Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mormon Matters: Abuse and the Forgiveness Dilemma

A few weeks ago, Mormon Matters did a podcast titled "Abuse and the Forgiveness Dilemma". I don't usually pay much attention to Mormon podcasts, but this one caught my eye.

This is a paragraph from the description of the podcast. It kind of made me sob.
"But what about abuse victims? What about those who have been physically, sexually, emotionally abused—sometimes relentlessly and violently? How would they hear such messages? Is a warning that they must forgive their abusers, rapists, torturers or else they are even worse sinners than them a good one to hear? Can certain messages that are wonderful in most cases (and no one is imagining that abuse victims were on President Uchtdorf’s mind when he gave his remarks) be heard in spiritually and emotionally damaging ways by those whose self image distorted by internalized shame over the abuse they received as a child or whose lives are in danger or souls are being warped by abuse even in the present? Can such messages actually re-victimize these people? Are there circumstances in which even the beautiful message of “Families Are Forever” be heard as a threat—heard in such a way that a person might express a deliberate choice to live in hell rather than be forced to associate with their abuser(s) in heaven? The answer is yes."
My first thought was, "Where the hell were you people when I needed you?!?"
And then I remembered what the people in my life said YEARS ago:
(Here's an excerpt from the post I linked to.)
"She gave an analogy that hit me as absolute truth.
She is giving a presentation on eating disorders to 70 RA's tomorrow. Knowing that she is talking to people who like to help others, and are college students, there will be about five people in the audience with disordered eating. She was worried about giving certain suggestions or saying certain things, because she didn't want to say something that would hurt those five. She came to the conclusion that the sixty-five needed to hear what she had to say, and she had to hope that the five would be okay.
Just because they are saying it in conference, does not mean the message was to me personally.

She said, "If I told you I was falling apart, and I really needed you here," and I finished her thought, "I would be there tomorrow... In fact, I have thought about getting on a plane when you were sick, even when you didn't ask, because I love you and I wanted you to have a friend."

At the end of President Monson's talk, I also got a text from BJ:
"He was not talking to you. I listened to the entire talk. Not once did he say, 'Hey Jen, listen up!' or 'Now I am want to talk to victims of abuse that can't say no to people yet,' He didn't say anything close to that.""

Their words and their insights were invaluable to me, probably saved my life, and definitely made my life more livable.

So, knowing that was what this podcast was about, I both really wanted to listen and wanted nothing to do with it. A few months ago, I wrote about wanting to dump the baggage that the word forgiveness had for me. Listening to the podcast felt like a next step.

They started by talking Elder Uchtdorf's talk.
I didn't listen to the talk, but I read it because it got so much attention. This was the response I wrote in my journal:
"The thing about talks like this is:
Selfish assholes hear it, and think, "Yes. Everyone else should be more loving, accepting, and forgiving of me. Why doesn't (doormat) be more loving and just do what I want?"
Self-sacrificing doormats hear it, and they think, "Yes. I need to be more loving and accepting. Next time (asshole) says something awful, I will tell him that I love him and just do what he wants."

It's like the perfect recipe for a disastrous relationship."
As I listened to the podcast, I felt like they described my thoughts on forgiveness, love, boundaries, and choices perfectly.

Just a few thoughts as I listened:
(Sorry if it's a bit disjointed, these are the notes I took while I was listening.)

It is not appropriate for a mortal to try to absorb the consequences of another person's actions. If I do something to protect an abuser from the consequences of their choices, that is what I am doing. It isn't my job to protect them, it also isn't my job to punish them.
Forgiveness is NOT about the other person... It is NOT doing things to make the abuser's life better or easier... Forgiveness is about ME. It's about me leaving my pain behind. It's about me finding peace.

I've heard that thought before - we don't forgive for THEM, we forgive for ourselves...
I have also experienced abusive people asking for forgiveness because it made THEIR life easier, better, less painful... "Forgive me and just do what I want you to do." That is NOT forgiveness. It is manipulation. (And if a person is apologizing in this matter, it is not a real apology. A real apology ESPECIALLY in the case of abuse, will show more concern for the person that they hurt than for themselves. I wrote about what it felt like to get a real apology here.)

I can be Christlike and be forgiving, and yet not open my arms to an abuser that continues to cause me mental (or physical) anguish. Forgiveness is not about sacrificing your personal boundaries... I still get to choose who and what I want in my life. I ALWAYS get to choose. Forgiving doesn't take away my freedom - real forgiveness gives me more freedom.

Asking the survivor to forgive the perpetrator as part of the survivor "being a good person" is another way to make the survivor responsible for the abuse. That's WRONG. The survivor is not and never will be responsible for the abuse.

Shame. Shame is such a huge and horrible part of abuse. I have long believed that the beliefs I formed about myself and the world around me were FAR MORE damaging than all of the bruises or physical symptoms. Talks like Uchtdorf's only added to the shame.

If you believe what they say at church, "I am worse, because I can't forgive," and you KNOW you are a defective, bad, horrible person, you work so hard to be "good". You want so BADLY to be good, that you just keep signing up for more abuse... I KNOW that what they did was HORRIBLE, and I don't want to be like I try to be nice, and kind, and loving, and serve even those that hurt me. That is the OPPOSITE of what a healthy person does.

Saying that "not forgiving" is worse than the offense, puts people on equal footing when they shouldn't be on equal footing. Abuse is not the same as the "just being human and needing compassion".

It is GOD's responsibility to be the judge over another person. The "sin" is when I decide what another person should or should not do, and try to control them. Making my own choices about where I spend my time is NOT a sin, but telling another person they have to change or do what I want IS.

"Being judgmental is a sin. Choosing to move on or separate yourself from a relationship is NOT."

Judging abuse as bad, is also okay.
Is saying, "I can't stand that person, and the things they have done to ME," even close to the same as saying, "I hate the choices they are making with their life. I wish they wouldn't drink alcohol, or live with a woman they aren't married to, or have a tattoo."?
Those two statements are totally different, but it has taken me a long time to understand the difference.

Sometimes the best thing to do is GO. Here's an example from the scriptures.
Nephi left. He got away from Laman and Lemuel. He didn't stay and take more abuse. 
Follow your heart, your divine intuition, it's the only way to live, heal, and BE.
There are situations when anger IS righteous. Anger can protect us.

We can't paint with a broad brush. The journey and the process is VERY individual.

Suggestions on how to be helpful if someone trusts you enough to share their story:
  • Don't make assumptions. 
  • Ask questions.
  • Do NOT give me advice. 
  • Don't presume you know these relationships better than I do.
  • Don't presume you know what I should do better than I do.
  • Reaffirm my worth. I don't need you to reaffirm my courage. Don't marvel at me or my strength...
  • Don't presume what will happen, in this life or the next... Talking about a "forever family" is not always a comforting thing. (Although my family has been great, one of the big things that got me thinking about the church was when I looked at some of the people at church. I thought if I had to spend eternity with them, that would not be heaven, that would be hell.)
    "They know they are going to the celestial kingdom. I want nothing to do with them. If this is what heaven will be like, I'd rather go to hell."
  •  When I said that, I MEANT it. Hell was better than what I found in my relationship with the church.
    "In my opinion, a relationship becomes abusive when one person tells someone else they are not good enough. They need to change. And at the same time, won't let that person leave the relationship. (You are not good enough for me, but I won't let you be with anyone else.) That is what it felt like being a member of the church. I wasn't good enough for them, but I didn't have the choice to leave.

    Only, I did. I have the choice. I am not ever going to go back to a place or a relationship with anyone or any organization that makes me feel less than."
  • Abusers are charming. Victims stay quiet. You never know what other people have been through.
  • It is NOT. NEVER will be. the failing of the survivor who can't "hang in" any longer. NEVER. NOT. That is so so so so so wrong. 
This talk on forgiveness does NOT apply to victims of abuse.
God brings comfort and love. Total comfort and love. Anything else just isn't God.

I love what she said at the end... about her friend... She couldn't handle touch, so her friend sat at the edge of the bed and held her big toe. SO grateful for BJ.  He'd touch my head. The only place on my body that I could handle being touched was my head, and then my hands, and then I wanted to be held. So, he held me for hours and hours while my body and my mind healed.

You don't have to forgive, at least not in the way the church teaches forgiveness, in order to move on. It is not required of you.

The only thing that was hard to listen to in this podcast, was talking about horrific abuse... I have spent many years saying, "It wasn't rape, because it wasn't like what they experienced." or, "It wasn't abuse, because it wasn't as bad as it could have been." I have also listened to friends who said, "I wish he would have beat the shit out of me, because then at least I would have had the scars, and I could call it abuse." etc... Emotional abuse is devastating. Just because abuse doesn't look like it looks on TV, doesn't mean that it isn't. It is okay to move on and separate yourself even if you are not experiencing the VERY horrific things that Tresa and Natasha talked about.


  1. This is such a delicate subject to talk about. The only way to approach talking about it is to tell a story. I am not telling this story to compare or undermine or negate or anything other than give you a reference point for how I got to where I am. And the process is not over.
    Also, because I am thinking about it, I am going to put off meeting you in person. I am probably going to live in Utah for some time, and when the time is right, we will meet. If it happens.
    So my story starts when I was very little. I was actually born in Utah. I was a Mormon. I was also born very poor. My dad was a different kind of abusive. He liked to tease. He had been known to tickle until it hurt. He would play games to win, and mock the loser after the fact. I remember these things. The memories used to cause me pain. Now I know my dad better than when he was alive.
    My suffering didn't stop there. There was sexual abuse, and physical abuse. Social and emotional. I had very few friends growing up. Moving away from Utah should have helped, but it didn't. I have a mild case of Asperger Syndrome. I don't get social cues like most people. This made it difficult to make friends. This made it difficult to understand other kids, and it made it difficult for other kids to understand me. From the age of eight until I was twenty something I never understood why people tease one another. So I never did it. This made me the target of such things from the age of eight. Pretty much daily too.
    Anybody that knows me will probably use the word compassionate in their list of words to describe me. I care. I want to help. I see someone suffering and I want to lend them a hand. I think that is why I am on your blog writing these things.
    Because of the abuse that I suffered, I began to change. At first I thought that I wasn't loved by anyone else. Then I stopped loving myself. I doubted my existence. I started to hate God. Then I stopped believing in him. This was a slow long process.
    Fast forward to me being in the Air Force. I was regularly depressed. My marriage was a failure. I couldn't make any of my relationships work. Not just with women, I also mean with co-workers and friends, and supervisors as well.
    This is where things began to change. The process is quite complex, as I had so many layers of damage. The end result was I began to love me for who I am now. I began to believe in God again. I began to grow. I started to see things as they were. The most important thing, I learned to love myself again.
    This opened my eyes.
    Why am I telling you this? I am holding out my hand. I want you to be the one to ask me questions. There is no part of my past that I am ashamed of. There is nothing I would hide. I can show you how to actually let go of any of this, or all of this. I can show you how to untie the emotions that keep you from being you. I might be being too presumptuous. If I am, ignore me. If not, ask any question.

    1. I SO appreciate you sharing your story. I don't have any questions... I kind of believe in just letting people share what they want to share, so if you have more you want to share, please do.

      I've written about forgiveness a lot. I've learned a lot over the past few years. I don't feel like there is anything (anymore) keeping me from being me... However, when things like this come up, I like to talk about them here. A big reason I started the blog was because I couldn't find anyone who had survived abuse, PTSD, and an eating disorder. I decided I would be the person that survived, and thrived.

      I love that there is no part of your past that you are ashamed of. There is a lot of freedom in that. I don't think there is anything I am ashamed of. I do still encounter triggers that throw me off for a minute or two, but nothing like I used to.

      Thank you for your compassion.

    2. There is a way to never get triggers again. I can dig up the resources I used to achieve this if you are interested.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this and sharing your thoughts and feelings about it. I appreciate your ability to express your feelings on the subject of abuse.

  3. Jen - I had a sweet Stake President that told me that "forgiveness" as we understand it in relation to sin, is not the same process for those sinned against. He told me I did not have to try to forgive, or be grateful for the abuse, or find a way to get rid of the anger, in this life. Instead, that is something that we have the chance to work out forgiveness with the counsel of those with a more eternal perspectives. It might have taken me 30 years to find a leader that would really listen, but his message was pretty clear and reflected the love of the Atonement.

    He then gave me three things that were my job in this life. He made sure that I understood that I had my entire life to get as far as I could. There is no timeline that is appropriate to apply to healing.

    1) learning to forgive myself - this is not a forgive myself for sins, but rather to forgive myself for mistakes I made and judgments I allowed in my head - this forgiveness is found through learning correct principles, and retroactively applying that thinking to my life

    2) live my best life - I do not need to live a better life than anyone else, I just need to make the best choices I can - I need to keep learning to understand myself, and let that lead me to make even better choices - this is not a goal with an endpoint, it is a lifelong process made in incremental steps

    3) share the Atonements impact on my life - this is on my own time, under my own best judgment, and in ways that I am emotionally ready for, and that I have felt "prompted" to do - I am not responsible for times when I don't have the physical or emotional strength, or the environment just seems wrong - I am the only one who can decide when those times are, but I should be praying for those opportunities, mostly because *I* need the blessings that come from that

    I don't know if any of this is helpful to anyone else. I have certainly had bishops who gave me terrible advice and who did not take a nuanced or careful approach. There was damage done, when I was convinced that I had to forgive my abuser, rapist, former bishop, etc., because otherwise I could not be forgiven for even the smallest of my sins. There are some things that I hear and cringe. I can't tell anyone what their path should be, but I can and should share things that have helped me, if only so you can see that there are many paths to healing. :-)