Premature forgiveness

Forgiveness is often seen as the cornerstone of emotional healing. We are taught that through forgiveness, we free ourselves from the burdens of the past and grant ourselves permission to move forward. But what happens when forgiveness comes too early, before our wounds are fully acknowledged and processed? This type of forgiveness, known as premature forgiveness, can paradoxically have the opposite effect – keeping us stuck in cycles of pain and resentment.

Each of us has certain emotional wounds resulting from painful past experiences. These wounds, often neglected or buried, continue to influence our present in ways we rarely realize. However, recognizing and accepting them is the first step towards healing.

True forgiveness is often preceded by the process of expressing the pain, sadness, and anger associated with past wounds. However, recommendations related to forgiveness are often circulated that can be, regrettably, not only inappropriate but even harmful. The idea that to heal, one must adopt an attitude of absolute and definitive forgiveness is common. This perspective can hurt even more those who come from dysfunctional family backgrounds, as it oversimplifies and generalizes a process that is, in essence, deeply personal and complex.

When forgiveness is forced or applied in inappropriate contexts – such as in the case of unaddressed, ongoing, or extremely serious abuse – it not only fails to help in advancing the recovery process but can even stop the progress. A premature decision to forgive, taken from a strictly cognitive perspective, may rather be an act of denial or repression of emotions, thus keeping the pain and anger related to the traumas suffered at a distance from conscious awareness.

Authentic forgiveness clearly distinguishes itself from this premature approach, often being the result of a profound and genuine grieving process, acknowledging and grieving the losses, deprivations, and abuses suffered in childhood. No thought or intention can hasten this process without the significant emotional work that precedes it.

Therefore, by embracing our pain, we begin to create a space for compassion, understanding, and ultimately, forgiveness.

Acknowledged pain becomes easier to manage, and tears can cleanse the wounds of the soul, but this step requires courage. It is often easier to ignore or hide our pain under a mask of indifference or anger. Yet, true strength lies in the vulnerability of recognizing that we are hurt and allowing ourselves to feel that pain. It is more about confronting and accepting the full spectrum of human emotions - sadness, anger, or guilt - and not just about moving past mistakes or forgetting the pain.

If we do not truly process the pain, we will remain trapped in a cycle of denial and self-criticism. Encouragements like "leave the past behind" or "you must forgive your parents" sound familiar, don't they? But what happens when this forced forgiveness prevents us from embracing our authentic emotions? When denial becomes an invisible shield meant to protect us from pain we don't even dare to acknowledge?

Denial protects us from the harsh reality of our pain, but at the same time, it prevents us from truly healing. It stems from a deep need to idealize our parents or traumatic situations, keeping us in a state of emotional numbness. Children, in particular, resort to denial as a survival mechanism, desperately trying to preserve any trace of affection and security in an often hostile environment.

Denial allows us to live with the illusion of a happy childhood, even when reality is far from it. The first step in overcoming denial is recognizing it. We must move towards fully accepting our pain, acknowledging that feelings of anger and betrayal are valid reactions to what we have endured. This journey is not easy and can be very painful, but it is essential on the path to real healing.

Forgiveness should not be a task imposed by society or those around us. Instead, true forgiveness comes from a place of deep understanding and acceptance of our own emotions. It is not about ignoring or minimizing the traumas we have been through, but about freeing ourselves from the burden of anger and resentment, which block our ability to live fully.

Recovery from emotional trauma is a long and often complicated journey. As we begin to bring our true feelings to light, confront denial, and practice authentic forgiveness, we find that we can transform our pain into a source of strength and resilience. In this process, not only do we heal ourselves, but we also become an example for others who may be on a similar path.

Forgiveness and its limitations

By accepting that some actions may be difficult to forgive, we can focus more on forgiving ourselves (an abused child will feel guilt even as an adult) and on releasing inner burdens. Self-compassion and understanding our own journey are essential in this process.

It is important, therefore, to recognize that there are forms of abuse so severe that forgiveness is not a viable option. These include acts of conscious cruelty, sociopathy, and various forms of extreme abuse, including parental incest.

Redefining relationships

Forgiveness changes our perspective on relationships - not just with those who have hurt us, but also with ourselves. Through forgiveness, we can establish healthy boundaries, value our own needs, and improve the quality of our relationships.

This process often happens gradually, as we process the losses of our childhood and begin to understand the complex contexts in which our parents raised us. It is essential not to rush to explore the mitigating circumstances of our parents' behaviors without having first adequately processed our own traumas. Only after such a journey can we begin to perceive, beyond our own wounds, that our parents were, in their way, also victims of difficult circumstances.

This process of understanding and compassion must not, however, bypass self-compassion. Without this, any sense of forgiveness towards others risks remaining superficial and inauthentic. Premature forgiveness, especially, can prevent us from recognizing and honoring the inner child's right to feel anger and pain towards parental neglect or abandonment.

Premature forgiveness can leave us vulnerable to being abused again. Forgiving our parents in a bid to overcome their harsh criticisms may lead us to neglect confronting the pain they caused us, allowing the abuse to continue in other forms in our adult relationships, keeping us trapped in a cycle of suffering.

Premature forgiveness is not always a consequence of denial, fear, or guilt. This false form of forgiveness can also be fueled by a normal desire to overcome the pain and maintain harmonious relationships with our family. Adults still feel deep within themselves the child's need to be loved. Thus, the decision to forgive can stem from a burning desire to move past the past, to interact comfortably with our parents. We may too easily invoke false forgiveness because many of us are used to ignoring the unhealed wounds of our childhood to maintain the illusion of a loving family.

Effects of premature forgiveness

Suppression of authentic emotions - premature forgiveness often forces us to hide feelings of anger, sadness, and disappointment. This leads to a distorted self-perception and an inner reality where authentic emotions are seen as illegitimate or wrong.

The illusion of progress - by prematurely forgiving, we deceive ourselves into thinking we have overcome the conflict or trauma. This self-deception can hinder a deeper exploration of the root causes of our suffering and thus block the authentic healing process.

Perpetuation of denial - the choice to forgive prematurely can be a form of denial, an attempt to avoid confronting the painful reality of our experiences. This prevents us from acknowledging and accepting the reality of our wounds, an essential step in the healing process.

Confronting childhood abuses

Blaming those who hurt us and rejecting false guilt for mistakes that are not ours allows us to begin healing. This "blame" actually refers to confronting the abuses suffered in childhood, which can be difficult because we are quickly overwhelmed by feelings of fear, humiliation, or guilt when trying to confront our abusers or our own feelings. It is about recognizing that we are not to blame for our parents' abuse, but they are responsible for it.

Blaming others is a self-defense reaction to injustice, an instinctual way of holding those who hurt us accountable and refusing to accept responsibility for mistakes that are not ours. Just as our guilt feelings can be expressed in ways that help or harm us, the process of freeing ourselves from the accumulated resentments of childhood traumas can help us detach from any trace of bitterness, whether recognized or not.

Many who have experienced such traumatic experiences find it challenging to blame their parents, seeing this action as a profound expression of anger. This reluctance is amplified by a strong social taboo against accusing one’s parents, even in deeply dysfunctional parent-child relationships.

Through a bitter hypocrisy, dysfunctional parents manage to annihilate the child's natural instinct to signal injustice, using extremely harmful guilt tactics. Often, those who dare to confront a parent or the true responsible party for their suffering encounter harsh rejections and unfair accusations or are accused that any rebellious behavior is a form of  unjustified disrespect.

Relearning to manage guilt is a difficult process because old thought patterns often trigger strong reactions in us, awakening feelings of fear, shame, or self-blame. We rush to suppress or direct guilt against ourselves, blaming ourselves for simply feeling guilty. To heal, it is essential to free ourselves from these toxic messages and understand that the guilt we feel is often the result of circumstances where we were wronged.

Our emotional healing and recovery will significantly progress once we learn to redirect guilt where it belongs: towards those who burdened us with it in our moments of greatest vulnerability. It is a crucial step in recognizing and accepting the losses of our childhood, as well as in taking responsibility for our own healing journey, freeing ourselves from the burden of our parents' mistakes.

Since forgiveness is primarily a feeling, it is, like all feelings, ephemeral. It is never complete, permanent, or definitively concluded. However, when we fully express feelings of anger related to the past, feelings of forgiveness become more accessible. Learning to appropriately grieve our pains, we return to a sense of belonging and love for the world. This is the essence of recovery: finding the way back to our hearts, even after the deepest wounds.

In this process, it is essential to have patience and compassion for ourselves and our unique journey. As we approach this understanding, we begin to see forgiveness not as an end goal, but as a path to a richer and deeper inner life.

The process of reparenting and self-forgiveness

Reparenting is the process of giving ourselves the love, compassion, and forgiveness that we may not have received in childhood. Through self-forgiveness, we validate our own experiences and emotions, thus granting ourselves the inner peace we seek.

Steps toward an authentic forgiveness and healing:

Recognition and validation of our emotions - the first step toward authentic healing is to recognize and validate our own feelings. It is important to allow ourselves to feel anger, sadness, or any other emotion that arises without judgment or self-criticism.

Understanding the impact of trauma - deepening our understanding of the impact that our trauma or wounds have had on us helps us process our experiences. This may include psychotherapy, journaling, or any form of honest expression that facilitates the exploration of our emotions.

Establishing healthy boundaries - learning to set and maintain healthy boundaries is very important. This means recognizing what behaviors are acceptable and what are not, both from ourselves and others in our relationships.

Redefining forgiveness - forgiveness does not mean forgetting or minimizing the harm suffered. Instead, it is a process by which we free ourselves from the burden of resentment without denying or diminishing our suffering. Authentic forgiveness comes with time, after we have fully processed the impact of our experiences.

In the complex labyrinth of human emotions, forgiveness represents perhaps one of the most challenging but also liberating experiences. It is a journey that transcends the simple reconciliation with others, becoming a bridge toward healing and reconciliation with oneself. It is a complex and profoundly human process that requires understanding, patience, and, most importantly, a courageous confrontation with our own emotions.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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