Only you can get yourself out of the trap
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
When forgiveness is offered too quickly, it may not be forgiveness at all.
It may just be avoidance. —Dick Tibbits
Candace wheeled herself into my office and announced, “My body is falling apart, it is, and the doctors can’t seem to explain what’s happening or find a treatment that works.”
I looked carefully at the woman. Pain lines were etched into her middle-aged face. Worry lines, too. “Tell me about it.
Candace launched into a fifteen-minute recital of physical symptoms. Well, more like a thirty-minute litany. Eventually she wound down. Knowing that “the body never lies,” (to quote Alice Miller), I asked Candace whether she thought her ill health might be related in any way to hurtful experiences from her past.
“Oh, it couldn’t be,” she said, quickly. “I forgave everyone long ago.”
“Forgave everyone for what?” I asked.
“For doing the best they could,” she replied.
“Forgave them for what?” I repeated. There was a very long silence while I waited.
Finally she said, “I forgave my father for molesting me and my mother for not believing me.”
“At what age were you molested?” I inquired.
“It started when I was three,” Candace said, “and continued until I was nearly eleven. It stopped because my mother’s sister visited us and caught my father touching me inappropriately. She made a huge fuss about it and threatened to report my dad to law enforcement.” Candace smiled ruefully. “My dad was so angry he told my aunt to leave his house and never come back. He also forbade me from ever seeing her again. I loved my aunt . . . But at least my dad stopped molesting me.”
“Ouch,” I said. “You must have been very angry at having had your boundaries invaded like that and then also losing contact with your aunt.”
“Oh, yes,” Candace replied calmly. “I’m still angry, but not at my parents. I forgave them. I’m just angry at myself for not preventing it. And I didn’t stand up for my aunt.”
“What part of ‘A child is no match for an adult male’ don’t you get?” I asked.
Candace shrugged. “There must have been something else I could have done.”
“Something else besides what?” I asked.
“Well, I told my mother, and she said I must be mistaken because my father would never do anything like that. So I decided that it must have been my fault, something I said or did. I’ve taken responsibility for that.”
Same story, same chapter, same verse, I thought. Aloud I said, slowly, “Let me get this straight: You are not angry at your father for molesting you—even though anger is the appropriate emotion when your boundaries have been invaded—nor at your mother for not believing you nor at being told you could never contact your aunt But you are angry at yourself for not having prevented the abuse, and you have taken complete responsibility for being molested.”
Candace nodded, somewhat reluctantly, I thought.
“At some level your brain knows that a child cannot protect itself from an adult,” I continued. “Therefore, you cannot be responsible for what your father did. I’ll bet your body is hurting partly because your brain can’t believe that you are angry at yourself.”
“Have you ever contacted your aunt?” I asked, breaking the silence.
Candace shook her head. “I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never called her because I felt like I must obey my father.”
“And how old are you?” I asked.
Candace actually laughed. “I know, I know,” she said sheepishly. “It’s not like I’m still a little girl at home and must obey my parents, but sometimes I feel like that.”
“It appear to me that emotionally you still act like a little girl who must obey her parents, not like a confident grown-up woman who knows how to take care of herself and does so.”
“Oh my!” said Candace. “I’ve never looked at it like that. I think there is some truth to what you say, but I couldn’t dishonor my parents by being angry at them.”
I clearly needed a different approach. “While driving recently, I saw an orange highway flag ahead. What did I know for certain? I asked.
Candace laughed and said, “That there was an orange highway flag ahead.”
“Exactly,” I replied. “Based on life experience, what did my brain guess?”
“That there was road work ahead,” said Candace.
“Right again,” I said. “The flag was a signal to get my attention. There was a large hole in the asphalt. I slowed and drove around the hole. I did not stop the car, grab the highway flag and wave it as I continued on my way.”
I paused, so her brain could catch up. “Think of anger as a highway flag, a signal to let you know your boundaries have been invaded. You can recognize the emotion, get the information it is trying to give you, and take appropriate action¾without picking up the flag of anger and carrying it around with you.”
“Oh, I get it,” said Candace. “I picked up the flag of anger and have been waving it madly, but directed the anger at myself.”
“Do you still visit your parents?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she replied. “My father even built a ramp at their house for my wheelchair. I visit regularly, but it’s not pleasant. Even before I turn into their driveway my stomach heaves, and I feel sick. Once inside, my father stares at me in a way that makes my skin crawl. But they are my parents, and I need to honor them.”
I raised an eyebrow, hoping Candace would continue. She did.
“I was advised to forgive and forget, so that’s what I’ve tried to do,” Candace said, a slight edge to her voice. “Whenever the memories start gnawing at me, I just try to put them out of my mind.”
Ouch, I thought to myself. Even when an individual tries to put memories of abuse out of his or her mind, the body remembers. Without taking the path of genuine forgiveness, those unfortunate memories will likely be acted out in some type of illness that can result in a shortened lifespan.
In her book, The Body Never Lies (2005), author Alice Miller talks about how some adults misapply admonition to honor their parents and how some parents misuse this admonition to either sweep their bad behaviors under the proverbial carpet or to control their grown children. Miller’s position is that individuals who were seriously abused in childhood, thinking they must honor their parents, try to do so through repression and emotional detachment, since they cannot build up a relaxed and trusting relationship with parents whom they still fear consciously or unconsciously.
“Have you ever heard of counterfeit forgiveness?” I asked. Candace shook her head.
I explained to her carefully how, ass often the case, some type of counterfeit exists for the genuine article. Forgiveness is no exception. Counterfeit forgiveness involves pretending, minimizing, denying, or repressing. For some grown children it means, allowing their brains and bodies to remain emotionally battered in any number of unhealthy ways, continuing to accept abuse from dysfunctional family members.
Genuine forgiveness, on the other hand, involves giving careful thought to identifying what happened, the life-long consequences, and what needs to be done for personal recovery and healing. It involves choosing and systematically following through with these choices and behaviors:
- Identify and label the abuse honestly, specifically, and completely
- Assume responsibility only for your contribution (if any) to the event or situation
- Discover, accept, and connect the negative consequences of the abuse to your adult life
- Give up rehearsing all the gory details to yourself and to others
- Develop and implement appropriate personal boundaries to prevent subjecting your brain and body to the abusive behaviors of others—deliberately crafting an abuse-free lifestyle.
Current studies indicate that forgiveness is a gift you give to yourself for prolonged health and well-being.
Counterfeit forgiveness, on the other hand, can actually be deleterious to one’s health and longevity. I defined counterfeit forgiveness for Candace as saying to her parents, “I forgive you,” without moving through the process of genuine forgiveness and recovery.
To say that these concepts were new to Candace would be putting it mildly. She actually stuttered when she said, “B-b-b-but I never heard anything like this before, and I wouldn’t know where to begin!”
I encouraged her to find an experienced counselor who could help her move through the recovery process and then recommended three that she might wish to interview.
Six months later I answered a knock on my office door to find Candace standing outside. Standing, mind you. With a cane, but standing. Of course I was interested in her story.
“I’m putting it together,” she announced, “and I feel better than I have in years. Do you know that I’ve been married three times to abusive men? In effect, each time I married my father!” And she was off and running. Candace had been working diligently with her counselor and she was connecting the events of her childhood with some of the choices she had made in adulthood.
“You were right,” she said. “There is a connection between my past and my current health. When I told my parents I was taking a break from visiting them, my father said that I was no longer his daughter and that he never wanted to see me again.”
“How are you handling that?” I asked.
“I was shocked at first, but it has turned out to be a very good thing. It is an immense relief not to talk to my mother every day on the phone, not to have to see them and be stared at in that scary way. Oh! And I’ve reconnected with my aunt. It’s great!” Candace smiled widely.
In a perfect world, healthy functional parents would take great pains to protect their children and avoid abusing them in any manner whatsoever.
Ours is not a perfect world.
To “honor” abusive parents may simply involve acknowledging the position they hold in your generational inheritance and refraining from exhibiting ugly or abusive behaviors toward them. At the same time, moments of contact may need to be limited—or stopped altogether, if abusive behaviors continue.
Counterfeit forgiveness is a form of crazy-making. At one level you think, “I’ve forgiven the person,” but at a subconscious level your body not only remembers the abuse but acts out the pain daily.
Candace had not only been abused most of her life, but also had become stuck in the lethal trap of counterfeit forgiveness. She had turned the anger, designed to help her recognize how badly her boundaries were being invaded, against herself. Fortunately, Candace recognized this and took immediately corrective steps to improve her life. In another six months she may totally be able to discard her literal cane—as well as her metaphorical crutch of well-meaning but unenlightened excuses.
In the familiar fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a false perception existed, to the humor of all. However, like the foolish crowd who cheered for the naked Emperor, a person who practices counterfeit forgiveness pretends that the Emperor actually is wearing clothes. Unfortunately, those assumptions (whether rooted in imagination or denial) could result in serious physical symptoms. And there’s nothing funny about that!
Are you ensnared in the lethal bondage of counterfeit forgiveness? That which is counterfeit is not real. Forgiveness, above all else, should be real. Practice genuine forgiveness—or pay dearly.