Forgiveness, The Best Boundary

Posted on June 24, 2019


You keep carrying that anger, it will eat you up inside.  Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter

Over the last 20 years, the term, boundaries, has worked its way into the vernacular.  The credit is in no small part to Cloud and Townsend’s series of books.

At the most basic level, the concept is that it is okay (and even good and desirable) to say “no.”  In some Christian circles this was a radical idea in that we can often feel that following Jesus means saying “yes” to every request to serve or give.

In the realm of secular psychotherapy, the idea of having healthy boundaries has been around a little longer.  Some of the early theorists behind marriage and family therapy (e.g. Sal Minuchen, Structural Family Therapy) looked at boundaries as being variable.  Boundaries could be too diffuse leading to enmeshment or too rigid leading to disengagement.  Healthy boundaries have appropriate flexibility to create safety and autonomy in relationships without sacrificing connection.

If you reflect on your own experience of the people you have known and with whom you have had relationships, you have seen a wide variation in how people manage their own boundaries (or don’t) and how they respect or don’t respect the boundaries of others.

Safe people are characterized by respecting others’ boundaries (among other things that make them safe people).  With people who are safe for us, we don’t need to be as firm in maintaining our boundaries.  The converse is true for unsafe people.  The more someone else has a propensity for pushing past our boundaries, the firmer we need to be in making clear our boundaries and not allowing them to be moved.

In therapy, we often find people coping with family members who are really not safe for them.  Past and present abuse and manipulation require a response of firm boundaries.  In extreme situations, the other may be so unsafe that we can no longer be in relationship.

Often clients are coping with the pain of past abuse from family members with whom they are no longer in relationship (or who may be no longer living).  Frequently, the abuser has been entirely unrepentant of the pain caused or somehow feel they were justified in inflicting the abuse (particularly if Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Antisocial Personality Disorder is present).

That leads me to wanting to discuss the benefits of forgiving someone who truly does not deserve your forgiveness.  First, let’s talk about what forgiveness is not.  1) Forgiveness is not restoration.  If the person remains unrepentant and unsafe, restoration is not advisable.  Forgiveness is not about opening yourself up to being hurt again or continually manipulated.  You are a person of divine worth and are not expected to open yourself up to repeated hurt.  2) Forgiveness is not deciding that what happened was okay.  Evil is still evil.  Abuse and manipulation are not okay.

Abuse and manipulation are the gift that keeps on giving.  The impact lasts long after the perpetrator is no longer in one’s life.  From the pain associated with the memories to the way we attach in close relationships, the affect is profound.  You can keep good boundaries to keep the abuse from recurring, but as long as the memory is still causing you pain, the abuser continues to have power in your life.

Here is where I am going to suggest that you work on doing something really difficult.  Forgive the perpetrator.  Forgive them, not because they deserve it, but because they don’t.  Forgive them because you deserve healing.  Forgive them so that you can have relief from your pain.  Forgive them so that they no longer hold power in your life.  Boundaries are there to protect you.  Perhaps forgiveness is the best boundary of all.

As I mentioned above, this is not about restoration with someone who is not a safe person for you.  This is about letting go of the resentment.  Letting go of the pain.  Letting go of the revenge fantasy.  This is deciding that “you will not hold a permanent place in my life.”

This process is not binary.  That is to say, it is not that you have forgiven or you have not.  It is a process.  The process is also not linear.  It is not a straight line between two points.  You will let it go and it will come back.  And you will let it go again.  Some days will feel like the pain is gone, and other days it might get triggered again.

Let me offer a couple of practical ideas you might try to facilitate the process.

The Impact Letter – When we work with couples in recovery from sexual addiction, we often go through a formal disclosure process.  During this process, the addict discloses all of his or her acting out.  The partner also prepares an impact letter.  In the impact letter, the partner describes how the addiction has impacted the partner emotionally, relationally, spiritually, physically, etc.  It is a great healing moment when the addict can receive this from a place of empathy.

In the case where the person is unrepentant, it may still be helpful to write the impact letter describing the impact to you.  If you have a trusted (safe) friend or therapist, you can read it aloud.  You might even find it helpful to read it to an empty chair.  DO NOT SEND IT TO THE PERPETRATOR.  Much as you would like that person to know how badly they have hurt you, sending it will not have the desired result.  When you are done with the letter, burn it as a sign of releasing the pain.

Therapy – There are a couple of things that might be helpful here to your brain.  One is for the prefrontal cortex.  The other is for the amygdala.  The prefrontal cortex takes care of all of the executive functioning of your brain.  Therapy can help gain insight, unpack, grieve and help prepare you to forgive.  Again, this forgiveness is for you, not for the perpetrator.  It is robbing the person who is no longer in your life of the power to keep hurting you daily.

The amygdala is in the more primitive part of the brain.  When something disturbing (traumatic) happens to us, the amygdala remembers it.  When something triggers the memory of that event, the amygdala hijacks the system and starts pumping your body full of adrenaline and cortisol (a stress hormone).  This is really adaptive if you need recognize and flee from physical danger.  It is really problematic if you are no longer in danger but your brain still has you in hypervigilance.  One of the treatment modalities for this is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).  EMDR has been well documented as a treatment modality for a variety of traumata (including PTSD).  It can be effective in many situations where insight doesn’t seem to stop you from having a reaction when the memory is triggered.

The appeal here is to help you reclaim your life from the damage of whatever was done to you.  Boundaries with unsafe people (in the traditional sense of the word) are important.  Once those are established, one of the best boundaries you can have is finding your way to forgiveness.