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Forgiving Your Abuser

Forgiving an abuser is hard, especially when it is someone who failed to protect you, like a caregiver in your childhood. Forgiving your abusive parent can help you move on and heal from your past, whether or not you choose to allow your parent to be part of your life. This is an exercise in making space for peace and healing within. You are under no obligation to forgive an abuser. It's a personal choice. Don't let others persuade or guilt you into forgiving. Everyone heals differently, and it's okay if forgiveness isn't part of that process for you. Focus on what works best for you. But if you have chosen to simply ignore, move on, or stay consumed by negative emotions, and it is not working for your life, you may want to explore this option for a variety of reasons. Here are a couple:

Forgive your parent for your own benefit, not theirs.

Do it so you can reclaim your life and let go of any poisonous anger you’ve been holding onto.

People with no experience of abuse may suggest that you reestablish the relationship, not realizing that this could be traumatizing.

You need to experience tough emotions on your own timeline. It's not healthy to bottle up your feelings, or sweep them under the rug.

You don't owe someone your forgiveness. If someone abuses you, that erases any obligation you have to them. Just because they have changed, or they now need someone to care for them, doesn't erase all of the harm they caused.

Know that forgiving someone does not mean condoning their behavior. Don’t downplay how the abuse affected you. Don't put yourself in harm's way in the name of forgiveness. Keep yourself safe. Protect yourself first. Think about forgiveness after you are safe (physically and emotionally).

Set limits on your relationship. You do not have to have a relationship with your parent if you do not want to. If you do want to keep your parent in your life, do it on your own terms. Decide how often you’ll see them and let them know how you want to be treated. Be prepared to defend your boundaries or distance yourself if your parent challenges you. For instance, if you’ve told your mother that you won’t talk to her if she starts talking about your abusive father or defending him in any way, you may have to hang up the phone on her a few times before she starts respecting your wishes. If your parent refuses to put any effort into changing the relationship, your best option may be to cut them off. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to make them part of your life.

Even if your abusive parent is elderly, you are not obligated to take care of them. Work with other family members to make other arrangements for them. It’s important that you protect yourself, even if your parent tries to make you feel guilty. Again, abuse negates responsibility. You have no responsibility to care for your abuser.

If your parent is deceased and you want to carry out an act of forgiveness, consider writing a letter to your parent, or visiting your parent’s grave site to speak to them. Focus on what your parent did as well as how you felt and how the abuse has affected your life and your desire to move on because you don't want the past to hold you captive.

Can you accept the past for what it was? To heal, you’ll have to acknowledge the abuse and work through your memories. You may feel all kinds of emotions bubbling up when you think about the past, and that’s okay. Be compassionate to yourself. The abuse was not your fault and you didn’t deserve to be hurt. Let yourself feel whatever emotions you’re experiencing. If you feel like you lost part of your life to the abuse, or if you’re not happy with the way you coped, forgive yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Remember that recovery is an ongoing process that can take years. Part of being self-compassionate is believing that you’re worthy of love and care.

Especially if you’re struggling to forgive your parent or just can’t seem to move forward, it’s important to take steps to grow personally. Open up to trusted friends or counselors and take time to meditate, practice mindfulness, and exercise.

Choose to focus on the present. Commit to living as well as you can in the here and now. Don’t waste your energy dwelling on things that neither you nor your parent can change. Unfortunately, many abusers continue to use the same tactics all of their lives. Don’t be disappointed if your parent slips back into old habits or refuses to admit they did anything wrong. Finally, abuse is always wrong. Don't undersell your own worth in the name of "forgiveness."


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