Many of us will remember as a child being told to say sorry, and mouthing the words with little understanding of what they meant. It is one of the first sets of rules we teach toddlers to help them navigate the world. If you hurt someone, say sorry. If someone hurts you, they must say sorry, then you both must put the hurt away. Sorry is an ending, a line drawn, and must be accepted.
What is good manners, and good behaviour for three year olds is not always the best advice for adults. However, often around contrition and forgiveness we have learnt those early lessons so well it is hard to move past them. This can be made even more difficult if those around us try to reinforce the narrative that an apology has to be accepted, and that a line is then drawn under and harm done.
This blanket erasure of harm, under the rule of “they said sorry” can be incredibly hard to resist. It is not uncommon for survivors of child abuse, domestic abuse, and other harmful behaviours to be told they are the abusive one. Refusing to forgive, to accept the sorry, is framed as selfish, or childish. Often family members can use gaslighting (where those with power tell those without that their experiences/feelings are not real) blackmail and emotional pressure to make a survivors accept the sorry, and to forgive. Abusive partners can use similar tactics, especially within coercive control. The victim is framed as hurtful, and causing harm, because they cannot “move on” or “let things go”.
Those two phrases, moving on, letting things go, lie at the heart of forgiveness and contrition in a therapeutic context. Recently I wrote a piece for Welldoing which discussed letting go of resentment at failures our parents had made. It is important to understand that this is not for their benefit, but for our own. We let go so we can look more dispassionately at the past, and so anger and resentment do not eat away at us, like the invisible worm of Blake.
Working on this anger, finding a place for it, an outlet, can be incredibly healing. It is not the same as forgiveness however. It may lead to forgiveness, that is each individuals choice, but that is not inevitable. Nor is forgiveness necessary to heal. You can refuse to forgive from a place of peace, where the anger has washed through, and over you. It is of course a very personal decision, and one a client may need time to reach. The final point is about what works best for them, not others.
As it is with letting go of emotions, so it is with moving on. There are many different ways of expressing this. For a while, the term closure was popular. However, that suggests a neat ending which is perhaps not realistic to how humans actually are. It is rare that something which harmed us in the past stops ever causing hurt. It can fade, like an old scar, which we forget most of the time, but it never goes away. This can actually be reassuring to some survivors, who do not want to feel that their past is closed off to them. In some ways it resembles the work done when we are grieving. A client can feel that not feeling the pain of grief is disloyal to the loved one who has died. Finding a path which acknowledges the past without overwhelming us can take time but it is possible.
Forgiveness is a personal choice, it may also be a moral, or religious one. It must always be a choice, and one which we do not feel pressured or coerced into. It is not necessary to forgive an abuser to heal. We can let go of anger, move forward with our lives without saying “I forgive you”.
By the same token, someone does not have to accept an apology, or that saying sorry makes everything OK. Some survivors want to hear that sorry, for others it might help, but it will not erase the harm done. Sorry does not make everything OK, and if someone is genuinely contrite, they will understand that, There are many programs that people who feel genuine remorse can enrol on, they can embark on therapy themselves, and work on their accountability. All of these are good, positive things someone should do if they are sorry, but none of these have to change how the survivor feels, or acts.
Is forgiveness necessary to heal? Despite what you might be told, no, it is not. Healing itself might bring forgiveness, but that is a process which happens at a survivors own pace, and in their own way.