The trauma, confusion and heartache of betrayal often get worse before they get better. When your trust shatters, it can leave you spinning for a long time. After a while a kind of desperation sets in to find a way out of the pain.
In the ensuing quest to recover as quickly as possible, you will soon discover, as I did, an apparently straightforward remedy. Most everything you read, from self-help to depth psychology to the wisdom traditions—and just about everyone you talk with—will advise you similarly.
When you have been badly hurt by someone, in order to heal, you must simply forgive, let go and move on. Just forgive and you will have the magic remedy that will wipe away the brokenness, stop the pain, and give you back your life, or so you are told. What could be more obvious! Encouraged by this chorus of well-wishers, I was inspired, and forgiveness became my new quarry, the sought-after Holy Grail.
Premature Forgiveness Only Covers the Problem
Striving to forgive too soon, or maybe ever, depending on the circumstances, turned out to be a self-defeating quest. Even if we imagine we have arrived at this saintly state of mind, premature forgiveness almost guarantees we will bypass our own suffering. When what we need to do to move forward is to embrace, not bypass, the pain.
I speak from experience, because, believe me, I tried to forgive. I fervently included forgiveness practices as part of my regular meditation and prayer times. Sending the man who left me loving kindness and wishes for healing, acknowledging his pain, and detailing my own transgressions became an integral part of my routine, second only to brushing my teeth. In addition, I spent two years daily working the exercises in A Course in Miracles—the primary focus of which is forgiveness—as well as meeting weekly with a support group. Despite all these efforts, I still felt horrible.
My traumatized state of mind repelled my exertions like oil does water. My psyche would have none of this forgiveness nonsense, and demanded more potent medicine. Outside the time of sustained attention on my practices, and sometimes even with a fierce focus on them, my mind kept reverting to resenting, blaming and hexing him for what he had done. Frankly, trying so desperately to forgive only showed me how far I was from being the spiritual, kind, forgiving person I imagined myself to be.
Forgiveness Grows in Mysterious Ways
When we take forgiveness to heart as an ideal—and who doesn’t want to be a kind, forgiving person?—we may naturally, anxiously, skip over the distressing thoughts and feelings that our soul is calling us to traverse. Before true forgiveness can emerge from the ashes of broken trust, we need to wrestle with and listen to the messages in our own suffering. This means it may take many years of acceptance of our resentful, miserable, unforgiving selves before the heart softens and forgiveness comes quietly, almost magically, to fruition.
For most of us shattered trust brings with it a call to the work of complex grieving. We must grieve before we can forgive, and there is no timetable for that grief. True forgiveness, as a station of the heart, not simply a movement of the rational mind, becomes then an ideal to aspire to rather than an accessible way of being in the world.We may wish to forgive, even set an intention to forgive, but like so much else that involves our depths, forgiveness grows underground in mysterious ways that are not in our hands.
Meanwhile, let’s direct some of that loving kindness toward ourselves as we pass through this dark night testing and stretching of our hearts.
Adapted from “Love and the Mystery of Betrayal” —now available in print and ebook.
Thank you so much for this! For a long time I was wanting to write a post on my own blog that I intended to call “The F Word.”
I tried very hard to bypass my anger. The first thing I did (within 3 months of my own betrayal experience) was go to a Non-Violent Communication class. I kept getting triggered and felt far more violent than non-violent, so I quit the class, feeling like a failure.
Then I was going to all these bodyworkers and energy healers, because I had totally somatized my experience, and listened to them all tell me I needed to forgive in order to heal. And this was before I’d even gotten in touch with my anger! It was like blackmail: If you want to heal, you have to forgive. If you do not forgive, you will not heal. I felt doomed. Finally, I had someone tell me that really the only way to heal was to feel the emotions. That you couldn’t bypass them — you had to go through them. What a relief!
After time I did want to forgive, for my own peace of mind, but I think that happens as a RESULT of healing, not the other way around. Once you acknowledge and feel your feelings, then you can move through them and start to let go of what you’re holding on to (and holding against the other person).
To me it feels hard to be a “spiritual” person (I’m not hard-core spiritual, but spirituality is important to me) and hold onto what I think is true about forgiveness. Because everyone is spouting the need for forgiveness and it’s hard to think differently and feel okay about it. It’s funny how seemingly open-minded spiritual practices can also feel so narrow minded. Having acceptance for people’s unique processes is SO important!
Thanks again for this. I needed to read it!
Thank-you Kristi and Sandra – you have absolutely hit the nail on the head! – True forgiveness is not possible as long as certain feeling/impulse energies are kept “shut-down & bottled-up” inside us. Not only is forgiveness not possible, but it is not even healthy at this point, because the work of healing is still incomplete…
Trauma generates a rainbow of reactive feeling responses, but some of them are not immediately helpful/appropriate.
So after trauma we go into “SURVIVAL SELF” mode, which focusses on escalated self-protection as well as “keeping going” from day to day.
In part, our successful survival is achieved by “shutting down” some of our feelings and reactive physical impulses…
In extreme cases our entire capacity for feeling and responding might become ‘deadened’ [numb].
More commonly, we may feel certain feelings that feel safe, if distressing, e.g. sadness, BUT NOT feelings that feel especially dangerous or unacceptable, e.g. violent feelings or impulses – anger, agression, hatred, bitterness, rage, jealousy etc.
Some people will feel at home with the angry or violent feelings, but struggle to feel vulnerable tender feelings like sadness, tears and woundedness. It does not mean that these unaware are not there, just that the reality of certain feelings and impulses in the “trauma-response-energy-rainbow” is rejected, because they are unnacceptable to the “survival-self” personality built up during earlier suffering – earlier unhealed suffering [often in the form of long-forgotten repressed memories] that actually set us up for the present suffering – and will set us up for more [a life of tragedy, martyrdom or victimhood] if we don’t do something about it!
There are special exercises that can help us to access our bottled-up repressed feelings and impulses from a trauma that ‘never really heals’. I was introduced to them after years of suffering and medication following a painful relationship loss, and they changed my life! That was 20 years ago! For the past 7 years now, I have provided others with a course which gives them the chance to open up their self-awareness of held-in ‘dangerous’ feelings plus the chance to release them safely and holistically [yelling, bashing, thrashing, smashing etc] in a safe, supportive and confidential environment.
Sounds dramatic and dangerous? – Yes, but actually with the right training and support, the release of held-in, (self-)destructive feelings and impulses [= ‘cathartic release’] is remarkably quick, and remarkably fun! Afterwards the participants feel much calmer – an inner peace they have not known for a long time! Catharsis alone is not in itself ‘healing’ – it just produces a period of peacefulness and positivity. However, immediately after catharsis, there is a brief period when the underlying “soul-woundedness” is directly accessible [before natural defences rebuild] and we use this opportunity for the total strangers who are going through the same cathartic release experience, to share some TLC [unconditional, non-entangling, non-intimate, TENDER LOVING CARE].
Catharsis LIBERATES, but it does not HEAL, only LOVE can HEAL – !!NOT!! the kind of love which is needy, possessive or agenda-ridden, but the unconditional spontaneous heart-expression compassionate nurturing love which flows naturally between healthy peaceful mammals of the same species!
More at: http://www.lovehealth.org/tools/catharsis.htm and SOUL-LOSS & RETRIEVAL in RELATIONSHIPS.
Thank you both. I have tried forgiveness also for 18 years after a violent betrayal which also stole away my little children. Have been in church afer church seeking help and they did help. Except by telling me the same thing about forgiveness. I have cried and begged God to help me forgive. It hasn’t happened. I have just become miserable and stuck in bitterness and depression. I was never given permission to grieve or to be angry. Only recently seeking about what grief is and finding websites such as this one have I given myself permission. I only wish it didn’t take 18 years of wasting my life to just now begin this horrible lonely journey of healing and feeling,
I understand how long and painful the anger and bitterness can be after a relationship betrayal. After a couple of years of this (venting, crying, raging) a wise therapist helped me understand something elusive to me. What I could not see or understand is that all of this anger was towards myself! I rejected this idea at first as absurd. However as I worked to understand the practice of self-compassion I found this to be completely true. Until I extended the empathy and compassion towards myself in this situation I did not find any release of the anger I was projecting outward. There is not a great deal written on this subject but since discovering this key 4 years ago I continue to work on this concept as a way to grow humanly and spiritually.
Thank you for this very interesting excerpt. I recently did a New Years show on the subject of forgiveness in recovery called: Happy New Year-It’s Now Time to Let it Go………… After reading this I don’t think this facet of the process was spoken to. Forgiveness cannot consciously be used as a means to avoid dealing with the feelings connected to the experience, and if this occurred subconsciously the act of forgiveness will soon show itself to not have the impact we thought it would. So it is wise to point out that our own feelings surrounding the experience must first be dealt with before we can move to forgive either ourselves or others. I will be certain to advise our listeners of this additional food for thought on this previous show topic, during our next show. Thank you.
Thank you for your post. I like it. Fortunately I was helped with this issue by a combination of gestalt therapy and body work in my first psychotherapy experience in the mid seventies. The following is what I learned from that experience of letting go and subsequently.
Many people who write about the benefits of forgiveness to the one who forgives, talk about the value of letting go of holding on to the pain. I believe in the value of detachment from the anger and hurt from abuse and trauma for all but am not sure that forgiveness is valuable for everyone. However,I believe that for either detachment or forgiveness to be genuine, it is important to claim one’s anger and hurt in order to choose one of the other options.
I like your mention of grieving as part of this process. Maybe getting in touch with my hurt was the same as grieving, but I did not think of it in those terms at that time.
Thirty years later I was helped by Belleruth Naperstek’s (“Invisible Heroes Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal”) guided imagery of healing a broken heart. I had not realized before that I could use that term to describe my experience of dealing with my mother’s narcissistic abuse.
Thanks to reading other posts by you I now realize how much betrayal is a part of trauma.
Please keep up your good work. I hope to meet you the next time I visit Portland.
Thank you, John, for the kind words and for mentioning Belleruth’s Trauma guided imagery CD. I too have found it helpful and have just added it to the trauma resources page on my website. I don’t know where you are from, but while I have family in Portland, live in the Bay Area and would be pleased to meet you if you are in the neighborhood.
I live in Baltimore now. I am originally from SF. Sometimes I visit there also.
Thanks for your info.
This was beautifully written and beautifully expressed. It is so true that forgiveness cannot be forced or followed as ‘the way’. As you say, it grows mysteriously underground as a part of our own suffering, process and growth. Thank you. MM
I believe there are steps to rising above betrayal and abuse. Forgiveness may be easy to say, but getting over the pain and forgetting is another mountain to climb. I don’t think anyone should bypass the anger step. It took me a long time to become angry, but after I did become angry I began to heal.
Everyone is different and every situation is different. No one can tell you how to feel. In my case, I gave the situation to God. I don’t have to burden myself with the injury of a bad relationship anymore. Will I ever forget? Never. Have I learned, You bet! I had to let go of negative feelings because I needed to move on. Sometimes when I think of him I smile at the times that were good and other times I feel disgusted at how I allowed myself to be used. We are never going to bury our feelings and survive. Embrace them, own them and let them go. You are worth so much more than a prisoner of your past.
During my 25 years of practicing therapy I have found that the constant harping on ‘forgiveness’, to have done more harm than good, to clients who come to me after being told they have to forgive to heal. I find it far healthier to talk of ‘acceptance’ of 1) the fact that we cannot change what happened to cause the trauma, and 2) that we have a right to our feelings – all of them. I also talk of taking our personal power back over our lives and not letting the person who hurt us, in whatever way, continue to rob us of our power to enjoy life and move past the trauma. I give people validation that not all things can be forgiven by all people – we are human after all. By doing this my clients free themselves emotionally to work through their feelings, enjoy the present and look forward to their future instead of being hung up in the past and the notion of forgiveness.
I like your message. Inauthentic forgiveness is no solution.
I found this very deep and it has given me much to think about. Reblogged.
Thank you for pointing out the crock that is “forgiveness therapy (or spirituality)” that is constantly put on survivors of trauma or betrayal.
When people started putting this on me, decades ago, I knew it was ridiculous, but didn’t have many words to articulate it. I even bought a book called, “How to Forgive When You Don’t Know How,” which was more of the same nonsense.
I liken forgiveness to the “acceptance” that Kubler-Ross wrote about regarding grief.
When people hearing me express my grief (anger, hurt, pain, fears, distress) tell me I must “accept” a certain painful loss, I explain to them that “acceptance” of that loss is an *arrival point* that arises as a *result* of actively grieving all the feelings that go along with grief. It is not an action or a state that can simply be assumed. What they are doing is trying to get me to cut short the expression of my feelings that are hard for them to listen to, probably because they trigger their own feelings of unresolved grief (pain, anger, etc.)
It’s the same with forgiveness. Forgiveness is an arrival point after going through the process of feeling (and perhaps expressing and receiving validation of) all the other feelings that arise from loss, trauma, or betrayal.
I think Dr. Barbara DeAngelis sums it up well with her Emotional Map and Love Letter Technique (see her book, “How to Make Love All the Time” for the description.)
She says that everyone has an emotional map of the complete truth of their feelings, whenever there is something that causes them pain or upset.
These feelings occur in layers, starting with the outermost layer, anger, and working one’s way inward toward more vulnerable feelings, which all exist simultaneously, and each must be fully felt before being able to let go of it and move on to the next. Here’s the list .
Hurt, grief, sadness
Fear, anxiety, worry
Remorse, regret, sense of responsibility
Love, friendship, forgiveness, friendship, desire for connection
She advises, when upset, to write out all the feelings of anger (“I hate you for ____, you’re such a jerk, how could you, etc.) until more vulnerable feelings of hurt and sadness surface. Then to write out all of those. If more anger comes up, go back to writing out all the anger.
Then move on to writing out all the fear and worry (I’m afraid we’ll never make up, I’m afraid of telling you how I really feel, I’m afraid of being judged, etc.)
Then the remorse (I’m sorry for my ___part in this. I’m sorry for letting you down/hurting you, etc.), until feelings of love, forgiveness, etc. arise.
Then letting out the love, forgiveness, and desire for connection.
It’s a lengthy process, but really gets to the point, and can be done alone, with just pen and paper. It really does help to immediately feel better to thoroughly go through this exercise when feeling upset or depressed, etc.
And to keep writing these letters until the feelings have lifted.
Thank you for your article. I will be referring others to it. 🙂
I really like your description and acknowledgment of the pressure to forgive, the insensitivity of that advice and pressure, and the concept of “premature forgiveness.”
Thank you, Alice, for sharing your experience and for describing this layered method of approaching deep hurt/trauma. The layers may not be the same for everyone, but the idea of acknowledging and working with whatever comes up with expression, kindness and patience is a beautiful one we all need to take to heart for deep healing.
Thank you for this! I especially like:
“Forgiveness is an arrival point after going through the process of feeling (and perhaps expressing and receiving validation of) all the other feelings that arise from loss, trauma, or betrayal.”
I agree that there are layers of feelings that you progress through in your healing process. It’s not like you can just slice the onion open and get to the middle (darn it)! You actually have to go through layer by layer.
I’ve found EFT (the tapping modality) can work similarly to the letters, allowing you to progress through different layers of emotion as they come up — although I like the idea of taking time with the writing, too.
Thank you all for this – I have recently been through a traumatic betrayal experience with my sister and although we decided to move on I am finding it extremely difficult to forgive her for her actions. Your article as well as all the posts have been exactly what I needed to hear and I will put time into embracing and progressing through my emotions as they surface. Forgiveness can wait….