What I've learned about forgiveness as a sexual assault survivor
'I believe that hurt people hurt people,' says Tara Muldoon
Contributed by Tara Muldoon
Every workshop I lead goes the same way.
"Do you owe someone an apology?" I ask. Silence.
"Does someone owe you an apology?" I ask, knowing the response. Every hand raises.
It doesn't matter if it's in a jail, a school, a community centre, or place of worship. I have yet to be surprised with the outcome of the icebreaker to our workshop series; everyone feels owed and no one is owing. That's problematic.
No one feels they owe an apology to another. So who does the apologizing?
I founded F-YOU: The Forgiveness Project when I was in my mid-twenties. I was coming to terms with being a survivor of sexual assault and started to question what justice truly is. Does forgiveness have a place in trauma?
What does forgiveness look like?
In 2010, I started running community events with a team of passionate volunteers. We all desired to explore the same question: what does forgiveness look like? What does it actually mean?
Running forgiveness workshops changed my entire experience because I learned so much about accountability, compassion and empathy.
But on Sept. 12, 2017, my world was turned upside down again.
I was sexually assaulted by a stranger. This time, it was on video. This time, the police believed me. It took 13 months until the trial began — and that is a lot of time to think about forgiveness and wait for an apology.
Plot twist: the apology never came.
I had placed an expectation on the court system and the offender. I hoped that my work with the Forgiveness Project could shape this process to be meaningful. I was a victim with years of professional experience around apologies, forgiveness and restorative justice.
But there was no apology. I felt there was no acknowledgement. No giving me a sense of wanting me to heal.
Which means I'm still left picking up the pieces of the offender's actions. I believe that hurt people hurt people and, maybe, this speaks to who he is.
So I have chosen to forgive, knowing an apology may never come.
Here is what I have learned along the way:
1) Forgiveness is not about anyone except you.
This is a core FYOU belief. Contrary to popular understandings, forgiveness is about your personal well-being and not about the details of the other person's behavior. As difficult as it can feel, we encourage spending energy on healing yourself instead of focusing on the other person. Forgiveness towards the offender is not contingent on their apologizing.
2) Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.
This is also a popular misconception. Forgiveness is a choice to focus on self and part of that choice is creating boundaries. If you do not want the other person in your life, that does not make you a "bad" person. It makes you aware of your needs and your boundaries.
3) Forgiveness takes time.
Steps to forgiveness tend to go in this order: acknowledging the hurt, feeling the hurt, making the decision to work through forgiveness and then deciding what your boundaries are. This can take hours or years. Length of time to heal does not define you in any way.
4) Apologizing is more than just words.
A meaningful apology ideally consists of accountability, vulnerability and recognizing the harm caused.
5) Forgive yourself.
Guilt and shame are hard emotions to carry. Work through self-forgiveness by acknowledging you are worth the effort and the clean slate.
6) Talk it out.
A therapist you trust can encourage and support your forgiveness journey through an unbiased lens. Do not be afraid to ask for help. I have.
This originally aired in March, 2019.