Relationship Coach Caroline Franssen explains why ideas of forgiveness are often misguided and unhelpful, preventing both victims and perpetrators from moving forward.
A victim who manufactures a fake feeling of forgiveness stops herself from processing what happened to her. The perpetrator never takes responsibility for his harmful behaviour because it is being excused by the victim.
We OBJECT to this unhelpful culture of fake forgiveness.
Why victims don’t have to forgive
It is fashionable nowadays to tell someone who is the victim of deliberate misconduct or unintentional harm that they must forgive the perpetrator. Especially in spiritual circles you are told that you are only free when you have forgiven. This puts pressure on victims not only to process their own feelings, but also to deal with the perpetrator. When a victim strives for a particular unnatural feeling, searching for some complete emotional processing that ends in forgiving the perpetrator, then her own emotional processing is blocked.
The perpetrator is responsible
The victim has a connection to the perpetrator. Freedom from victimhood comes when the victim no longer feels any responsibility for what happened. S/he is clear that responsibility lies with the perpetrator and those who should have protected the victim. The victim is innocent. The perpetrator is the one to bear the responsibility, guilt and shame about what s/he has done.
Obligation to feel at peace
Striving to forgive imposes an unhealthy burden on the victim. She must have finished processing all feelings and make no judgment about what the perpetrator did. She must no longer be angry about the harm and its consequences for her life, she is told, paradoxically, that she must be at peace.
While the victim tries to heal the physical, emotional and energetic wounds, tries to stop reliving the trauma, tries to regain her sense of physical integrity and boundaries, she is recovering her sense of security and regaining her trust in other people. This recovery takes up ALL of her attention. She should not be burdened with the task of alleviating the conscience of the perpetrator by forgiving him.
What makes forgiving attractive to you?
Why is this way of thinking so attractive in certain circles? What makes it so appealing?
1. Forgiving gives the victim a sense of power.
If you are a victim, you are powerless. It happens to you. You have no control over the situation. You have not had a choice. You can choose forgiveness. That gives you a sense of power. It is a false sense of power, but it might make you feel better for a while.
2. Forgiving distracts you from your emotions – being hurt, afraid and angry
By focusing on forgiving, you do not have to dwell on all the bad feelings you have. With forgiveness you sit in the seat of God. Above all parties. You leave your own place as a victim and thus also your feelings as a victim. You do not have to dwell on your anger, sadness and powerlessness.
3. Forgiving gives you the feeling that you are a good person.
It is very good for your sense of self to feel good about yourself. Forgiving gives you the idea that you are a good person, a better person than the perpetrator.
4. Forgiving the perpetrator gives you the feeling that your victimhood has finally come to an end.
So forgiving seems attractive. But it leaves out the perpetrator. He is an abstraction in this one-way forgiveness. He didn’t have to do anything to earn your forgiveness. You have taken complete responsibility. But you are not responsible! You are not responsible for the actions of the perpetrator. You are only responsible for healing yourself after what has happened to you. You are in no way to be blamed for this. You have not chosen to be a victim. The perpetrator chose to victimize you. So he is responsible. He has to do things, to see your pain, to help you heal in order to be forgiven. Reconciliation depends on the perpetrator taking action.
What makes forgiving attractive for others?
1. Urging others to forgive their perpetrators means you can stay in a world where everybody is good
You don’t have to bother about evil in the world, because ‘a good person can handle everything that happens to her’.
2. Urging others to forgive can be a way of hiding the fact that you are, one way or another, on the perpetrator’s side.
When you have a perpetrator in you own family you are very likely to fall into the trap of victim-blaming and forced forgiveness, because you are loyal to your family members.
When you can’t face your own victimhood, you are caught up in an invisible Stockholm Syndrome, and will tend to stand with perpetrators too. To avoid facing up to your own position, you find it easier to impose the burden of forgiving on others.
3. Urging others to forgive means you don’t have to help them any more
Traumatised people are difficult to deal with. They ask for your attention, support and help to deal with their feelings of helplessness, anger, rage, pain or sadness. This means that you have to be able to deal with all these emotions. When you can’t, when it’s all too much, it’s far easier to steer towards forgiveness. Once all is forgiven, you don’t have to help them any more processing their emotions, because it is ‘finished’.
4. When YOU are the perpetrator, you are off the hook
Once you are forgiven, there is no need to investigate your own behaviour, to take responsibility for your emotions and actions and you don’t have to prevent yourself from acting in a harmful way again.
Conditions for reconciliation
There is no doubt that reconciliation is the best thing that can happen after someone has harmed someone else. Reconciliation is only possible if a perpetrator takes responsibility for his behaviour, if he takes responsibility for the pain he has caused. If he processes his own feelings and in no way is demanding or asking the victim to do anything for him, like trusting him or forgiving him. If he completely acts in service to the victim and her healing. If he does his utmost to make up for it. If he is prepared to let the victim spill her anger all over him and face her pain.
Personally, I very rarely these types of perpetrators. They are as rare as white elephants. After all, a deliberate perpetrator is by definition not in touch with his responsibility for the welfare of others.
As a relationship coach I see many victims trying to deal with the perpetrator’s responsibility. And I tell them: Dump this huge burden of responsibility like the woman in the picture. It’s not yours. Give it back to the perpetrator where it belongs. He needs to feel it to help him change his behaviour so he does not go on to harm others again.
The perpetrator is responsible, the victim is innocent.
Caroline Franssen LLM is a senior relationship-coach and teacher in systemic constellations working in The Netherlands. She is the author of several books: First Aid at Love Accidents and The Obedient Sheep and other fables for managers. Currently she is writing a book about the use of individual 3D constellations in therapy and coaching, coming out in 2018. See her website: www.relatieacademie.com