the women didn’t say no loud enough. He heard, and ignored what he heard. He knew she was resisting and ignored that, too. What is wrong with the way we are educating our children? I cannot blame these guys entirely for their deeds when I see it as ignorance or even naivete. Sometimes I imagine if I could speak to them and confront them and say, “Hey, do you realize that what you did was rape and you could go to prison for that?” Tell them the impact it has on women (not just me) and tell them to reconsider their approach and revise it. If they have too much trouble changing then they need to take a break from women and/or children or anyone whom they victimize. However, it’s not my job to do this and I think it would be exhausting. I can only say how I feel and hope it makes an impact.

  10. Everyone has their own way of getting better and will do so in their own time. I know one thing, that if forgiveness is to happen, it cannot be pushed nor forced upon a person. You cannot force a person to believe something they do not believe, nor force a person to pray, nor to believe in a god they do not believe in. In the Jewish faith it is considered almost like rape to force a person to bow down to a golden calf, or to force a person to eat food considered unclean. Likewise, I considered it offensive when the staff pushed me to go to meditation groups in hospitals and I didn’t want to say Om with the other patients. I felt that they were forcing a belief on me that wasn’t mine. Force is not okay as far as I am concerned.

    If one person thinks their way might be a good way, they can show me by example. For instance, if a person feels that vegetarianism is the way to go, show me delicious recipes and a beautiful spread, and I might sit down and join you. That’s a little different from criticizing me or demoralizing me because I am cutting up a chicken for Puzzle this afternoon.

    If you want me to forgive, don’t push me into it nor rush me. Don’t shove it down my throat nor force me to do it. Don’t advertise it like it’s the one and only way. Don’t criticize me like I’m a leper because deep inside, I’m not ready to forgive yet. Like the grieving process, forgiveness isn’t instant. Some take years, some can do it right away, and anyone can change over time.

    I’m a great fan of the apology. I don’t know why more don’t do it. I find that after I make certain mistakes that I feel truly ashamed of the best thing to do is apologize as soon as I can. I feel very sad when some people do not make themselves available for apology because they cut themselves off from me, by forbidding further contact, by ending relationships, or simply by moving away. Still, if I can, I apologize. I often wait years before I have the opportunity.

    If any of those that did terrible things to me apologized to me, I would surely accept it, but sadly, they tend not to do so responsibly. Instead, they say they are sorry I feel bad. That’s not taking responsibility. Most do not understand that I true apology is saying you are sorry for what you did. How I feel is my own responsibility. What’s funny is that those that apologize for my “feeling bad” are often wrong. I don’t feel bad, they do, and they’d probably feel better if they apologized more responsibly.

    • I tend to identify with Dr. B’s writings, as well, usually. Perhaps I didn’t read carefully enough? I’m open to being corrected about my interpretation of what I read, if that was not his intention.

      I will admit, there are shades here which I’m not sure how to take–for example, degrees of abuse, and what merits forgiveness and what does not. How can anyone speak (and more importantly, *feel*) on behalf of another, in any of these regards? It is so personal and subjective. Wouldn’t that undermine our sense of our own truth, our self-agency, along with our self-determination? That’s how it seems to me, at least, but I’m open to hearing other perspectives, for the sake of my own education and clarity. I like this discussion, I think it’s vital to healing.

      • Yeah I think there’s no blanket One Size Fits All when it comes to forgiving. A friend of mine had to deal with that when she faced past abuse. Instead of lumping her large family into one (shrinks call that throwing the baby out with the bath water, I admit I got sick of hearing that) she separated out each one as an individual and considered each family member as a person, not as a feeling. So each person was considered one at a time.

        I am also guilty of lumping together groups and associating them with certain feelings, which I shouldn’t do. Many people associate certain occupations with certain past associations. For instance, a bad experience with a dentist might turn into fear of the dentist, or all dentists, or dentistry, or the idea of dentistry, often for years. If your uncle or fiance turns out to be a dentist you then have to separate that person with your fear of dentistry, difficult as it is. We hope the next trip to the dentist, if you dare, reverses whatever bad feelings you had developed. (Puzzle has this idea that going to the vet means automatic fun and games for her, oddly.)

  11. Agreeably, I don’t think it’s comfortable to walk around feeling a whole bunch of blame. However, pushing forgiveness and pushing “Why don’t you just forget about it” on another person too soon is almost like saying “what happened to you doesn’t matter and no one gives a sh*t.”

    That actually happened to me. Right after I’d been abused while inpatient on a medical floor while medically compromised (I was in kidney failure) I got out of the hospital and took legal action. A friend of mine and I met for coffee one evening and he told me one of the most hurtful things I had heard in a while. He told me over and over that no one cared about the things I was complaining about (hospital abuse) and that I should drop the subject immediately and forgive the hospital since what happened rarely happens, and that they were only doing their job. He berated me over and over for not forgiving and for not dropping the subject. I was shocked to hear this. Not only that, but he told me that if I was ever hospitalized again he would tell the hospital to do the same thing over again, that he would support their actions!

    At that point I had to stop meeting this friend for coffee and I never heard from him again. I don’t think it would have been exactly safe to associate with a person who wanted me locked up and abused.

    So essentially (I really hope he is reading this) what he did that evening was to re-traumatize me. The length of time it took me to “get over” the abuse trauma was made much longer, years longer in fact due to his and others’ refusal to acknowledge that what the hospital did was wrong. All I needed was that, and because so many of my friends refused to take my side I remained in a resentful state until I found NEW FRIENDS.

    If anyone is in this position of having been abused, and your friends are taking the abusers’ side, find new friends for godsakes. If the mental health professionals you are seeing are taking the side of the abusers, ditch them! This doesn’t mean anyone has to diagnose the abusers with an illness, but simply to say they acknowledge that what happened was wrong or harmful (which has nothing to do with illnesses).

    For instance, Stephen I acknowledge that your stepfather was undoubtedly cruel, and there are such cruel people in this world who are mean to kids. I believe you totally. I am sure it has been suggested to you that he was “mentally ill,” has it not? Yet you have stated you do not acknowledge psych diagnosis. Many will re-story their abuse as “I was abused by a sick person.” But why should that be necessary? Why should cruelty be coupled with “mental illness” of the abuser? Cruelty is cruelty and we do not need an “illness” to “prove” that a person was cruel, or make that person seem more cruel or justify our anger at that person, wouldn’t you agree?

    That saying, cruelty can exist in the context of corruption at the corporate level. It can exist in the context of greed in a medical situation, in the case of an institution covering up the harms so that a patient or patient’s family does not discover that the institution was at fault.

  12. Regarding forgiveness: I do not believe forgiveness is needed or necessary. Sometimes it is impossible, I think, because true forgiveness takes two people. Before an injured person can even possibly forgive a perpetrator, the perpetrator must recognize the injustice and violence of his (or her) actions and realize the harm he (or she) has done to the injured person. The perpetrator must seek forgiveness from the person who was injured. Miroslav Volf has much to say about forgiveness in his book, The End of Memory. One relevant quotation is this: “If no one remembers a misdeed or names it publicly, it remains invisible. To the outside observer, its victim is not a victim, and its perpetrator is not a perpetrator; both are misperceived because the suffering of the one and the violence of the other go unseen – the first when the original deed is done and the second when it disappears. This injustice of hiding wrongs fuels the strong urge many victims feel to make known what they have suffered, even if some are hesitant to speak up. Since the public remembering of wrongs is an act that acknowledges them, it is therefore also an act of justice. This holds true at both the personal and broader levels.”

  13. Welton I so much love that quote. Also, I noticed after the Marathon bombing in 2013 there was so much public anger toward a person who was only 19. I don’t know why, but I myself saw him as victim. I couldn’t possibly be angry. Instead, I was angry over the public’s rage at this child. I knew he’d either been framed, coerced, brainwashed, or otherwise victimized, or even in an enslaved relationship to another person or group that caused him to commit this act. I was upset that people called him a “monster” as if he, a human child, had suddenly woken up and become a non-human. I have no clue why all that happened, or even if he did it, or if he was framed or what happened, all I know is that so much hatred was happening, and so much praise for the police, it was almost as if the whole thing was staged, some drama playing out before me. I lived in Watertown at the time and watched the whole thing happen. I commented on it in my writing and in a piece I narrated aloud and audiotaped and put online. Because I had strong feelings on the subject I was persecuted, called “dangerous” and accused of violence. There was no evidence for this. Writing is powerful, and in many ways timeless and can outlive the writer, but it was not an act of violence nor intended as such. All I wanted was peace,and an end to the angry mob behavior directed toward a child.

  14. One area where I struggle with this notion of forgiveness. The justification for not reporting paedophile priests during the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses the Chile Abuse was that these were “character flaws”. I struggle to see how raping children can not be seen as crimes but rather character flaws and forgive the perpetrators, and in fact am of the opinion that given the use of negligence to conceal these crimes would make the person who did not do their duty to report as guilty of the crimes as the perpetrators (laws of joint enterprise).

    I think sometimes in a rush to forgive, and save face, we forget what our responsibilities to ALL people are. And it creates dark spaces for those with evil intent to operate with impunity.

    Others may have found ways of forgiving these people, but I certainly haven’t when I realise that the locked hospital wards have a revolving door where these victims have been trapped and silenced for years.

    • ….. and from my own personal experience, the very same methods of concealing the crimes of abusive doctors and mental health practitioners is being used to this very day in many of our institutions. These are “character flaws” not crimes and therefore we are justified in concealing them, and gaslighting the victims to suicide.

      • The psychiatrist who victimized me (1965-1972) was eventually fired from the hospital for indiscriminate use of electroshock. Apparently he was “disciplined” by the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners for indiscriminate use of electroshock — but the disciplinary action was not made public and was a simple order to cease practicing for a certain number of years — he was allowed to keep his license, but under the gentlemen’s agreement type of medical board standards back then, there was no public notice of any of it.

        But what I specifically wanted to say here is another quotation or paraphrase. I read somewhere a new (to me) definition of the words guilt and shame which struck me as incredibly revealing. When I feel shame, I am mainly concerned with my own self — how I look or seem to other people. When I feel guilt I am mainly concerned with the pain or damage I have caused to another person. That is when I would seek forgiveness — if I feel guilt about something, I want to, as much as possible, make up for the pain or harm I have caused another person, because I am concerned about the other person. If I feel shame about something I want to conceal what I have done, excuse it, etc.

        I doubt the doctor who harmed me and also damaged many other people during his practice of electroshock was ever concerned with the harm he did any of his patients. And the medical board of the time helped him hide his shame by not making public what had happened.

        The dysfunctional psychiatric system shames its patients with stigmatizing labels and “treatments” which render its patients vulnerable and ashamed, all the while denying and hiding its own shame. Let us hope that movements like Mad in America can contribute to a major change in psychiatry.

        My own experience is related in my book: From the Lion’s Mouth: Healing from Trauma, Electroshock, Scapegoating and Grief in a Dysfunctional Family and Psychiatric System, byJulia Hoeffler Welton.

        • Julia, I would love to read your book! I recently took my memoir off the market so that I can re-publish it and make it available at a more affordable price, so it should be back up there fairly soon for cheaper than it was. I am sure that writing about your experience infuriated them. Good! And the fact that you continue to speak out and voice your strong opinion…Oh, they hate that we write and hate that we actually remember so well! Shucks, they couldn’t stop us…..

          And imagine now they are saying “oh gee, it DID matter to those subhuman brutes, and they DID have real feelings, after all…Uh oh….”

        • It’s a clever little ‘three card monte’ Ms Welton.

          Means, motive and opportunity = crime. Replace motive with ‘good faith’ and you now have means (drugs, ECT, incarceration) and opportunity (police will deliver the ‘patient’ for you) and without being able to demonstrate motive, torture, maiming and well…. negative outcoming are all within ones power 🙂

  15. Last thing I’ll say about forgiveness, then moving on. The story I chose to reveal in Voices That Heal, about my dad, was prompted by mother striving to understand what had happened to me that took me so deeply into an abyss at one point, that I actually became disabled after all these years of working and functioning ok in life on psych drugs. I wasn’t sure how to explain it to her at the time, aside from starting with telling her that the psych drugs I’d been on for 20 years slowly eroded me from the inside and I had to recalibrate my system after an extremely rough withdrawal.

    But of course, it was really what had been originally suppressed by these drugs in the first place that was rearing its ugly head, and that was family trauma from insidious dysfunction. I did not want to out and out tell her this to her face, she would not have been able to hear this with self-compassion. So I explained best I could in my film, and then sent it to her, she was the first one outside of cast and crew to see it.

    She knew I had forgiven my dad, but still, this question lingered in her, so I appeased it by outlining the family system and how each of our defenses and responses to abuse take us in different directions in life.

    She got it, and felt horribly guilty, she told me so–which was like asking me for forgiveness. I told her of course I forgive her for allowing this, for not taking us away from abuse, for allying with my dad when she should have been our advocates, not his. And for asking me to twin with her resentment, which, of course, caused me a lot of confusion, and then grief. Really a mess of mixed messages, it would confuse the clearest of minds, I think.

    My mother is alive and well and we’re buds again, like we used to be before all of this. She asked for forgiveness, and I didn’t give it a second thought. For her, it meant everything. So I’m good to go and moving on now, in a new light.

    If families can’t heal, they can’t heal, and life and soul growth will continue one way or another. I was very fortunate that mine was able to, thanks to my breaking the system again and again and again and again–until she finally got it. I’m so proud of my mother for being able to make such profound shifts, in her 80’s! That is rare, and I am humbly grateful–extremely.

    Perhaps thjs is why my life is dedicated to the light, and giving back in a way that will bring healing to others–whether by truth-speaking or making music, bringing joy, sharing love and light, whatever works. That’s my soul path, and it never would have appeared for me with such absolute clarity, had I not made it a point to actively forgive–and then, to consciously *transmute* the energy from one of fear and resentment, to one of unconditional love. Not sure there’s any more I can do there, why would I want to? For me, unconditional love was the goal. Now, on to create new things, from that energy level. Let’s see what happens…

  16. When I have a lot to say on a subject, I sometimes mull it over for a bit before expressing myself. I do have a lot of thoughts on the topic of forgiveness. Alex mentioned something about people having different internal definitions of words, and I know for me the visceral reaction to “forgive” has changed (somewhat, but it really depends on the context). Children are taught very early to rotely offer apologies they don’t mean– you can almost hear an echo of “say you’re sorry!” right now, I bet. Even as a kid, I thought that was a crock, and refused to accept bogus apologies. It’s either sincere, or it’s an insult, frankly. So my first concept of forgiveness sprung from that, and was something I wanted no part in. Later down the line, I encountered a different concept of forgiveness. It goes something like this: Somebody has wronged you, and this act has created emotional baggage. You can carry it around with you, dwelling on it, essentially dragging it around with you, or you can drop it off in their corner and let the consequences be theirs. But here’s the catch- you have to walk away and not look back to check and see how the consequences play out for them; you have to quit being emotionally invested in any particular outcome. For me, that still feels like relinquishing my claim on some justice for the one wronged. The wronged deserve justice! So, yeah, if that is what forgiveness is, it’s still not my cup of tea. Accountability is.

    So here’s how I define accountability: you must account for your actions and your intentions, up to the limits of your ability. So in these instances where folks committed crimes because they were placed on an Rx that created a situation beyond their control, in my view they should not be held to account for that. Behaving better in that situation was beyond their ability. Each person is operating out of their own set of resources and challenges, which fluctuate for everyone but more so for some of us. I will not be held to account for what is beyond my ability, and I cannot hold others to account for what is beyond theirs. And often, the more you know, the picture of the situation changes. So add Understanding to the list next to Accountability.
    I have a personal example. About a month before I turned 12, I found myself living in a new family: my mother, her boyfriend of 3 years, and my younger half-siblings (brother, sister). How this came about is a different tale for a different time. These were not his children, but he was Dad to them and shortly to me as well, a welcome change for me since I had never bonded with my own father. Picture family life: county fair, swap meets, demolition derby (nosebleed seats but who cares?!), backyard garden and BBQs. Then one night, a few months before my 13th birthday, my mother walks into my bedroom late at night to find her boyfriend naked in my bed and touching me. I remember her turning on the light, and then almost immediately turning it off and walking out of the room. He followed her, grabbing clothes on the way out and trying to say something to her, I don’t know what. Memory of that night gets hazy after that flash of light, but I remember very well up to that point. Nothing in his demeanor had been predatory. No, he was being like a trusted friend, a confidante, a mentor. He expressed interest in my life, my friendships; he listened. He was being very open, very real, no canned adult responses. We were talking about school, boys. He asked if there was anything I wanted to know about guys, about sex. He said that in a family, mothers teach sons and fathers teach daughters. That made sense to me. I didn’t even question it. (I would come to understand why decades later in a conversation with my aunt, who confirmed a pattern of intergenerational incest in my father’s family, and disclosed that I had been molested as an infant by his parents. Again, another tale for another time.) My mother grilled me the next day about what had happened and I told her what he had said. She twisted things into some weird Freudian knot, pathologizing my reaction of trusting him. Something along the lines of “If he’s like a father to you, you must be really fucked up to want to fuck your own father.” Her story was that I seduced him. She was awful to me, psychologically cruel and physically abusive, for the next to years, until I escaped the situation. But an interesting thing happened when I was 14: my mother’s parents drove out to visit. They didn’t stay long, and she had not one good thing to say about me to them, but their visit stirred memories in her that she had long buried and I became her confidante. Horrible, horrible memories of things her father had done to her, her sister, her brothers. She told of being raped at age 4, and being blamed, and how the beating that followed almost killed her. And that story of hers changed the picture of my story, of why she reacted the way she did. Having the context did not change how wrong she was in treating me the way she did, but it explained the why of it, and that made it easier to bear. Given her history, she could not fathom that it could be his fault. The man was never to blame, the woman/girl always was. And somehow, she had never challenged that. She was operating out of her own trauma, creating trauma for me. But having the fuller picture helped me understand the limits of her accountability for reacting that way.

  17. This article matches my feelings and perspective about the issue of forgiveness, just to offer this perspective as expressed in an article written by psychiatrist Karen Swartz from Johns Hopkins–

    http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/publications/johns_hopkins_health/summer_2014/the_healing_power_of_forgiveness

    I believe the article makes a lot of very good points and discernments. This is what I’d highlight, in particular:

    “If someone is stuck in an angry state, what they’re essentially doing is being in a state of adrenaline. And some of the negative health consequences of not forgiving or being stuck there are high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, not having a good immune response. You’re constantly putting your energy somewhere else.”

  18. Thanks, Dr. Berezin, and MIA readers for great article and posts. We just did a forgiveness exercise at my Congregational Church this Sunday. You could put a name of a person who has harmed you and put it in a bowl and light a candle. I found it freeing. Forgiveness for me personally is about letting go of the anger and resentment that I hold towards the other person which only harms me and being able to move on. The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. Why give energy to an abusive person when I would much rather give that energy to causes and loved ones I care about? As a therapist, I never tell anyone who has been seriously abused that he/she “should” forgive in order to heal. I unfortunately have heard the most horrible stories of childhood sexual, physical and spiritual abuse usually by someone very close and trusted, i.e. parent, close relative, priest, minister, teacher, that have left me sickened by the cruelty that one human can impose on another. Feeling anger and rage is important stage in healing as it is a signal that boundaries have been violated. I have seen the worst and the best in humans. I became a therapist though for this very reason. I wanted to understand how such tragedies and abuse could occur, and what is it to be human. I wanted answers and how to prevent and stop such abuses, and help heal those who have been victims. I studied about psychology and world leaders looking at abuses of power in college and was startled more how fear and intimidation could make people follow a Hitler and do unspeakable acts toward others on a macro societal level. Understanding the dynamics of systems and power were helpful then in studying the most important institution and system, the family, the first one and most intimate we are born into, the micro system. So important that values of honesty, respect and dignity be upheld in all our institutions.

    • I learned about the energy of forgiveness in a workshop I took, we also did a ritual. I’m not one for rituals, on the whole, but forgiveness rituals–indeed, the burning away of past time energy–are powerful and can be quite effective. We also discussed it as it pertained to our experience, allowed ourselves to own and move through resentment and blame, owned our own energy around our experience, and then did a separation from the person/people/experience, clearing the past and coming fully into present time with ourselves, empowered in a new light. From this, so much meaning can be identified that defines and guides us.

      It was not a fly-by-night mindless intention, but a true and authentic invocation of heart energy. Following that, I was able to feel more love in my heart and body than I ever had, and from that, came a new reality with new and improved experiences, along with more clarity about who I am in relationship to others. I still have to work on “feeling the love” sometimes, but this definitely gave me a new baseline.