Identity and Forgiveness Revisited (Strong Trigger Warning!)

Your Life After Trauma: Discovering The New You | Professional Perspective | Heal My PTSD. Michele Rosenthal, who wrote “Your Life After Trauma“, repeatedly addresses the core conundrum of (lost) identity after trauma and how to shape your new one. (Hence the title, I presume). I must admit that I haven’t read the entire book yet, just her excerpts and blogs, so forgive me if the point I’m about to make is redundant. In any case, I’d like to preliminarily agree on Michele’s finding that trauma impacts identity. I have heard other survivors say a similar thing, e.g. this gentleman (very worth watching, but another heavy trigger warning!): But I also think, there’s more to it than “just” identity (I must reiterate my trigger warning on what’s to follow in the next few paragraphs). How about restoring dignity? How does a survivor of trauma – especially those, whose trauma was inflicted upon by way of abuse of a perpetrator – restore self-esteem and a feeling of being dignified? How do I arrive at the perception of “operating” a healthy self when all the self I’ve ever known is one that’s defined by abuse and being manipulated into believing one was undeserving of dignity, respect and – to use the big word – love? (on a side note: Can we repair the relationship with an abuser and more importantly: Is it even within our responsibility or possibilities?)

These questions address the realm of forgiveness and for me, that was and still is the hard part, the part that sits at the root of perceived isolation: Our commonly accepted notion of a “good person” includes the ability to forgive a wrongdoer and “rise above”, be “the bigger man (or woman)”. While forgiveness is certainly a noble trait in a person, I think there can be situations when forgiveness becomes impossible, particularly so, if one gets programmatically humiliated over long periods of time and where one’s idea of self hinges on the concept of being merely an extension of another person’s self – serving no other purpose than helping them to compensate for whatever shortage of love they went through (and thus technically creating a situation of co-dependency and thus completing the cycle of abuse). Now, I’m aware that human history sports some almost superhuman acts of forgiveness, e.g. the late Nelson Mandela’s approach on those people in power, who held him incarcerated for almost all of his life. Or take Dr. Martin Luther King’s philosophy – or the New Testament. The list goes on. There are numerous approaches and philosophies that posit forgiveness as the ultimate personal liberation from a place of suffering and the quintessential climax of personal evolution. I think I get the idea behind that and I also think I can see, how releasing a grudge can be relieving and liberating. But can forgiveness really work unilaterally? Is it really forgiveness, if a victimized person decides to sort of “embrace” the actions of a previous perpetrator and arrive at an understanding that doing what they did was part of their particular journey? Or is it rather betrayal of that part of self, which got humiliated and trampled upon? If I “let go” and “move on” – doesn’t it automatically include turning my back on that part of self that got hurt so badly? How do I really reconcile the story of the battered child? By telling them “farewell, kid!”? If so, then this certainly comes at the price of sacrificing a part of true identity which got lost in the drama of abuse, never to be restored or healed. It actually then means consciously burying a part of self that got destroyed by a perpetrator (which then – to me – requires grief counselling to come first before taking any other steps in a therapeutic process). Can this really be the idea behind forgiveness, i.e. helping a perpetrator by consciously killing and burying a part of self that is a genuine aspect of an individual’s personality? Doesn’t this mean I’m becoming a complice in the act? And if so – how can I look at myself in the mirror and not feel a sense of shame and guilt towards myself? It seems paradoxic to me to speak of “recovery” and “healing” when that particular path of recovery requires me to betray and actually sever an aspect of self I’ve always felt to be at the core of my being (and an aspect of self I seem to have a much easier time of accepting and lovingly embrace). It’s a paradox I haven’t been able to reconcile so far and it seems to stand in the way of truly getting to move on. Sure, we can always introduce the concept of “time” and how an adult self no longer is equal to the child self. Of course, it isn’t as we had to adopt a number of coping techniques in order to survive and function. So I think, I have been – albeit unconsciously – shaping an identity from the debris of my former child self. And I think I have succeeded in doing that. But … along with all the “progress” and increasing ability to adapt to the challenges in life, there’s been this nagging sense of betrayal at the core of my inner monolog. There’s always been a sense of perpetration on my part – and that sense of betrayal seems to revolve around that abused and battered child self, who never got their former reality validated and acknowledged for what it was: A living nightmare, a prison, an incarceration! Personally, I don’t think there can be any true recovery, if one’s past doesn’t get validated at some point. If that validation doesn’t happen – e.g. by the perpetrator saying or signalling: “I see you and I see what I’ve been doing to you” and then ideally going on to say “I’m sorry, please forgive me!” or in some other way, by e.g. the so-called “empathic witness” as Alice Miller called it – then I think dignity remains impaired and control over one’s life and actions isn’t really restored, unless – and this is important! – we take other actions to address this situation, e.g. by firmly divorcing a former perpetrator from our current life. (which is also an aspect that keeps coming up in Jeff Brown’s work of removing the debris of a hurtful past and reshaping the human being at the core of one’s individuality and which seems to be an essential step in empowering oneself and reclaiming autonomy). So, what was I saying? Are we stuck in the past forever, unless a perpetrator asks our forgiveness? And can we only move on by betraying that aspect of self that got shunned and shamed from early on? I truly don’t know. Time and again when pondering this particular conundrum, the answer seems to be – a rather devastating – “yes”. I hope, someone out there strongly opposes and tells me otherwise. And if not: Can life still be worthwhile, albeit being severely damaged and then needing to arrive at a place of acceptance as the inevitable grounds of operating from? I’m in the process of finding out, I guess.

(P.S. I think, you’ll understand my trigger warning by now. If this blog has triggered you, I do ask your forgiveness for potentially having done so… But it seems to me that all the sources I’ve consulted so far and all the conversations I’ve been having in regards to this – maybe minus Jeff Brown’s work – seem too easily ready to sidestep this aspect)

Let me have your thoughts, if so inclined. Better even: Tell me, I got it wrong (and how I got it wrong)


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