We Need to Talk About the F-Word

No, not that one…Forgiveness.  It’s a touchy subject for many who have been abused.

We hear it from both religious and secular sides.  “You need to forgive your abuser“.  “True healing and/or salvation will elude you if you don’t forgive“.  This recent post on Facebook received over 1,600 comments.



First, there’s an ongoing debate over what forgiveness exactly means.  For some, it means reconciling.  For others, it means letting go of anger and bitterness.  For a few, it means absolving the other person. 

Many Christians are fond of quoting the Bible on the topic of forgiveness.  Interestingly, most Biblical commandments to forgive others are actually directing wealthy people to forgive the monetary debts that people can’t possibly pay back, not telling the abused and oppressed that they need to forgive the abusers.

So, I don’t believe that forgiveness is a pre-requisite to healing.  And, I don’t think that I have any moral or spiritual obligation to forgive my abuser.  I think we can all heal without forgiving.

Having said all that, I want to add that I think forgiveness (defined here as letting go of the pain and bitterness) is the natural, eventual, wonderful outcome of healing.  My advice is to forget about forgiveness and focus on healing.  Learn to love and protect yourself.  Reach out to other survivors.  Tell your story, with all its anger and bitterness so that others will know that they are not alone.

And forgiveness will find you in its own time.


You’re In My Spot

Have you ever gone through boundary training at a place where you work or volunteer? If you haven’t (and I think many more people need this kind of training), boundary training deals with learning what is appropriate and inappropriate in the workplace setting. It usually deals with what touches are appropriate, what language and types of discussions are appropriate, what things are questionable, and which things should be avoided completely.

We talk a lot, though not as much as we should, about the physical boundaries we each have. Some people have a very good understanding of physical boundaries. They stay out of other people’s space. They don’t stand too close when they speak to someone. They do not cross into another person’s physical space without the other person’s permission.

Physical boundaries are fairly easy to understand, at least in concept. There are circumstances, such as in a crowded elevator, when we may have to give up our physical boundaries, just for a little bit, for the duration of the ride. Once the ride is over, you can go back to the standard boundaries you have.

For lots of reasons, many people have their boundaries set too low. They do not know how to appropriately protect themselves from others. Many other people have their boundaries set so high that almost no one can get close to them. It is very hard to set appropriate boundaries, especially for survivors.

But what about emotional boundaries? We have written here previously about energy vampires, people who get too much in your emotional space and drain your energy. What about other layers of emotional boundaries?

In conversations with spouses, friends, colleagues, people we meet on the subway or airplanes, we have different emotional layers and allow people in at different depths. With your partner, you should be able to let that person into your very deepest emotional layer. He or she should honor and respect all the emotions you share and you should be able to share most of your emotions with that person.

With friends and close family, you should be able to allow the person into another layer of your emotional sphere, not as close as a partner, but not as distant as a colleague or even a new friend.

What about those people with whom you should be able to let down your emotional boundaries, but who have shown you usually time and again, that you can’t?

Those are the people we have to learn to protect ourselves. There are circumstances that force us to be in the same physical space as these people, but for our own sanity and protection, must be thousands of miles away emotionally.

This is hard. So. Hard. It is self preservation, but always feels a little bit off because these are people you should be able to trust. But, if you know these kind of people and have tried to let them back in, hoping that “this time it will be different.” It probably won’t, no matter how much you want it to be and how much work you’ve done on yourself to change it.

Chances are high that this person will not change. They do not wish to do the hard work to change. Their actions benefit and feed them, even if they don’t realize it.

For your own health and safety, you sometimes have to learn to dance within that space. You have to, because of circumstances, be in the space of someone who wants to live off your emotional energy. They want to know your emotions and thrive off of them. And yes, sometimes the people do not realize what they are doing, but they benefit from it anyway. You have to learn to set your emotional boundary so that you can be in the physical space that you must, but allow your emotions to be absorbed or sucked out by the other person.

It would be a lot easier to stay away from these people all together, and sometimes, you can do this completely and totally. There are circumstances beyond your complete control, so you have to learn to say, even if just to yourself, “you’re in my spot.”

Have you experienced people like this? What do you do in these types of circumstances?

Honoring our Differences

On September 18th, I am participating in a charitable fundraiser, by speaking about my experiences growing up with one hand.  Since many of our friends at Learninghope.org live too far away to attend, I am sharing the content of my speech here.  It’s a humorous and inspiring look at the way we treat people who are different than ourselves and what it’s like to be on the other side of the question, “what happened to your…?”  It’s entitled “The Question.”

Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to be asked a question by someone you just met. Excuse me sir, if you don’t mind me asking…”what happened to your nose?” I hope this isn’t too personal, ma’am, but “what happened to your hair?” Whoa! You over there! “What exactly happened to your ear?”

Now imagine how it would feel if nearly everyone you met asked you that same question all your life. That is my story. I was born one handed. That’s right. I am the one-handed version of awesome! Not only did it seem that I was asked a million times, “what happened to your arm?” I didn’t have an answer.  Nothing happened to my arm.  It’s just my arm.

A lot of your self image is shaped by the way the world receives you. I was born and raised in a small, rural community in Iowa, and it seemed to me that everybody I met thought there was something wrong with me and the most important thing was finding out why. It definitely affected my self image.

Usually, about this time in conversation, several of you in the audience are starting to kick yourself, thinking of all the times you have asked someone you met The Question…what happened to you? So, let me help you sort this out. You can’t change the fact that you are naturally curious, or that other people have asked the same question. You can, however, be sensitive to the feelings of the other person.

For example: realize that you may be asking the person to recall a very painful time in his/her life. Consider if this is a convenient time to ask. Don’t be like the lady in the restaurant who noticed me across the dining room as I was putting a winter coat on my toddler (not an easy task with two hands) and hollered at me “Hey you, come here a minute. I want to ask you a question.” What?  Are you doing research or something lady?? 

And finally, ask yourself if you are asking The Question as part of getting to know the person better, or just opportunistically. As I was preparing this speech a few weeks ago, a woman in the Chicago airport was kind enough to give me material for today. Not more than 10 seconds into starting a conversation with me at the gate, she said, “I can’t help noticing, so if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your arm?” I politely told her “I was born this way.” and then imagined adding. “I can’t help but notice your wedding ring, so if you don’t mind me asking, did you have sex with your husband before getting married or wait until your wedding day?” Is it starting to make sense now?

My senior year of high school, I started thinking about going to college. In addition to choosing a college and thinking about what I wanted to study, I started thinking about The Question again. I realized that within a few months, I would be traveling to a new community, and meeting hundreds of new people and I knew I would be asked The Question hundreds of times over. So, I decided to have fun with it.

I made a pact with myself that anytime I was asked The Question at college, I would answer it the same way…”I used to wrestle alligators.” I had the most fun EVER with this story. Except, I wasn’t prepared for the people who believed me.

So, I had to quickly develop a follow up line… Jennifer, what happened to your arm? “I used to wrestle alligators.” Wow, really? Yah, my record is 19 and one. 

Besides being entertaining, growing up one-handed has given me other gifts in the form of questions. Because I have had to find my own way to do things all my life, I have a different approach to life.

First of all, I never question that it can be done or that I can do it. Secondly, I always question whether the conventional way is the best way. And I’m not talking just about physical tasks. I’m the one at the board meeting that thinks outside of the box because I’ve been doing it my whole life.

Living life one-handed has taught me some valuable lessons.

  • It’s okay to wonder…but you don’t always have to ask.
  • If you feel you need to ask, consider the other person’s feelings.
  • And, if you take the time to get to know a person, what did or didn’t happen to them will be revealed. If you’re not interested in getting to know them as a fellow soul, you’re not entitled to know.

So, as I close, I want to leave you with a final Question…How has the last 5 minutes changed your perspective, and how will you treat people differently from now on? Now, that’s a question we all should ask!