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Forgiveness After Psychological Abuse: The Challenges & Benefits

When you forgive, you open those hands, let your heart out to love again, freely and confidently. Why? Because evil cannot defeat you.

  1. Peace
    "When you live with resentment, you close your hands tightly around your heart, hoping that no one will penetrate this strong-fisted protection. When you forgive, you open those hands, let your heart out to love again, freely and confidently. Why? Because evil cannot defeat you; evil cannot destroy your heart’s capacity to love." - Dr. Robert Enright

    Note from Jackson: Forgiveness by definition asks you to explore the perpetrator's humanity, which has the potential to trigger intense cognitive dissonance—even thoughts of making contact with your abuser. If you’re new to recovery, I’d highly recommend skipping this article and checking back when you’re 100% certain you’ll never contact this person again (or blame yourself for what happened to you). And even then, forgiveness isn’t right for a lot of people. Plenty of survivors find peace without it. This article is simply written for those of you who are interested in learning more about forgiveness.

    I see this question on a daily basis: “I’ve always been able to forgive everything in my life, but I just can’t forgive this experience. Why?”

    Psychopathic abuse is calculated, cruel, and remorseless. They mirror your personality, play the perfect match, and then toy with you until you lose your entire sense of self. They do it for fun, and they don’t feel an ounce of guilt for it. In fact, psychopaths are even known to brag about making their victims feel suicidal.

    How in the world can you forgive someone like that? And moreover, why would you want to?

    Robert Enright, PhD is a licensed psychologist, professor, author, and founding member of the International Forgiveness Institute. He has conducted research studies on the effects of forgiveness on psychological abuse survivors. After reading and earmarking his amazing book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness (http://www.amazon.com/Keys-Forgiveness-Mental-Health/dp/0393734056), I reached out in hopes that he might be willing to answer some of our questions surrounding forgiveness and psychopathy.

    Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Enright!

    1. Your book dispels a lot of myths that tend to keep people from even considering forgiveness. Could you briefly go over some of the most common forgiveness myths? What is forgiveness, and what is it not?

    Thank you, Jackson, for this opportunity to explore forgiveness with the members of your group. I have been studying the topic of forgiveness since 1985---30 years. I have come to realize that forgiveness starts with a broken heart and ends with a mended heart. Forgiveness is surgery for the heart and it literally can save your life. Most people actually misunderstand what forgiveness is because we so rarely have discussions about it. We are just told to forgive, as if saying words like, “I forgive you” puts an end to strife and brokenness. This just is not true. Forgiveness is a process that takes time. It is a path that never should be forced on anyone. Forgiveness is your choice and so please do not feel pressure to forgive. What is forgiveness? Let me explain it in two ways. First, to forgive is a commitment within yourself to do no harm to those who have harmed you, perhaps even having caused great harm to you. Do no harm. This is a very courageous commitment. You are saying this: Despite all that you have done to me, I will be stronger than that. I will not give back any harm to you at all. Second, forgiveness is offering goodness of some kind to the one who refused to be good to you. This goodness can take many forms such as kindness, respect, generosity, and even love. (This latter idea of love takes much time and sometimes is never reached and that is all right. We do the best we can).

    An example of kindness is to not condemn this person to others. Do you see how you do not have to be kind directly to the one who hurt you? You can do so from a safe distance especially when the person might be a danger to you. How can you be generous to people if you do not interact with them? You could donate funds to a charity on behalf of this person, as an example.....and that person need not even know you did this. To love in this case does not mean anything romantic but instead means that you see this person as possessing built-in worth because of his or her humanity. This person, like you, is special, unique, and literally irreplaceable in this world. There never will be another person like this one. I can hear some of you proclaiming, “Well, thank goodness for that!!” Yet, when you love in this way and see the built-in worth of this person, you are not proclaiming worth because of **actions.** We are all more than what we **do.** So, too, is this person.

    Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. You do not have to reconcile with someone whom you see as possessing built-in or inherent worth. You can acknowledge this and watch your back. You can be kind and respectful and generous and even loving and never interact with a person ever again if they are a danger to you. When you forgive, you acknowledge wrongdoing on the other’s part. You never, ever say that what happened was fine or that you deserved it or that there is always a good excuse for bad behavior. No. Bad behavior is labeled as such when we forgive. And after we forgive, the behavior still is bad and always will be bad. What changes is our thinking about the person. This person, no matter how horrendous the behavior, is a human being and all humans are special and unique and irreplaceable. Everyone has unique DNA. For the religious person who forgives, the thought is that we are all made in the image and likeness of God. All are special despite even tragic behaviors.

    When we forgive, and this is little understood by too many, we always and without exception bring justice along with the forgiving. We may say a kind word about the person, or donate to a charity on their behalf, but we also ask fairness. Forgiveness is tough-minded and tender-hearted. We may soften our heart by not seeing the person as evil incarnate (perhaps influenced by great evil, but this person is not pure evil itself). And yet, we hold fast to the truth that this person must act fairly if they will interact with us on some level. Forgive and ask something of the other.Your leaving a deadly relationship is fair. And you can forgive from a place of safety.

    2. Forgetting about the perpetrator for a minute, how can forgiveness help the survivor? Years after the abuse has ended, many of us still struggle with adverse emotional and physical effects (depression, anxiety, anger, PTSD, insomnia, chronic fatigue, etc). From your research, can forgiveness actually improve any of those symptoms?

    Our science has shown that forgiveness is one of the most effective ways of getting rid of resentment, defined as persistent ill-will toward another (and this inner sense of unrest can last a lifetime if we do not take the strong medicine of forgiveness). As one example of our science, Suzanne Freedman (who is now a Professor at the University of Northern Iowa) and I did a study in the mid 1990’s of helping female incest survivors to forgive the man who perpetrated the incest. At the time of our research, the psychological literature basically was saying this: Therapists must not create too high an expectation for emotional healing from incest. This is just too serious an issue to expect much emotional healing. Therapists’ job, so the advice of the time stated, is to help a client live with some level of emotional disruption. This is realistic, so the advice went, because there are no known psychological approaches strong enough to cure incest survivors of their resentment, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

    Suzanne worked one-on-one with six courageous incest survivors for one hour per week for about 14 months using a treatment manual similar to my now-published book, Forgiveness Is a Choice. When we compared the results of this 14-months of forgiveness work with six other women in a control group (no forgiveness intervention yet) we found the following: The women who had the forgiveness intervention did not forgive perfectly. On our forgiveness scale (measuring the degree to which each woman forgave the one who violated her) they were all about average. They went from very non-forgiving at the pretest (before we started the intervention) to about average in their forgiving and yet that made all the difference. These women who had the forgiveness intervention went from being moderately or severely depressed to non-depressed. The depression left. Their anger went down, their self-esteem rose, and their sense of hope for the future improved. There was no change in the emotional health of the six women in the control group who were free to choose any kind of therapy they wished during this time of waiting for the forgiveness intervention. When Suzanne then started the forgiveness intervention with these other six women who initially were in the control group, they, too, like the first group, showed significant improvement in their emotional health 14 months later. They, too, showed such an improvement in depression that they went from moderate or severe depression to being non-depressed. What then happened to the depression of those in the original forgiveness intervention (which now ended 14 months ago)? They were still non-depressed 14 months after their forgiveness program ended. Forgiveness gave these women their lives back. They realized that in forgiving, they are strong enough to do no harm. They realized that they could be kind (from a distance). They could respect the humanity in the other even if they could not (in some of the cases) interact with him.They could see his inherent (built-in) worth, not because of what he did, but in spite of that. One woman began to feed her dying father in the hospital, an act of great courage and resolve, as just one example. It took her 14 months of hard work to accomplish this. She realized that she was stronger than the grave injustice against her. She realized that she could offer goodness even when no goodness came to her. This bolstered her self-esteem.

    3. Cognitive dissonance is a huge concern for psychological abuse survivors. Many of us are scared that if we practice forgiveness, we’ll forget about the abuse and start remembering the “idealizer” again. How can we keep ourselves safe from old patterns of self-blame and making contact?

    Forgiveness never, ever should be practiced without bringing a sense of justice or fairness along with it. We all must train our minds when abused to say, with justice standing strongly with us: What happened to me was wrong, is wrong, and always will be wrong. When someone abuses me, I am not a contributor to that. At the same time, I need not live with the negative repercussions of that abuse.

    This next point is very important. I have come to realize that when someone is very unjust to us, that injustice creates a second level of injustice. Can anyone name what invariably comes to visit us as injustice once we experience abuse?

    That second injustice is resentment, the persistent ill will that literally can last a lifetime within you.

    Forgiveness will not take away the first wave of injustice----the abuse. Yet, forgiveness is the medicine that literally can cure resentment, taking away this second wave of injustice.

    We too often do not see this. A first wave of injustice leads to a second wave of injustice (what I call the disease of resentment). Forgiveness is seen as ineffective by some people because forgiveness does not take away the first wave of injustice (the abuse). We need not dismiss forgiveness because of this. Why? Because forgiveness is the most powerful medicine for eliminating the second wave of injustice----the resentment that literally could kill us.

    4. Most survivors repeatedly forgave their abuser during the relationship, only to have that forgiveness exploited and used for more abuse. Constantly “letting it go” is how we got so badly stuck in the abuse. How can we possibly forgive people who use forgiveness as a weapon?

    A very large and common mistake is to equate forgiveness and reconciliation. They are different. To forgive is a freely chosen virtue (as justice and patience and kindness are virtues). Reconciliation is not a virtue, but instead is a negotiation strategy of two or more people coming together in mutual trust once again. A person can forgive (see the other as possessing inherent worth, see the other as imperfect, and even have compassion on him or her) without reconciling. It is worth repeating: when one forgives, one also seeks justice, asking fairness of the other. If the fairness will not come, then deliberately not reconciling is wise.

    Let us suppose for a moment that the person tries to use forgiveness as a weapon against you. A common power-ploy from them is this: “I asked you to forgive me and you are still hesitant to enter into this relationship with me. You are a hypocrite, you who talk about forgiveness, but can’t accomplish it!” You have to realize that this kind of thinking is nonsense. The person is: 1) pressuring you into a false form of forgiveness and 2) is equating your forgiving with your automatically reconciling. A reasonable response to such error-filled thinking is to say something like this: “Forgiveness and justice exist side-by-side. I expect fairness from you before I will reconcile. And this is what is fair.....” (state what is fair from a position of already having started to forgive. In this way, what you ask is likely to be temperate and truly fair rather than an eye-for-an-eye form of subtle revenge). Of course, if you have concluded that the other, at this point in time, is incapable of reconciling, then please do not even bring up the possibility of reconciliation now.

    5. Forgiveness seems to be about loving and honoring the inherent goodness in everyone, but how does that work with people who don't seem to have inherent goodness? From numerous resources authored by psychopaths, they actually thrive and prey on the repeated notion that we all have good in us.

    There is a difference between possessing this inherent goodness and having the potential to act in a good way. We should not judge anyone completely by their ***actions right now.*** We all fall short. So, we can see that the one who abuses has within the capacity to be even a little better tomorrow.Psychopathy is not an entirely materialistic (based on brain functioning alone) response with no free will at all associated with it. The person, in other words, even if gravely emotionally wounded inside, can choose other means of expressing the angst without abusing those who have committed their lives to them. This is why people refer to this kind of behavior so often as “evil.” Evil is not defined as an automatic, materialistic, non-willed response.

    6. In 8 Keys to Forgiveness, you wrote: “Power manipulates… Power is rarely happy in any true sense… Power steps on others… Power does not understand love.” This is really interesting, because psychopathy has been described as a disorder of power without love. How do power and love relate to abuse? How do they relate to forgiveness?

    Let us distinguish between “power over others” and “power in the service of others.” “Power over” is an antithesis of love. It seeks to dominate and manipulate for the actor’s own good. Love, in contrast, is in service to others. “Power over” becomes so sinister because it too often takes place in the context of those others who are trying to actually serve in love the one who seeks “power over” others. This, then, is a very grave injustice, with very deep hurt on the part of those who love those who seek power over them. Yet, I have found this: love is actually more powerful than is the quest for “power over” others. As you strive to love, unconditionally and in the face of evil, you show yourself that you will not be overcome by the person’s power. Forgiveness stops their power over you. If you stay resentful, then that person, and their power, are existing in you, chipping away at your joy. Forgiveness ends this and you are able to get on with your life even if you have residual hurt within you. Even that hurt is not more powerful than your ability to love. When you realize this, you can stand confidently, knowing that no one’s attempt at “power over” you will ever destroy you.

    7. Can you go into some detail—from the psychological perspective—on what happens to the mind and body when we forgive? How does it offer closure and peace? How does it allow us to move forward with our lives?

    Our scientific research, through randomized clinical trials, suggests that when people learn to forgive others for their grave injustices, then the forgiver’s resentment reduces or even ends. My colleague, Dr. Richard Fitzgibbions (a psychiatrist) and I, in our book, Forgiveness Therapy (published by the American Psychological Association) have theorized that resentment can lead to heightened anxiety and depression. When people then experience these emotions and moods, they reduce in hope and they end up not liking themselves. The body can then become tense and fatigued, affecting levels of exercise, choices of nutrition, and in general affecting the bodily health of a person. We need a way to cure the disease of resentment and this is where modern psychotherapy has missed the critical point we make in the book: All 20th century psychotherapies, without exception, have not sought a cure for the disease of resentment, the main trigger of so many other complications such as anxiety and depression. In other words, psychotherapists have focused too much on the **symptoms** of distress (and we see anxiety and depression as symptoms of underlying resentment in many cases) and these well-meaning helpers have missed the essence of psychological disease----resentment. Because forgiveness destroys the disease of resentment, Forgiveness Therapy is now emerging as a major approach to treating psychiatric symptoms. My point is that we ignore our resentment at the expense of our psychological and physical health. Once we are free of resentment, we truly are set free from what I call in my book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, the emotional prison.

    8. As mentioned in the introduction, most survivors never had any trouble with forgiveness in the past. The very fact that we can’t forgive this experience only makes us more frustrated. On top of resenting the experience, now we’re resentful that we’re even resentful to begin with. In the tech world, we call this an infinite loop bug. Is there any way to resolve the bug?

    Yes, there is a way to resolve the bug and to stop the infinite regress. There are three words for such resolution: practice, practice, practice. In my book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, I talk about going on a journey as we enter 8 different rooms as we learn to forgive. This journey requires a kind of forgiveness fitness, which we develop as we practice forgiving. Yet, as is the case with physical fitness, we do not start with the marathon. We start with walking, then jogging, then some running, as we work up to the marathon. It is the same with forgiving. Start first to forgive someone who has not gravely wounded you in an emotional sense. Then try to forgive someone else in your past who has hurt you, but the hurt is not severe. Eventually, as you walk the path of forgiveness (described in 8 Keys to Forgiveness and in Forgiveness Is a Choice) you will then be ready to forgive the one who has been cruelly unfair to you.

    9. How can we forgive ourselves? We eventually come to understand that we did not “deserve it” or “ask for it”, but many of us still carry intense guilt, shame, and frustration that we didn’t stand up for ourselves.

    Once you have walked the path of forgiving others, you then will be ready to forgive yourself if you think you have let yourself down. Yet, and this is very important, be tough-minded as you ask this: Have I really, truly done something wrong? Or, is this another illusion to keep me miserable? In other words, maybe you do not have to literally forgive yourself, but instead to fight for the truth that you are not at fault.

    Yet, let us suppose, instead, that in your pain (from others), you have inflicted even more pain on yourself (because of bad choices) and on others in an unfair way. This is an event that could legitimately lead you to self-forgive. So often, we find it hardest to forgive ourselves. Once we forgive others, we realize that we can offer unconditional love to ourselves, as we do not judge ourselves by our actions alone. Self-forgiveness is about finally allowing yourself to be gentle to......you. You realize that you are imperfect. You fall flat sometimes, and yet you do not have to keep yourself down. In a way, you are offering your own hand to yourself, accepting yourself as fully human in your imperfections, worthy of love because you are a person who is special, unique, and irreplaceable no matter what you have done. This is not some kind of trick you play on yourself because self-forgiveness challenges you to seek forgiveness from whomever you may have offended when you offended yourself. Self-forgiveness challenges you to be fair to those who experienced your unfairness.

    10. In your book, you call forgiveness “protection for the heart”. I absolutely love this line. Many survivors have put up walls to protect our hearts from further pain. I’ve read that people actually have better intuition once they open their hearts again. How can this be? If we let down these walls, how exactly does forgiveness act as protection? How can we learn to trust our hearts and decisions again?

    Those who have suffered pain are now more sensitive to the pain in others. Those who have suffered know now what others are experiencing. Thus, those who have suffered pain are in an excellent position to be helpers of others.

    Forgiveness helps us to see more clearly, not with more distortions. Why? It is because when we forgive we see the injustice, call it what it is, and we do not retreat from the conclusion that it was unfair. We then are more attuned to injustice, not that we become hyper-vigilant in seeing unfairness where it does not exist, but instead in seeing clearly what is fair and what is not fair and then standing in the truth of this.

    Over the years of studying forgiveness, I have found that a key ingredient in moving forward in this life with a sense of joy is this: As you learn to overcome pain and even to grow in love, particularly in the face of great cruelty, you know that this kind of cruelty never will defeat you.....never. If another person chooses to be cruel to you, you have the antidote: to forgive, to commit to doing no harm, to be kind even when the other refuses to be kind. This protects you against what I have been calling the disease of resentment. When you know that you will never be defeated by someone else’s attempt at “power over” you, then you are free to let your heart explore another relationship. In other words, when you live with resentment, you close your hands tightly around your heart, hoping that no one will penetrate this strong-fisted protection. When you forgive, you open those hands, let your heart out to love again, freely and confidently. Why? Because evil cannot defeat you; evil cannot destroy your heart’s capacity to love. Does this sound too sappy to be true? In our age of skepticism and pain, sometimes truth is seen as sappy. Yet, healing is never sappy. All I can tell you is this: When you are ready, give forgiveness a try. You might find that what so many call sappy actually is your path to freedom, confidence, rejuvenation, and yes, even joy.


    Thank you so much, Dr. Enright! If you found this topic interesting and want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out his books:

    8 Keys to Forgiveness: http://www.amazon.com/Keys-Forgiveness-Mental-Health/dp/0393734056/

    The Forgiving Life: http://www.amazon.com/Forgiving-Life-Overcoming-Resentment-Lifetools/dp/1433810913/

    Forgiveness is a Choice: http://www.amazon.com/Forgiveness-Choice-Step---Step-Resolving/dp/1557987572/

    For children - Rising Above the Storm Clouds: http://www.amazon.com/Rising-Above-Storm-Clouds-Forgive/dp/1591470757

    Visit the International Forgiveness Institute online at

    I've written a new book about long-term healing. Whole Again is now published! If you would like to be notified about future books, you can enter your email address below. This is not a mailing list. Just a one-time notification:

Article Author: Peace