Healing is a unique and transformative journey. Therefore, we will feel challenged to explore what healing looks and feels like for us as we learn to release conditions set for us by society, family, or even ourselves. Beginning a healing journey is often met with discussions about forgiveness. Forgiveness has long been a condition for healing, but what happens when forgiveness is not an option or feels unsettling? Can we still experience healing without forgiveness? In this blog post, we will explore the idea that forgiveness is not a requirement for healing and discuss alternative paths that can lead us from surviving to thriving.
What does it mean to forgive?
According to Merriam-Webster, to forgive is “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender).” It is often linked to those seeking closure, resolve, or healing after experiencing trauma or pain. Although forgiveness can be a powerful resource for some people in releasing their pain, what happens when forgiveness is not an option or feels unsettling? Forgiveness can mean different things to different people. For example, some may believe that forgiveness means that they are mature, “God-like,” or a good person because it’s the right thing to do. Or for some people forgiveness means that they have moved on or found closure. These beliefs are personal to the individual who holds them and is often linked to morals and other teachings. However, the pressure of forgiveness as the “be-all'' approach to healing can have adverse effects.
How can focusing solely on forgiveness be harmful?
We may experience external and internal pressures to forgive those who we feel have wronged us. Whether we are pressured by messages from religion, society, family/friends, or all the above, the compounded pressure to forgive can result in increased self-doubt, stress, anxiety, internal or external shame, and emotional bypassing. If we are not in a place to choose forgiveness, that is okay! There are alternative paths of healing that can support where we are in our journey.
Where to start if I am not ready for or open to forgiveness?
There is no “right” way to go about healing. Your journey is yours! So, it is important to start where you are right now. If you are not ready or open to forgiveness, here are four alternative paths and practical tips to start and support your healing:
1. Build your emotional capacity.
It is helpful to improve your emotional awareness to understand what you are feeling. When you improve your emotional awareness, you are better able to identify your sources of emotional pain, build your emotional vocabulary, improve emotional expression, regulation, and resilience.
When you find yourself in a heightened emotional state (whether it be anger or joy), pause and observe how your mind and body are responding to your emotions or feelings. For example, notice any changes in your breathing. Is your breathing steady and deep or shallow?. Notice body sensations. Are you experiencing tingling, pain, tension, or temperature changes in your body or a specific area of your body? Notice your thoughts. How are you speaking to yourself, about others and the world? Notice the meaning you are making about your emotions. Is there judgment, assumptions, catastrophizing, hopelessness, etc.? Observing how your mind and body are responding to your emotions deepens the mind/body connection and improves self and body awareness, which are all important in developing emotional capacity.
2. Set and Maintain Boundaries.
When you experience trauma, existing in this world can feel unsafe. You are often conditioned to ignore your personal needs, wants, or desires in the name of making others comfortable or for your own protection. However, it is important to identify personal limits to create and maintain a safe environment to support your needs and wellbeing. Setting limits can be placed around your time or energy, body, social media, finances, etc. within all relationships (e.g. romantic, family, or platonic relationships) and environments (e.g. work, school, and other public settings).
Identify a time(s) when you said “yes” when you really wanted to say “no.”
Take a moment to journal or reflect on this statement: If I were to say no to __________ then __________ , which makes me __________ .
By reflecting and filling in this statement, you can become more aware of any resistance or barriers that prevent you from setting boundaries.
3. Join an aligned community or group.
Humans are social beings, meaning that community is an essential contributor to your development. Yes, the source of your traumas is often through your relationships. But so is your healing! When you experience healthier interactions, you can harmonize your nervous system and practice repairing relational ruptures in a safe climate.
Identify your current values by asking yourself what is important to you when it comes to your relationships?
Here is a values list created by Dr. Russ Harris to assist exploring your values. Identifying your values can help guide you to communities or spaces that align with what supports you in feeling safe and well on your journey.
4. Seek Professional Support.
It is helpful to seek support from a trusted and trauma-informed professional, such as a therapist, coach, educator, or other wellness facilitators. These supportive networks can assist in expanding our perspective, exercising your autonomy, challenging your behaviors and thought patterns, providing validation and mental support, integrating healthier behaviors and thought processes, etc. If you are looking for this support now, book a free consultation to explore how therapy with me might look.
It can be difficult to extend forgiveness to others or yourself when you have experienced or caused harm to others. Forgiveness is a personal choice. Can you still experience healing without forgiveness? Short answer: Yes. Whether you choose forgiveness or not, it is important to remember to start where you are now to move forward in your healing.