Forgiveness is a tricky word… The writer has often experienced working with a deeply traumatized human being who carries the additional burden of being told by others – sometimes by therapists – that they should ‘forgive’. Telling this to a person who has experienced trauma, or who is deeply in shock, rage, fear, grief and loss, demonstrates a lack of empathy and an inability to understand how we process our experiences.
We cannot simply decide not to feel what we feel. We need to engage with what is actually there for us, before we can hope to move into whatever else might be there for us, once we have done that. Unprocessed experience/emotion distort and suppress the fullness of who we are.
Therapeutic relationship is characterized by the core conditions: the loving presence of a human witness/companion in the person of the therapist, who is able to be authentic in relationship, and to offer/communicate empathy. At its best, therapy provides a safe container within which we can allow ourselves to feel what we feel, and access feelings/experiences with which we have previously been unable to engage because they are too threatening.
Within such a container, it becomes possible for the person in the client’s chair to become more fully present to themselves – however scary, heartbreaking, terrifying and confusing that may be. What that looks like and where it leads, is a deeply personal journey. The only person with the standing and the capacity to make that journey is the person whose experience it is. The best of therapists simply holds the space, trusts themself to be present as described, and trusts the other person to find their path – even if many times that may feel impossible and neither person has any idea what the outcome may be.
Exhortations to forgive form no part of this, however well-intentioned they may be. They simply offer another opportunity to fail, or be found lacking, or feel despair. And no-one in the client’s chair needs any more of those.
However, the point that Waleed and Tom are making is a different one (if linked), and a profoundly important one – given all that is happening in our world. They are talking about our capacity to move beyond our own fear and respond to others from a less defended place – with a genuine desire to understand where they are coming from. From that starting point, it begins to be possible to replace ‘othering’/objectifying the ‘enemy’, blaming, disconnection and mutually assured destruction of the perceived ‘perpetrator’ – with space for encounter: an understanding of the other’s person’s frame of reference; a recognition of our interdependence; possibilities for connection, constructive dialogue and creativity. That creates the potential to step outside repeating cycles of fear and trauma.
What the writer observes – both within her own process and experience of trauma, and in her work – is that it becomes more possible for us to do this when we are enabled to process our pain and our trauma. That may happen in therapy, or in any encounter with another human where the purpose is to understand and meet us – not to put us right, or ridicule us, or take power from us, or hold us up for judgement.
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter
Counselling in Exeter since 1994