First, we have to start by forgiving ourselves. It is difficult, but not impossible, to forgive others before you forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness can be especially difficult for survivors of sexual abuse, who tend to be pretty hard on themselves. We have to realize the inaccuracy of the child-logic that made us believe that if only we were better, bad things wouldn’t happen to us.
One thing that helped me was to focus on the present. For many years, I focused on my past, the very part of my life I couldn’t change. Eventually, I realized that the past was over, and the only place the abuse was still occurring was in my own head. Shifting your mental focus from past pain to the present moment takes practice. Start by bringing your focus back to what you are doing right now. Find the joy in life in the here and now—sitting with your favorite pet, walking in the garden or on the beach, or playing a musical instrument. Know that your past will always be a part of you, and you will inevitably think about it. But whenever you do, just gently bring yourself back to this moment. If you are living mostly in the past, ask yourself this one simple question, “How’s it working for me?”
Another important step in the forgiveness process is accepting the pain. Acceptance does not mean approval. My mother and Jack hurt me deeply, scarring me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I wallowed in that pain for more than thirty years. But once I started my recovery, I came to a place of acceptance in order to move forward. What they did to me was absolutely wrong, but how long was I going to let it ruin my life? In order to grow and move forward, I had to accept the fact that the abuse happened and understand that obsessing on “shoulds” was only hurting me. It helped to remember that acceptance does not mean approval.
Next, I had to become willing to at least start the forgiveness process. For thirty-eight plus or minus years I was completely unwilling to even talk about forgiveness. Remember that forgiveness is a “choice” not a “feeling.” For years I was letting my feelings control my life and actions at any mention of forgiveness. This in part was a result of not being allowed to talk about what happened to me or my feelings without the words; “You just need to forgive, forget and move on,” or “That was a long time ago, just get over it.” I never knew that I had a choice to forgive or not to forgive. Other people’s well-intentioned comments only drove me further away from forgiveness. Not until my therapist Deborah Mients-Pierson and my counselors at the Betty Ford Center allowed me to talk about my abuse without judgement, but instead with empathy and understanding, did I become willing to start the forgiveness process. Not only were they non-judgmental, they never once uttered the words “You just have to forgive, forget, and move on.” It was presented to me as a “choice’ and not forced on me.
Once I was able to accept the pain and the fact that the abuse happened to me, that it was not my fault, I had to surrender, let go and let God. Now, I know too many people the word surrender brings to mind many pictures. Perhaps a white flag waving above a platoon of outnumbered soldiers with their hands raised high. More often we associate surrender with defeat. For many of us the reality is we have been utterly defeated, but our pride won’t allow us to admit it. After all, to surrender is a sign of weakness, right? The reality is that surrendering is not a sign of weakness, rather a sign of strength. In fact, once we surrender, once we admit our powerlessness, and give it to God, the real power begins to go to work, the power of God. Surrendering does not mean we will ever forget what happened to us. We were hurt and some of us were hurt in a way no child should ever be hurt. However, that does not mean we can’t heal from that hurt, we can. For me that healing began when I let go and let God. My abuse stopped when I was eighteen years, yet I kept the abuse alive for another thirty-one years. During that time my abusers went about their lives as though nothing had ever happened. In fact, my mother and stepfather were kind and generous with other people, just not to me. The past was over and there was nothing I could do to change what happened to me, but there was something I could do to have a better future. But first I had to quit fighting everybody and everything. First, I had to surrender.
The one thing that helped me complete my forgiveness process of my stepfather and mother was empathy. It’s important to remember that hurt people, hurt people. This is not to justify or condone their actions or behaviors, rather to help me understand their actions and behaviors. Both my mother and stepfather were alcoholic. They were both emotionally, spiritually and sexually abused themselves. Their childhood was likely far worse than mine. Yes, you would think that they would not want to inflict that pain on others, but they were only doing what was done to them – learned behavior. Yes, they knew what they were doing. Yes, it was wrong, but understanding the why behind the actions and behaviors made it really easy to forgive them. During this process I worked hard on cultivating compassion. See if you can go beyond empathy and actually wish for happiness for the people who have hurt you. Again, you are not doing this for them. They won’t feel it; you will. As you allow love to grow in your heart, overtaking the anger and hatred, you will find greater happiness and peace.
I know how hard even the thought of forgiveness can be, but I am hopeful that this blog has made it easier for you to start the process. If you are a Christian, you know that countless scriptures impress upon you the importance of forgiveness. It is part of the Christian faith to activate the grace of forgiveness. In Buddhism, the practice of forgiveness prevents harmful thoughts from wreaking havoc on your mental well-being. Buddhism recognizes that feelings of hatred and ill will leave a lasting effect on your mind and heart. Therefore, Buddhism encourages the cultivation of thoughts that leave a wholesome effect. Many Native American traditions tell us to “walk the path of light without holding contempt for anything or anyone.”
Whether you are a Christian, Buddhist, or Native American, or hold any other faith, or none at all, your path to an abundantly free and happy life is to forgive those who have harmed you, no matter what the offense was. Until you forgive, you are still hostage to those that hurt you. When you do forgive, you set yourself free.
You can read more about forgiveness in Randy's International Best Selling Book - Healing The Wounded Chid Within - available on Amazon