Post-Traumatic Forgiveness in Action

Many trauma survivors struggle directly or indirectly with forgiveness and its meaning for them. Forgiveness is usually centered on forgiving others or on forgiving oneself for deeds committed against others or against the self. Additionally, it’s a challenging and sensitive topic.

From the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) perspective, just as with all other thoughts and feelings, the thoughts and feelings that accompany forgiveness are there to be observed and held lightly while one also chooses and participates in personal values. With trauma survivors, however, forgiveness seems to be extra sticky in terms of being fused with the event. The therapist may want to spend an entire session or two working on this issue, depending on where the client is at with this matter.

We do not impose the value of forgiveness on clients. However, should nonforgiveness show up in the course of therapy as a barrier to valued living, we help clients—particularly survivors of interpersonal trauma—distinguish forgiveness from conceding that what happened to them was okay. When working with clients on forgiveness, compassion and understanding are essential requirements.

There are several things that we do with forgiveness. First, we talk about the meaning of the word. Most people think of forgiveness as a feeling that comes along with telling someone that you forgive them for some action they committed. However, from the point of view of ACT, forgiveness is seen as an action, not a feeling. Forgiveness means to “give what went before the harm was done” (Hayes et al., 1999). In this sense, “giving” is an action.

It may be the case that if the client offers forgiveness, they will feel a sense of relief, lightness, or peace and ease. These are often the feelings that come along with forgiveness. However, as with all feelings, these can come and go. Most of us have had the experience of forgiving someone and subsequently feeling good, only to realize moments or hours later that the feeling has passed and anger about the forgiven misdeed has arisen again. Now what do you do?

The transient nature of these emotions is why it’s most useful to talk about forgiveness as an action. The client can always choose to behave in a forgiving way as the feelings associated with forgiveness come and go. If clients are working on self-forgiveness, you might ask how they would be treating themselves if they had fully forgiven themselves for whatever it is they feel they have done.

In our experience, nonforgiveness and self-blame can range from self-destructive behavior, such as years of heavy drinking, painful isolation, and cutting oneself, to acts of hatred, including injuring others or observing war crimes and atrocities without taking action. Sometimes the self-blame is simply about not living the life the person would like to live.

You may specifically ask the client, “If you were to give to yourself the life that went before the trauma, what would that life look like? What actions would you take toward yourself?” Clients generally come up with a fair number of responses to these questions, including such things as reaching out more and taking better care of themselves. Once you have compiled this list, it becomes clear what actions clients can take toward themselves in being forgiving.

This excerpt is from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for the Treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma-Related Problems by Robyn Walser, PhD, and Darrah Westrup, PhD.

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