how to forgive whilst simultaneously not re-entering a toxic, dangerous or abusive dynamic

photo by Anita Saini

it sounds like a paradox to most: forgive in order to become free; versus forgive in order to re-enter (hence try to fix/alter/accept toxicity, danger or abuse — AGAIN…).

it can be an endless pattern for many people, and it is. a few months ago I was chatting with a friend of mine. he “gets” what I do for work, but he’s not close to surrender (as I will refer to it throughout this post). and it’s fine. I told him that. it’s not a judgement on him – we speak our opinions about one another freely without offense. he criticizes me and doesn’t always understand me. and he also asks for and heeds my advice, such as on the subject I’m writing about. by the way these types of relationships are crucial in our lives, because if we a) need everyone to agree with us or b) can’t risk being offended, then it is not a healthy relationship. the same can be said about friendships and relationships in reference to politics etc, and I’ve said it before: I have friends on all sides of every equation out there. all countries. all religions. all political forms and allegiances. and all opinions are valid in this life. I digress…

this friend of mine asked me a key question during our recent conversation: “how do I forgive my family, for all of their abuse, but not feel the need to go back in contact with them because I forgave them? I’m really struggling with this”. he thought that by forgiving, it would mean that he was making them “right” on some level, and that the abuse he had endured would be something that he would be required to re-enter. and so I began by telling him that forgiveness has nothing to do with logistics – it has to do with surrender…

I wrote a post a couple of years ago about going no contact with other human beings. in it, I walk through many of the steps I’ve experienced and seen others go through. and the most important point in it is the one with which I answered my friend’s question in the above paragraph: forgiveness IS the ability to move forward, to move on, without any need to make anyone right or wrong. by forgiving, we are letting go of the situation — the logistics of the situation are totally separate

first off, if we are leaving any relationship dynamic which has been abusive (and there are varying levels of abuse), we first need to feel safe enough to become angry about it. anger is the first step, or rather proof, that for the first time in our life we are feeling safe (with regard to a particular situation). it’s a powerful and positive step in the right direction toward reclaiming our sovereign nature. after anger, there should come, at some point, acceptance. this is akin to surrender, but not quite. acceptance is the “holy shit, I can’t change this” realization. although anger can keep us safe (and rightly so, in many severely abusive dynamics in which one should never return to), there then needs to be room for negotiation in order to forgive if we are to move beyond anger and toward freedom (I will note what a difficult process this is — in no way am I suggesting this can be solved overnight, and it typically takes YEARS).

I can see the different ratios of anger slash forgiveness on someone’s face. I’ve seen it on mine at different periods of my life. anger will age us. forgiveness will soften us and give us a healthy glow, no matter how many wrinkles we have or what our physical age or disposition is. we wear our progress, or lack thereof, on our faces and in our bodies. we are constantly unwittingly negotiating the ratio between anger and forgiveness, in order to feel both safe AND free. the eventual awareness of this ratio, and how it shifts from one day to the next, is important in terms of our growth…to note whether we are moving forward or staying stagnant, internally (hence externally!).

back to my friend and his question. his family, like a lot of families, has herd mentality. he was their scapegoat, and that’s common in abusive families. there is typically one person who is blamed and responsible for everything, while everyone else uses that person – either directly or indirectly – as a container for their abuse or surrender of their own important ugly truth. this friend of mine is incredibly intelligent, talented, and the list could go on — but it took him years, into his late 30s, to even connect to his anger to “begin” his life. after that, in his early 40s, was he even ready to fully act on that anger. after he took action — his was specific in nature and I won’t write about it here in order to contain the energy of his situation — he was ready to approach forgiveness. but, how? “how?”, he asked me. he wanted to know how to stay separate (safe) from his abusers, but also forgive them…

this is how. after we have gone through ALL of the internal motions — and this, my friends, can take YEARS (and it is worth it) — such as overcoming substantial ptsd (for me, I would see the face of one of my frequent [“loved ones”] physical attackers every time I walked down the street in Manhattan, or outside of the window of my house, and my entire body would panic – this happened for years and ONLY after I connected to my anger!) — and we can reach a place (one in which I write about throughout my blog in many different steps with nuances in each) in which we literally understand that another person’s behavior has nothing to do with us, we can forgive. if we are still in ptsd mode, and driven by anger (which is positive initially, as it identifies the truth of our relationship to danger, and helps us maintain a healthy distance so that our psyche is protected), it will be hard to reach a point in which we feel safe enough to forgive. so that is step one…

step one: by connecting to and after connecting to anger, we then must feel safe enough to want to forgive, so that our mind can see — from ALL angles — that the abuse was not personal. it was not personal. it had nothing to do with us. we were just there.

step two: once we recognize that the abuse was not personal, we can have empathy for the person who hurt us. having empathy does not mean that the person has changed, will change, or can change!! do not confuse empathy with your own control issue (for example, if you can’t afford therapy or find the right therapist, Alanon or a similar 12-step program is very helpful in understanding control issues that arise from being abused — we have to work through the damage that has been caused to our mental algorithm). separate empathy from needing or wanting, on ANY level, for that person or persons to change. if it is a family dynamic, there will be an entire tribe of people (often unwittingly and unconsciously) playing along with the abuser or abusers, because it is their “role” – just like your role was to be abused.

step three: after you connect to healthy anger, and then reach a place of empathy which is ENTIRELY disconnected from needing the reality to be different, and ENTIRELY not confused with making the abuser/s “safe” suddenly (your mind will do this because you will still unconsciously want them to change! – and if you do not play that pattern out with them, you will do it with someone else!), you can reach forgiveness. forgiveness is love in your heart for the disconnect that each person who hurt or abused you resides in. it doesn’t matter why they are disconnected (there are so many reasons why), when it comes to forgiveness, in terms of being able to feel forgiveness. forgiveness is a perspective and state of love, and it does not seek to fix or alter reality. forgiveness is simply 360 degree recognition without interfering with “what is”. forgiveness does not long for change. forgiveness is…surrender.

step four: after forgiveness (also akin to surrender, just like anger and empathy are) is reached, we are able to properly assess the logical safety or lack thereof regarding re-entering a relationship — in any form / dynamic — with an abusive person. let me be clear by saying that steps one through three MUST be completely flushed out before step four is even on the radar. if you miss a step, you will be brought right back to the drawing board. step four is a rational, logical, and mature decision which is often aided by the advice of objective clinicians, otherwise trained professionals, or people who have ALREADY WALKED IN YOUR SHOES. this decision can only come from a clear, healthy (and it takes years to become healthy if you have been in an abusive dynamic – so get ready to do the work and surrender to time and ego) and balanced mind. it is step four in which we awaken each day and ask ourselves: would reaching out to person A B or C (or Z) be for my highest good? how would it affect my life now? those of us who have suffered abuse, ranging from mild to moderate to unthinkable, are natural empaths – we WANT other people to feel good. this is a chicken and egg equation, only exacerbated by abuse. so it is important to be fully at step four as we ask ourselves each day, “what is in my highest good today?”. on my personal journey, after going through all of the above steps (which are all simply born from my own experience — I’m sure other people have valuable advice or opinions but these are what work for me, and for many people I have worked with), I often asked for backup support in my daily decision-making because I had tremendous guilt over choosing my own health and sanity. and each time I asked for support, I was reminded of what my deepest core already knew: “keep walking”. step four is a combination of forgiveness and pure surrender to “what is”, based on the above motions and below notions…

after step four, we are able to stay open to positive or even unexpected outcomes, but disconnected from needing them to happen. we are aware of “reality” — and the “reality” is, most people do not change unless they have to. and it’s OK. after step four, we do not confuse walking away from an unhealthy situation with not being able to forgive — it is actually the opposite. we walk away, finally, from an abusive or unhealthy situation because we have LEARNED to forgive. and we finally find love in our hearts for ourselves, some of us for the first time ever. we no longer spend time in chat rooms with angry people who are conflicted over their abusers (there is nothing wrong with that when we are working out anger and understanding), we no longer talk about the horrible wrongs of our past abusers and how they affect us to this day (there is nothing wrong with that while we are debating our own sanity), and we no longer feel hate in our heart toward them — the hate that once served a purpose in order to keep us safe. we now realize that we can forgive, and it is the forgiveness that completely sets us free — because it is in the forgiveness that we have become healthy. we no longer wear the rose-colored glasses, hoping to wake up and have someone be different. we surrender to the fact that we were, in a sense, all alone, the entire time. and so were/are they. we are able to face facts and truths without putting ourselves in dangerous situations with people from the past, or with people in the future who are simply unresolved fragments of the past because we did not fully walk steps one through four. we are able to feel both love, and neutrality.

forgiveness is not an outcome; it is a surrender. the logistics of the situation — particularly the relationship or relationships dynamics — take care of themselves after forgiveness is attained from within. forgiveness does not “mean”, anything. it does not mean that we are strong enough or safe enough to now re-enter something or a dynamic with someone who will never change and can still damage or re-damage us (think of abusive people like alcohol and you are the alcoholic) in a way that is harder to come back from than the last time. forgiveness is a state of being, and everything else around that “just is”. forgiveness requires us to do nothing at all. forgiveness is indeed possible and in fact optimal, when we have come from an abusive dynamic. but it doesn’t have to mean anything in the logistical or physical world.

to sum up the answer that I gave to my friend referenced in this post, and to summarize much of the title of this post, I say this: forget the dogma – forget the societal norms – forget the opinions of others who are still suffering at the vibration of your shared problem…find forgiveness, and something bigger than and beyond you will direct the rest. forgiving whilst separating from toxicity, danger and/or abuse is often not only a symbiotic relationship, but actually the most loving one…regardless of whether or not that is a socially or politically popular notion.