1) People who rape kids are outside the range of what forgiveness cultural practices were designed for. People who haven’t survived childhood sexual abuse by a sociopath, caregiver or sexual predator, aren’t even remotely qualified to advise you about forgiveness. It doesn’t matter if they are a clergy person, a yoga practitioner or kindly old lady, they just don’t have the chops. Remembering that will save you a lot of awkward discussions, where you try hard to make them understand, while awkwardly pretending to let them convince you a little so they’ll stop. Worse, you might let them make you feel guilty for not doing something clearly unreasonable. The best strategy is to just stare at them silently with a ‘suffering fools’ expression, until the awkward silence forces them to stop. It may make them realize that they have not walked in your shoes and are in no position to judge, but even if not, the social awkwardness will force them to change the subject. This is a favor to them, as it will prevent them from saying shockingly clueless and insensitive things they may be wise enough to regret later. [Here are some photos of the correct expression to use 1, 2, ]
Remember this: the forgiveness rules that might apply to people who hit you with a car, stole your money, or cheated on you with your best friend don’t even come close to applying to child sexual abuse.
Many non-survivors are so uncomfortable with the horror of what has happened to you (even if, like most of us, you only tell them the most tiny, sanitized smidgen of it), they want to tie it up and make it go away by making you shut up and make nice under cover of forgiveness. “La la la la… we’re not listening, just forgive and shut up will you?”
Don’t let them.
Forgiveness is not a get-out of jail free card for the abuser, (or, unfortunately, you in your need to heal), and anyone who expects you to issue that card is not your ally, no matter how well meaning they are.
2) Acceptance is key. My favourite survivor-friendly definition of forgiveness is: “to give up all hope of a different past.” This type of forgiveness is the same last stage of the grieving process, acceptance. We accept that we were abused, accept all our feelings about it, and don’t try to pretend things were different than they were, even to ourself.
This type of forgiveness actually does make things better. People who don’t accept that the abuse happened or that it affected them, or that they have legitimate feelings about it, stay trapped in unsuccessful coping patterns. These can include getting or staying involved with people who hurt us, numbing out or controlling feelings with addictions among others. Grieving is the only thing I’ve found that actually makes a tragedy resolve itself into peace. This is a much more satisfying and productive kind of forgiveness for survivors, and it works much better at setting you free.
3) Be loyal to yourself. When abusers and complicit relatives ask you to forgive them, beware. This normally means “will you just shut up about it already” or “caretake me, I’m sorry already”. Know for yourself that this is what they are really saying.
You will know a real apology when (if) you feel one. Trust yourself. You don’t have to accept any apology with strings attached (or any apology at all). These strings will normally be: “I will say I’m sorry, and you will ‘go back to normal’ and behave as if nothing happened.” There is no way to go back to ‘normal’. There never was a normal, it was only a fantasy. Accepting this deal will be a raw deal.
And lastly –
Forgive yourself for loving the abuser if you did (or do). That love says more about you and the ways children work emotionally than it does about them. Forgive yourself for being a child and being unable to stop the abuse. Forgive yourself for being a teen or young adult and being unable to stop it. Childhood conditioning is tough to break. Forgive yourself for being a little eccentric compared to non-survivors. Forgive yourself for needing what you need and feeling what you feel. Forgive yourself for taking so long to heal, not remembering details you think you should, or continuing in confusing relationships with complicit family.
You deserve it.