Forgiveness & Recovery from Depression

Recently, Melinda wrote a post about the role of forgiveness in her recovery and the difficulty she has had in forgiving her unrepentant father for abusing her in childhood. Reading this made me aware that I wasn’t very clear in my own mind about the meaning of forgiveness. It is always mentioned as an obligatory part of recovery, and yet there has always been something elusive about the idea for me. How was it different from understanding past trauma, dealing thoroughly with its impact and letting go of the feelings of anger or hate? For I did learn to stop the constant blaming of present problems on those who harmed me when I was so young and unable to stand up for myself. Is that forgiveness, or is there something more.

I started thinking and reading to stop the confusion about the ideas and feelings I have about forgiveness. I quickly found that I was not the only one who had a hard time getting at the deeper meaning of this concept. It has different meanings in different religions and cultures, but there are a few major approaches I’ve found that helped me grasp more deeply the connection between what I had experienced and forgiveness.

  • I’ve read one view that forgiveness requires an exchange between victim and offender and that this needs to take place face to face. The one who caused the harm needs to acknowledge what he or she has done (confession), express regret, sorrow or remorse (repentance) and offer to compensate in some way (restitution), if that is even possible. It is then up to the victim to decide whether or not to accept this genuine offer, put aside blame, anger, hurt, even feel compassion for the personal struggle and change the offending person has gone through. Then the victim needs to express this to the offender, to say that they can put this harm behind, no longer feel anger or the need for revenge and can move on. The sum of those acts and feelings is forgiveness.
  • Religious views in some traditions do not require this reciprocity. Forgiveness is part of the process of moving toward enlightenment or salvation or union with God. Violent feelings of anger, blame and vengeance tie one to the illusions and distractions of this life. A mindful or a spiritually contemplative approach will lead one to compassion for those who act violently and who have harmed you in the past. Letting go of hurtful feelings must happen for one’s own good and for spiritual advancement.
  • One contemporary psychological view is also focused on helping an individual move on, if not to spiritual enlightenment, to emotional healing and inner peace. The focus is on the inner strain and destructiveness of anger, blame, hate, vengeance, and seeing oneself constantly as a victim, controlled by the intensity of roiling emotions that block recovery. So the act of forgiving others, whether or not there is a reciprocal repentance and restitution, becomes essential for one’s own well-being.

Many of these descriptions have struck me in the past as prescribed pathways too full of “shoulds” to correspond to immediate experience. I saw them as obligatory scripts, scenarios that could be learned and performed without the achievement of real change.

Mostly, I wondered what could forgiveness be for those of us with depression that is both chronic and severe. The years seemed endless when I obsessed about every failure, every act of malice, betrayal, manipulation, anger or violence I had ever committed or secretly longed to carry out. For decades I read this catalogue of crimes and thumbed its pages each day for fresh evidence of guilt, shame and justification for self-punishment. There seemed no end to my inventivenss in finding ways to defeat or undermine myself, even perversely to act out destructive roles that I did not want to perform. Often I watched myself, under a compulsion I could not begin to master, hurt someone deliberately, even as I hated myself for doing it.

Trying to forgive my own real and imagined trespasses has been the hardest task. No New Age verbal formula of affirmation ever made a dent. I was able after many years to look closely into the lives of my family, write about them, explore their histories, motives, struggles. And somewhere along the way, without a conscious effort, the anger, blame, grudges disappeared. I felt the compassion and love that had been there from the earliest days of childhood. That instinctive love had been thwarted, contained, suppressed, channeled into a child’s assumption of responsibility for everything gone so terribly wrong.

So I have come to believe in forgiveness as spontaneous and unwilled. It is not something I can discipline myself to feel or consciously adopt as another step in a prescribed procedure. I had to decide first to face every pain brought upon me by others or by myself and deal with all of it. But having come through that struggle, I couldn’t force what followed.

What was that, finally, after so many years? It arrived as a sudden awareness that a fundamental shift had occurred, that the obsession with every moment of emotional abuse from the past and with my own hateful acts throughout life was no longer there. I had done all the conscious work I could, then grief came to the surface to make its long suppressed debut. And at last came this inner shift not as a decision of mine but as a spontaneous change of belief about myself, a deep reconciliation and peacefulness. I think I can call that forgiveness. It felt like a pure gift, like grace from God, that may come to a soul that has opened and dropped its violent disguise.

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17 Responses to “Forgiveness & Recovery from Depression”

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  1. Cate says:

    This blog is so full of truth as I struggle with my own experiences on either end of depression. I lived for many years with a man who is depressed and went through a lot of verbal and emotional abuse as a result. I didn’t give enough thought to how all of this was affecting me, until I found myself attracted to another person. I pursued the relationship–it never amounted to much but it was something–and I think I pursued the attraction out of my own unresolved depression and feeling alone-ness. The relationship was discovered, and now my partner’s depression is serious. I was always the target for blame and discontent, but now this other thing is out there–like proof to confirm everything that was wrong all along. I don’t know what more to do, and I know that it is not up to me to solve the problem, but I am still held accountable for it all. This blog does offer comfort through this dark period.

    • John says:

      Hi, Cate –

      The blame and abuse from a depressed partner are so hurtful – I really think that you and others in your position are always in danger of falling into depression too. I urge that you get your own support system to deal with the effects of your husband’s behavior. Sometimes couples therapy can get partners to see what they’re doing and start working on their own feelings. Terrence Real’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It is a book I regard as a must-read for exactly this kind of situation.

      Please feel free to comment here and ask any questions.

      My best — John

  2. Thanks for this very informative post. This is a nice blog and will be looking forward to read more from you.

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  3. Merely Me says:

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  4. John D says:

    Clinically Clueless – It does seem to me that the process you describe in forgiving someone else is about your own healing. It is, after all, a terrible strain and a lifetime poison to keep reliving abuse, feeling the torment of shifting between self-blame and rage at the abuser. Your description of the process of forgiveness seems very true to me. Owning what happened, dealing with the impact, acknowledging what the abuser did and trying to understand what pushed them to such actions – then finally letting go of the rage and feeling a degree of compassion. That is all part of healing. I don’t want to call it self-forgiveness, though, when you can finally stop blaming yourself and look more clearly at what happened. That is a great achievement in healing and self-knowledge, but why call it forgiveness when you were never the one who committed the harm in the first place. Thanks for these thoughtful comments – it’s a subject I keep coming back to, and I need to figure out why.

    Chunks of Reality – Thank you – I wish you well on that long journey. I think it’s hard for most people.

    Jennifer – I agree that you can’t take on forgiveness as a project – it has to come naturally as you are able through your own work to find some kind of peace. Finding the humanity at the center seems the only way to get past the anger and hate. Thanks for this comment. I need to look through your posts to understand more about how you’ve dealt with this problem.

    Zathyn – There can’t be any free pass for abusers. Unfortunately, so many of them are exactly the ones who never acknowledge what they’ve caused or accept responsibility. In those cases, I think the major focus is on yourself, to create some relief from the self-torture that seems like an extension of the original abuse. Breaking its hold over you has been the key thing for me. There’s not much healing going on if that doesn’t happen. – I’m so glad you like the image. I knew I had to use that as soon as I saw it.

    John

  5. http://zathynpriest.com/blog says:

    Stunning photograph!

    The whole ‘you need to forgive to heal’ thing has generally been a sore spot for me most of the time. Many times I think it does nothing more than lift the burden off the abuser’s shoulders, or whoever else has done wrong by you.

    I was abused and don’t forgive those who did it. On the other hand, I don’t dwell on retribution either. I’m far harder on myself than anyone else. Still, in my opinion saying ‘I forgive you for taking away my innocence’ seems like handing out a free pass. To me it does anyway. If it helps other people to forgive, then it’s a matter of what works for the individual.

  6. John D says:

    Thank you all for these comments – I would like to apologize for difficulties with this blog. There have been some major problems, and I’ve been locked out for a time. I’ll try to catch up with these interesting ideas.

    Merely Me – The problem of that deep belief is so hard to get at. I think it’s left over from childhood when so many of us, from an incredibly young age, start to take on ourselves responsibility for exactly those terrible events we had no real control over. On top of that, you have abusing adults telling you over and over that it really is your fault. That belief got so deeply rooted in me that it took forever just to imagine that there might be a different way to look at what had happened. I so hope you can get beyond the logic to the core belief. That’s different from forgiveness because it really wasn’t your fault to begin with! My very best to you.

    Evan – You get right to the heart of things, as usual. I’ve struggled with so many treatments and steps in healing that I just didn’t believe in. And of course each failed and of course that made me feel even worse about myself. Thank you for that great observation.

    Dano – I’m so glad you’ve been able to escape from this weird club we have all belonged to, convinced we are guilty as self-charged of the crimes others committed. Congratulations on getting things right about your father. That sounds like a sure sign of healing. And thank you for another helpful story!

    Clinically Clueless – You’ve got me thinking, as usual. I’ll have to come back to this tomorrow!

    Ari – I agree that it helps in healing to let the hard feelings flow. After all, an honest feeling is a fiery flash, not a prolonged state. If it stays around for a long long time, you know you’re stuck with something that just has to get out of you – and it may do that in very unhealing ways. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Jennifer says:

    Another fine post, in which you examine the concept of forgiveness on a larger level and then look at your own life.

    I think the process of forgiveness may depend on the severity of the action and the culpability of the other person. I don’t set out to forgive in some organized way, but found as I examine my parents’ actions (and my own actions) I see the humanity in their/my mistakes. Letting go of the anger is freeing. It also opens me up to connection, which is so vital.

  8. My word, what a gorgeous picture and of course what wondrous writing!

    Forgiveness has been quite tough to do over the years but I’m getting there. It’s really a journey…

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  10. I view the process of forgiveness like I do the healing/grieving process. The stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance…then forgiveness. I believe that in order to forgive, you have to own or integrate what the person did and how you felt including the rage and pain.

    I don’t think you can truly forgive what you haven’t owned. I think, in doing that forgiveness comes as a natural (not easy) part of healing. I define it as that you acknowleged what was done and how you felt, but you see the person as an abuser and as someone who was abused (they learned it from somewhere and are broken too…just expresses it in a different way) and no longer have feelings of wanting to do harm or feel intense anger at them and having compassion.

    This does not mean that you want them back (in some cases there is a reparation in the relationship) in your life or that you pretend that you like them, but you don’t want to be aggressive or may wish them well. Or there may be indifference. But, it would not make you happy that they were dead either.

    I also think that many people skip over step and say they forgive as a defense, denial or trying on the outside to “do the proper thing” especially if you are taught forgiveness is what God wants from you. Stuff the feelings and put on a happy face. That is false forgiveness and a defense.

    In terms of myself and forgiveness, right now I am in a homicidal rage state. However, I have moments of compassion and sadness for what must have caused someone to be so sadistic and mentally ill.

    I believe that I will reach the point of forgiving, but maybe not. I do not believe that God will judge me…I believe that he will be loving and forgiving.

    Work in progress thoughts on forgiveness ~ CC

  11. Ari Koinuma says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for sharing your personal story. It offers a powerful insight.

    Forgiving is an act, but forgiveness — in terms of an emotional stage — is a place in one’s healing journey, probably toward the end. You can’t will yourself to get there and be there. You only do so by climbing the stairs, one by one, until you reach it. In the other words, if you’re not ready to forgive (emotionally) then you shouldn’t force yourself to. In fact, revel in your rage and resentment! The more vividly you feel it, the sooner you’ll be done with that step and go up to the next one.

    What you describe is a powerful testament to the transformation healing offers. Thank you for sharing it.

    ari

  12. Forgiveness is a process and the toughest part of it is foregiveness of yourself. I don’t believe that you can truly forgive your abuser if you are not able to forgive yourself. By not forgiving yourself, you still have not put the responsibility where it should be on them and not you. For me it felt like it happened at the same time. As I figured out that it was them and not me, I started to find forgiveness for myself instead of judgement.

    I have always believed that you cannot will yourself into forgiveness no matter how much you want to it ends up being false. For me, that is the matter of the heart…I do my part and God does His.

  13. Many years ago, I found a wonderful therapist. She is a Cognitive Therapist, so the first thing that happens is you are tested to see where your “Negative Schemas” lie. In a 12-Step program, these may be referred to as character flaws.

    I scored through the roof in low self-esteem, guilt, unrelenting standards for myself along with some others I no longer remember. In the oxymoronic manner of one with a low self-esteem, I believed everything was my fault!

    I made excuses for the uncle who molested, blamed myself for a boyfriend who choked me and was sure a violent rape I survived had been, yep, all my fault. After years of PTSD, I was able to move beyond through therapy as well as a new med for PTSD.

    When the events were not echoing around my head, I was able to come to a more realistic approach in how I thought about them.

    I wrote a while back about my father saying that he never wants to see me again. Many of my friends are angry about this, on my behalf. I am merely hurt and saddened. I refuse, however, to see this as my “fault”. That sort of thinking will take me back to self-hatred, self-injury and possibly worse.

    I have to understand that everyone is a bit unwell. Some more than others.

  14. Evan says:

    Hi John,

    A beautiful post on an important topic.

    I think it’s enormously important – especially for abuse survivors – that forgiveness doesn’t become yet another should. Which usually means just another failure – hardly helpful to healing.

    Thanks for another great post.

  15. Merely Me says:

    This is such a good topic. I have thought about this issue plenty throughout my life. I have suffered abuse and especially as a child and…yes I am able to forgive others. But the person I am still never able to forgive is myself. What part of me still holds onto the belief that I am somehow at fault for all the bad things in my life. Logically I tell myself that certain things are not my fault but at my core I hold all this…blame. Anger turned inward? After all these years I still haven’t resolved this.

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