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The Five Stages of Forgiveness




Excerpted from
Heartwounds; The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief on Relationships
By Tian Dayton, Ph.D.

As described in the introduction, forgiveness is a process, not an event. The very fact that it's a process is what makes it so worthwhile: It forces us to honestly confront feelings that are clogging up our emotional systems and work through them.

Maybe we're forgiving something small-ourselves for not getting something done on time or for inadvertently hurting someone else's feelings because we were in a bad mood. Or maybe we're forgiving something large-a deliberately inflicted hurt, the pain of which has been with us for many years. This is just the kind of deeper, more layered forgiveness that takes time. Often, we want it to happen overnight, to be over and done with. By now we've learned, however, that a significant amount of repatterning, resolving and relearning needs to happen before we'll really feel free. Breaking up the process into stages makes it easier and more efficient. And once we begin, the process gains its own momentum and motivation, and begins to feel right and good and full of hope.

The process can take many forms. We may be forgiving something that happened and hurt us, something that we wished would happen but never did, or ourselves for our own feelings of victimization or wrongdoing. Some people have been so seriously wronged that the prospect of forgiving their perpetrator seems inconceivable, and what they need to do is finally allow themselves to experience the anger, hate and hurt that they had to shut down at the time because they were too scared to even feel, let alone express those emotions. Still others struggle with forgiving themselves for what they may perceive to be their own weakness in the face of wrong, inability to make their case known or, as is so often the case with children, for feeling like they are fundamentally bad, that something about them is flawed or unlovable. There are many faces to forgiveness, and each one appears with its own unique needs and struggles.

But a couple of factors appear to be consistent. True forgiveness can be difficult, and require time and work if the offense is significant, and true forgiveness generally leads to a restoration of our ability to make new kinds of emotional connections and choices, an emotional freedom that most people, once they attain it, value far more than the resentments they carried.

In this book, I primarily deal with forgiveness as it impacts interpersonal relationships. As we've discussed, deep ruptures in primary relationships are traumatic and leave us with the residue of trauma. Emotional, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, divorce, living with addiction or mental illness, are all either traumatic events in and of themselves, or cumulative traumas, and they can leave people with the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). [See "Symptoms of PTSD" in appendix II.) Even feeling inept in school, consistently on the spot not knowing what you're supposed to know, can become a cumulative trauma. The effects of these types of trauma, if they go untreated, get passed down through the generations right along with personal habits, food preferences and personality traits. According to Bessel Van der Kolk, author of Psychological Trauma, some of the symptoms of PTSD, aside from somatic disturbances (body aches), are a loss of trust and faith, depression accompanied by feelings of despair, hypervigilance (waiting for the other shoe to drop), extreme fear, free-floating anxiety, loss of ability to conceptualize a positive future, traumatic bonding, and the black-and-white thinking that grows out of the numbing versus high-intensity emotional responses that are part of our fight, flight or freeze response. That is, we alternate between states of shutdown/freeze and intense emotional reactions such as rage or extreme fear, two states we can get "triggered" into when we get scared. Trauma can affect our ability to take in love and support, so the things we need the most in order to heal or feel better paradoxically become the hardest ones for us to accept and integrate.

The more senses that are involved in a traumatizing experience, according to Mark Gold, M.D., of the University of Miami, the more it affects us. If you think of traumas that occur in homes, many senses are involved-sight, smell, touch, sound, maybe even taste. If we are being slapped, for example, we feel it, hear the yelling or words of rejection that are probably accompanying it, see the person and surrounding situation, smell whatever scents are part of the environment (like alcohol on the breath) and even sometimes taste our own fear as it arises in our mouths. On September 11, the first responders to the Twin Towers were the most at risk for developing PTSD. They smelled the burning, saw the devastation, heard the crashing and cries, were in physical contact with those they were rescuing, and tasted the metallic air. When four or five senses are involved in this manner, the effects of a traumatic situation can be persistent and pervasive. For women who have been physically or sexually abused by parents or men who are larger and stronger than they are, there is the added feeling of powerlessness that comes through being smaller physically, as well as the confusion as to whether or not they did something to invite or deserve this negative attention, which of course they did not-no one deserves to be abused (even if they're told they do). When people contemplate working through blocks to forgiveness, they are also going to encounter these sense memories along the way. The more overwhelming the memories are, the more they may resist remembering them. Forgiveness, however, is not reserved for only serious situations; it is part of our daily world, part of how we live our lives.

I have divided forgiveness up into five stages to provide an emotional map to follow that, hopefully, will make the prospect of forgiveness seem a little less daunting. There is nothing sacrosanct about these stages, they are linear simply because they appear in a book form, but in real life they are dynamic and can overlap. Some stages occur more or less simultaneously, while others feel out of reach. In addition, stages may be leap-frogged or moved through in a different order than appears here. What is very consistent, in my experience, is that these approximate the phases that most people seem to go through as they travel the intense and often rocky journey of forgiving and letting go of something that has hurt them, made them feel small inside, unlovable, forgotten or misunderstood.



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