Forgiveness

Forgiveness as Coping

 

 

Coping strategies vary according to the variety of adverse life experiences.  One particular kind of painful ordeal comes when you are wronged, hurt, or attacked by another person.  The injury could be physical, sexual, mental, or emotional.  It may involve an insult, an offense, or a betrayal.  It appears that the natural first inclination of human beings to such injuries is to respond in such a manner as to reciprocate harm.  The two other typical responses are a desire to avoid the person or to seek revenge.  Obviously, such responses breed negative consequences.

Forgiveness is the one act we can commit that can disrupt the cycle of avoidance and revenge in which we often find ourselves.

Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  It is not the re-establishment of a relationship with the transgressor.  Forgiveness is not a pardon, which implies justifying, minimizing, or tolerating the victimization or hurt.  Forgiveness does not mean excusing, which offers extenuating circumstances.  “Forgive and forget” is a misnomer since forgiving does not involve a decaying of memory for the event.  In fact, truly forgiving someone involves contemplating the injury at some length.

 

How do you know when you have forgiven?

 

You have forgiven when you have experienced a shift in your thinking, such that your desire to harm that person has decreased and your desire to do him good has increased.  You have forgiven when you open your heart to find the good in the other and act like a friend in spite of their flaws.

 

Why Forgive?

Clinging to bitterness or hate harms you more than the object of our hatred.  Empirical research confirms this insight: Forgiving people are less likely to be hateful, depressed, hostile, anxious, angry, and neurotic.   They are more likely to be happier, healthier, more agreeable, and more serene.  They are better able to empathize with others, forgive hurts in relationships, and reestablish closeness.  Finally, the inability to forgive is associated with persistent rumination or dwelling on revenge while forgiving allows a person to move on.

In a marriage, a subtle way in which forgiveness is shown to be wanting is the relative percentage of giving and getting you practice.  If there is a high degree of focus on what you get from your partner as opposed to what you give, then there is a relative lack of concern for your partner’s well being.  A healthy intention means that we focus on what we get to give not what we get in our marriage.  In order to keep this intention alive on a daily basis we must practice forgiveness.

 

Ways of Practicing Forgiveness

 

Appreciate being forgiven.  Recall a time that you did harm to another person.  If those individuals forgave you, how did they communicate it to you and how did you respond?  Do you think they benefited from forgiving you?  Did the experience teach you anything or change you in any way?  What insights do you have about the experience right now?  This exercise will help you see the benefits of forgiving and perhaps provide a model for your own forgiving.

Another way to appreciate being forgiven is to seek forgiveness for you.  Write a letter of apology, for either a past or present wrong.  Recognize and accept that you are sometimes the transgressor so as to give yourself insight into people who are transgressors in your life against you.

In marriage, a common pattern that develops due to the daily intimacy of living together is to sometimes experience the other’s actions as personal insults.  We then blame the other for our bad feelings that occur.  We create a grievance story, which we rehearse, that then serves to close down our hearts and make us feel vengeful.

If this pattern belongs to you consider asking for forgiveness (in your letter) by emphasizing that you chose the person you are married to.  Second, admit that you are flawed and so is your partner and consequently, problems will occur.  Third, acknowledge the good qualities of the one who caused you pain.  The latter is the human predicament: we all want love and choose from a flawed position someone who is also flawed.

 

Imagine Forgiveness

Identify a particular person who you blame for mistreating or offending you.  Then engage in an imagination exercise during which you consider the following in order to grant forgiveness.

Understanding.  What were the person’s motives for acting the way they did?  What needs were they acting on?  What emotions do you think were behind the person’s actions?

Empathy.  Make up a story about the transgressor that might explain why he acted the way he did.  Recall a time when you were motivated by similar needs.

Acceptance.  What prevents you from moving on and accepting the situation for what it is?  How would accepting the event as something negative that happened and is done with benefit you?  Would the altruistic gift of forgiveness hurt you?  How?

Forgiveness.  Granting forgiveness does not necessarily imply excusing or tolerating the offender’s behavior, but it does entail trying to let go of your hurt, anger, and hostility and adopting a more charitable and benevolent perspective.  While doing this imagining, make an effort to consider your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in detail.  The practice of empathetic and forgiving thoughts (as compared with nursing grudges and wallowing in painful memories) leads people to feel a greater sense of control over their thoughts, less sadness and anger, and less reactivity to stress.

 

Write a letter of Forgiveness

This exercise involves letting go of anger, bitterness, and blame by writing, but not sending, a letter of forgiveness to a person who has hurt or wronged you.  Consider the people throughout your life who have injured you or abused you and whom you have never forgiven.  Does this experience, and the lack of forgiveness lead you to persist in dwelling on the person or the circumstances of the hurt?  Does it keep you from feeling happy and free of intrusive images and thoughts?  If the answer is yes then consider writing a letter of forgiveness.

The letter of forgiveness can be one of the most powerful interventions you can possibly make on behalf of your heart.  In it describe in detail the injury or offense that was done to you.  Illustrate how you were affected by it at the time and how you continue to be hurt by it.  State what you wish the other person had done instead.  End with an explicit statement of forgiveness and understanding (i.e., “I realize how that what you did was the best you could do at the time, and I forgive you”).

 

Below are some real life examples from a variety of people:

  • I forgive my father for his anger
  • I forgive my friend for using me
  • I forgive my graduate professor for telling me I couldn’t speak as well as I write
  • I forgive my wife for not being there for me when I was depressed
  • I forgive my brother for committing suicide

 

You may have a hard time writing a forgiveness letter.  You may take the position that the act is unforgivable or that you are so overwhelmed by the event that you can’t even begin to think of letting go.  If this is the case, put the project aside and try again in a few weeks.  Forgiveness is a strategy that actually takes a great deal of effort, willpower, and courage.  It must be practiced.

Another strategy to help you overcome a block in writing a forgiveness letter is to learn about other people who have successfully forgiven.  I once interviewed a mother whose child was murdered.  She eventually became a death penalty protester outside the gates of San Quentin Prison.  She is a kind of beacon much like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King, Jr.  Others can teach us about this strength that can often seem out of reach.

 

Practice Empathy

Empathy is the vicarious experience of another person’s emotions and thoughts.  It often involves feeling sympathy, concern, compassion, or even warmth for that individual.

One way to practice empathy in your daily life is to notice every time someone does something you do not understand.  Stop and think.  Try to imagine such a person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions.  Why did he behave the way he did?  If possible ask him yourself.  You will learn something.

 

Make Charitable Attributions

A key factor that facilitates forgiveness is positive attributions about the transgressor.  An effective way to generate these attributions is to write a letter you would like to receive from the transgressor in response to your forgiveness of her…. her apology letter.  What explanations might she offer for her conduct?  Do you buy the explanation?  Do you find it reasonable and adequate?  Would you give her the “benefit of the doubt”?  As you right down her responses to you, you may feel your perception of the situation shifting.

Why are apologies so helpful in fostering forgiveness?  They produce empathy.  They humanize.  When the person who has caused you pain apologizes they are showing you a side of them that is vulnerable and imperfect.  Perhaps they made a big mistake.  Perhaps they underestimated the harm.  Perhaps they were motivated by more benign intentions.  No matter what, you wind up seeing the situation more from the other’s perspective.  This makes forgiveness a lot easier.

 

Ruminate Less

People who brood on or obsess over a transgression are more likely to hold on the their hurt and anger and less motivated to forgive.  You probably know how these kinds of ruminations feel.  You go over (and over) the event in your mind. You feel angrier and angrier, more resentful, humiliated, and mistreated.  You plot what you want to say or do to the person who has hurt you.  The original event grows and grows in your mind.  There is no end in sight.

Some people feel that this kind of imagination exercise is a kind of healthy catharsis.  A long history of research has shown that this thinking is dead wrong.  Fantasizing about how you might physically or verbally cause pain to someone may make you immediately feel better or release some tension, but it actually increases rather than releases hostility.   This is because each time you remember the offense, you trigger all over again the old feelings of hurt, blame, antagonism, and rage.

If images of an offense become intrusive in our daily life you need to deal with them head on.  Utilize distraction techniques (immediately diverting our attention to another thought) or just say, “Stop!”  Ceasing the rumination is the first step towards forgiveness.

 

Make Contact

Sometimes it is appropriate and healthy to send a letter of forgiveness.  The act of writing the letter and believing in it is something you do for yourself.  Communicating that act is something you do to benefit the other person and your relationship to them.  The risk is that it may backfire.  Be prepared.  Also know that communicating forgiveness might end up restoring your relationship and ultimately bring you more joy than you could have imagined.  Only you will know whether to send that letter or not.  The alternative is simply to be kind to the person you have forgiven.

 

Don Crowe, PhD

7/1/11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted on November 23, 2012, in Mental Health. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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