'Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up: From Avoidance to Recovery and Growth' by Robert T. Muller, PhD
“If I don’t forgive my abuser, will I ever really heal?” This question arises regularly when working with adults who have experienced interpersonal, childhood trauma. In Dr. Muller’s new book, ‘Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up: From Avoidance to Recovery and Growth’, he writes about a number of key areas in trauma work including: avoidance, pacing, safety, mourning, changing by way of relationship, identity and forgiveness. These topics are complex and Muller’s discussion on them is thoughtful and nuanced. In this review, I’m going to focus on his chapter about forgiveness as it is a rich and layered piece of writing, and it is an issue I haven’t read a lot about.
Muller writes that forgiveness is often seen as a virtue in our society and as a result, there may be a societal pressure for people to forgive and forget. As a society, we tend to admire the noble soul who forgives all past wrongs, the very act of forgiving infusing them with an almost saintly status, as though they have risen above the grime of lesser emotions. But here’s the problem, we are not saints and ‘to forgive or not forgive’ can be a very complicated matter that deserves time and attention.
Muller explains that over-simplifying the concept of forgiveness can lead clients to wonder, “what is wrong with me? Why can’t I just forgive and move on?” People may harbor a deep wish to forgive in order to ease the burden, not just on themselves, but on those around them who also feel the pain of their suffering. And sometimes there is a hope that forgiving the abuser will diminish the crushing self-blame, shame and guilt. These are all completely understandable hopes, and there is nothing wrong with forgiveness. It’s the rushing to forgive that concerns Muller.
As he notes, there can be a role for anger in healing. Anger that may not dissipate to forgiveness. Righteous anger. People can be rightfully angry at their abusers and it can be important to acknowledge and feel that. Sometimes people want to get away from the anger and may feel an urgency to forgive in hopes of getting some relief. Muller explains that when someone rushes to forgive, they can compromise a sense of justice regarding the abuse and can feel as though they have compromised their own values.
The situation gets even stickier when the therapist places value on forgiveness as a virtue and perhaps unknowingly communicates this belief to the client. As Muller explains, the client may be encouraged to forgive before they are ready to do so in an attempt to please the therapist. Or perhaps the client doesn’t want to forgive their abuser or the idea of forgiveness may not even be an important concern in their healing. To preserve the therapeutic relationship, the client may push themselves into an inauthentic place. The therapist then becomes a part of the problem, driving the client towards an end they haven’t chosen themselves, reenacting a pattern of disempowerment and control.
Muller provides a poignant story of a client grappling with the idea of forgiveness after receiving a letter from his childhood abuser asking to be forgiven. I found Muller’s reflections on apologies and remorse to be very thought-provoking. If someone is asking to be forgiven, what are the components of an authentic apology? Muller writes that an authentic apology must include remorse and that showing remorse is a relational act that is “highly interpersonal” and “requires great vulnerability”. The act of being vulnerable with another person and taking personal responsibility has the potential to heal, without that, at best the words are empty, and at worst, further wounds are inflicted. Of course, there is no obligation for a person to accept an apology, even the most authentic.
Importantly, Muller explains that forgiveness is not a static process. We may forgive, then life may change, something within us may shift or emerge, and we may no longer feel forgiving, this cycle may repeat. It may not. But opening up the door to the idea that forgiveness is not a one-time deal may decrease some of the confusion, frustration, and self-judgment that can come when one realizes there is still more to process.
Muller is an engaging writer; his use of case examples enriches the text and helps untangle some very challenging themes. This book also encourages self-reflection and helped me to stop and think about the way I value the idea of forgiveness generally, and what assumptions I hold about its place in healing from trauma. Ultimately, the decision to forgive, fully, partially, or not at all, is an entirely personal decision that deserves to be explored in depth over time. Muller’s writing helps to underscore the knowledge that there are many pathways to healing and that our approach to treatment needs to honour the path of the person in front of us.