3 Ways "Forgiveness Shaming" Survivors Backfires



Forgiveness is complicated for most people so to put the concept of forgiveness in perspective, it's helpful to know that POWs (Prisoners of War) commonly suffer from cPTSD. That gets right to the gist of understanding the intensity of complex or cPTSD. Other examples include children in dysfunctional homes or schools and adults in abusive domestic relationships, or even work environments. The key words to get the gist of cPTSD are:

- long-term distress, abuse or neglect from someone in authority.

- a real or perceived, inability to protect themselves or escape.


This post unpacks 3 reasons why and how shaming survivors to forgive can and often will, backfire. As described in the earlier Memes that Shame series, chronic trauma changes the the nervous system with brilliant survival mechanisms that convert trauma into an ever-present bodyguard in the body-mind. In a multisensory way, survivors may be literally and biologically unable to forget the trauma while they are actively under attack. Survivors have a healthy right to be angry that they were chronically abused and/or neglected. So trying to force forgiveness that doesn't sit right and feel right, just isn't right! Here's why.


3 Ways Shaming Survivors to Forgive Backfires


1. People Pleasing

Many survivors of traumatic childhoods learn to people-please as a survival skill. They learn that they're not worthy of having feelings and develop an ability to compartmentalize or deny what they feel in order to gain approval. They become easily coerced into doing what they are told is "the right thing to do," just like the message "forgive and forget." Their anger isn't acknowledged by anyone; not even themselves. They lock anger in the dungeon for so long that they become cut off from their feelings. They may logically understand that they have a right to feel anger but be unable to access it or touch it. They learn to please others at their own expense but this comes at a high price.

How people-pleasing backfires

  • When forced into forgiveness, they may abandon themselves in order to keep the peace. This sense of unworthiness deepens the grooves of shame.

  • People-pleasing and "going along" sets them up for re-victimization by narcissists and others who seek to take advantage of people pleasers.


2. Boundaries and Feelings

Survivors of complex trauma tend to have challenges creating and maintaining healthy boundaries because at its essence, traumatic stress results from a lack of control and boundaries. Shaming trauma survivors for an inability to forgive sends the message that they are flawed and that their gut, their pain and their boundaries don't matter.

"Shaming survivors for an inability to forgive, sends the message that they are flawed and that their gut, their pain and their boundaries don't matter."

If shamed into forgiveness, they may abandon a warning signal that forgiveness doesn't "sit right" with them or doesn't "feel right." They may quickly relinquish the the discomfort - the one and only warning sign; telling them that they're either not ready to forgive or that it's actually not safe.

How shaming feelings and boundaries backfires

  • Forcing forgiveness can "guilt" them into ignoring the one built-in boundary for their protection.

  • Inability to create and maintain boundaries sets survivors up for re-victimization by their abuser and others those who would exploit them and re-enact the trauma.

3. Honor the Faces of Anger

Unlike many people-pleasers who become expert at divorcing their feelings, those who are actually able to feel the righteous indignation and anger born of their abuse are often punished. Schools, many parents and society at large have little tolerance for an angry child...or woman for that matter. The message they get is, "If you could just behave like the people-pleasers, They try and have more shame because they can't. Instead of being totally shut off from their anger, it's bubbling just beneath the surface. So it takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep it at bay or "manage" it. This isn't sustainable so when an inevitable tipping point is reached, people act up and act out for release. Kids end up in detention and juvenile court and adults end up in prison where they are further punished and traumatized for having feelings. As a result they are told that to be a "good person" or to "do the right thing" they must ignore the torment of their feelings. Kind people forgive and forget. To feel less shame, to try to be that good person and establish a sense of self-worth, they may be "guilted" into forcing or faking forgiveness.

How shaming anger backfires

  • Now they're carrying the burden of stuffing the anger along with the heavy load of pretending to forgive. Faking or forcing forgiveness of an abuser who knows exactly how push the very buttons that they installed is set up to fail!

  • Once in close proximity to their abuser...the unresolved anger is easily triggered - the unresolved anger or rage is bound to erupt. This situation isn't safe for anyone.

Complex trauma is literally complicated. People, situations and forgiveness are tremendously multifaceted, not a 1-size-fits-all "fix." Refuse to be bully or be bullied into forgiveness - educate and heal instead. Please share to generate understanding, appreciation and compassion in survivors and those who would shame them.

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