FORGIVENESS: WHY AND HOW

© Paschal Baute, 1993-1997

I do not recall forgiveness being mentioned in graduate school, either in psychology or in marriage and family therapy. But soon afterwards I began to discover while working with many persons and couples, that anger, hurt, resentment and forgiveness were key issues. What I have been discovering with my corporate clients, is that, no matter how much leadership ro management training they have had, the key competency that 99% still lack is conflict resolution and the ability to deal effectively with anger. Furthermore, without those skills, productivity gets sabotaged. So I have been developing materials and teaching courses in these matters.

Very few people know how to apologize, while fewer still know how to accept an apology. Since we are human and make mistakes, an important skill is knowing how to apologize. Four rules are recommended: 1) as soon as possible. The longer you wait the harder it is because the more you can imagine ways your apology might be turned against you. 2) Be specific about the behavior you are apologizing for, not like a Washington politician: "If I did anything wrong..." Rather "When you...when I...I did not think... take time... etc. describing the specific behavior; 3) Tell your feelings about the event and your feelings now. "I am embarrassed to think about how thoughtless that was..." and 4) Tell how that is not like your usual or typical behavior, so you end by affirming yourself. Secondly, when accepting an apology: Do not say: I am glad you finally see your mistake, or Itís about time, or I am still hurting... and other shoot-from-the-hip statements that aggravate the tension. So, if you can honestly do so, either simply "okay, letís get on with our work (life, relationship, whatever), or better, "I am sorry for my part also."

A good definition of forgiveness, by psychologist Robert Enright is "giving up the resentment to which you are entitled, and offering to the persons who hurt you friendlier attitudes to which they are not entitled." Those who refuse to forgive carry the "ghost" of the hurtful person and give away their own power to this memory. Without doubt, those with whom one chooses to remain angry will continue to control one, even when and particularly when one denies this is so. Those who have not resolved conflicts with family members will carry that garbage into their current relationships even though they may be blind to the fact. I have seen it repeatedly. Whatever is repressed is bound to be repeated. Resentment limits oneís emotional, physical and spiritual development. I was a consultant to several therapeutic communities in the federal prison system. Those who most filled with resentment were the most stuck and the least able to change. It was as if they looked out at the world through piss-colored glasses. They were ready to be "pissed" even sought for occasions, because that fault-finding allowed them to refuse to look at their own attitudes and continue rationalizing any and all anti-social behavior. Many ordinary people because they do not possess good conflict resolution skills have a tendency to sulk, that is, look for and collect small "neglects" and presumed injustices. Behind such attitudes are seven myths:

1) forgiving is the same as forgetting. 3) forgiving is the same as excusing; 3) forgiving is the same as reconciling, 4) forgiving makes you weak; 5) forgiving is an act or a decision; 5) forgiving makes you more vulnerable to the same or another person, and 7) forgiving depends upon the instigator acknowledging the wrongful behavior. All of these are common misconceptions, and none of them are true.

Forgiving is not the same as forgetting. One will never forget some things, but this does not mean you need to dwell on it. Forgiving is not the same as excusing, because you are not excusing the behavior or pretending that it did not hurt. Forgiving does not in fact require reconciling, although that may be a desirable outcome. Forgiving does not make you weak because it requires personal courage and actually makes you stronger and a better person. Forgiving is not an act--it is a process, and some forgiving may take a long time. If the hurt is from a family member or a personal betrayal, forgiving may need prayer and a lot of it. The last myth or misconeption is the greatest impasse. Most feel that they cannot forgive until the other has made some move to recognize the harm done. This is not true. They may not recognize or admit the harm, so this admission is not essential for healing. Forgiving is 100% the responsibility of the injured party because it is only your own behavior that you can control. The most important truth here is that forgiving is for your own sake, even if the other does not ask for forgiveness or admit any wrong. It is for your health, your wellness and future openness to life.

People who nurture revenge are liable to increased heart rate and blood pressure. A study at Harvard School of Public Health found that men who scored highest on an anger scale were three times more likely to develop heart disease over a seven year period than low scorers. These negative outcomes from held anger have been repeated a number of times. It is plausible that those who forgave were less depressed and anxious, slept better, and were free from obsessive thoughts and also from revenge fantasies.

Ken Keyes noted that we create the world in which we live: "The world tends to be your mirror. A peaceful person lives in a peaceful world. An angry person creates an angry world. ..An unfriendly persons should not be surprised when he/she meets only people who sooner or late respond in an unfriendly way." quoted in Love, Not Fear.

About eight years ago I developed a handout listing steps necessary for forgiveness, and added one more in 1994. Here they are:

  1. Accept that the present situation is not a happy one for you, and that if there is to be any change, you alone must make it first. Further, that you have no direct control over the other's thinking, feeling or behavior.

  2. Recognize that there are great differences in perceptions, that we are blind to how we impact others, and that we all tend to idealize ourselves.

  3. Remember that you are an imperfect human being: blind to yourself & not knowing it. You are probably more self-centered than you can ever see yourself. We all are. You had some part in whatever happened. Your halo was probably off-kilter some way. The easiest thing in the world is to blame.

  4. Some expression of your anger or hurt to someone may be either useful or necessary for the process to get started well. The listener does not need to be the offending person but should be one who can truly empathize yet be objective, not just agree with you, but also challenge you to reframe it!

  5. Realize that forgiveness is for YOUR sake, that holding on to resentments is more hurtful to you than anyone else. It keeps you from living fully in the present--the only moment in which we can live peacefully and free of the past negatives.

  6. Understand that holding a grudge can give you a secret power and sense of superiority over others. Dwelling or sucking on hurt or pain can make one feel quite "special." Many persons actually prefer holding on to resentments because of the hidden "fringe benefits" or payoffs. Examine what your possible pay-offs may be: the victim or martyr role offers diverse benefits. List some!

  7. Examine whether the good points of the other person outweigh their faults even though you feel you were treated badly. Reflect upon this: "Will you feel better or become a better person by trying to improve the relationship?"

  8. Comprehend that forgiving is NOT forgetting or condoning. "Because I can't forget I can't forgive" is an alibi & not true, that forgiving is simply a decision not to dwell or suck on the hurt. The key is to keep refusing to ruminate. This is a decision that may need to be made repeatedly, for as often as necessary, "seventy times seven"..."Forgive us as we forgive..."

  9. Be aware that forgiveness is, believe it or not, 100% your responsibility, and that you DO NOT really need the other person to admit that they were wrong. Waiting until they admit wrong keeps YOU stuck in the past. Many crucify themselves between two thieves of regret (or resentment) and guilt, then believe that others or the "world" has done it to them.

  10. Be willing to learn whatever is helpful or necessary to leave the past to the past. There are some psychological techniques...Be willing to discover what your own hidden compulsion is. Address your own interpersonal impact, with some serious self-study.

  11. For the person of some Christian belief, deep, profound hurts from a close family member may take regular, sustained prayer even for a long period of time, in order to forgive. Our wounded ego or hurt pride may not yield except through divine grace, and bringing my will into God's loving kindness. Some hurts are so deep that they require patient prayer and time to heal.

  12. For the Buddhist, the remedy is the regular practice of meditation, mindfulness, letting go of attachments, the discerning that suffering is an inevitable part of human life, and the attainment of compassion for all creatures. Attachment to one's own views is seen as the source of all pain.

  13. If you have the courage, seeking feedback from the other person can be an occasion for considerable increase in self-awareness, some insight and possible reconciliation. Begin by saying: "I'm sorry for my part..."

  14. Regardless of whether the other person responds or changes, the final step is to keep on willing love and goodness to them, wishing the best for them.

Paschalís other articles (one or two page handouts) related to this subject are: Guide for Dealing with Your Own Anger; Ready Guide for Dealing with Angry People; Passive-Aggressive Anger; Caring Confrontation; You Donít Fight Fair! How to Fight Fair (DISC Temperament differences) Four Basic Hidden Patterns in Stress/conflict; Embracing Criticism; Helpful Feedback: criteria for giving; Seven Steps for Conflict Resolution; How Men and Women Drive Each Other crazy. Ask for list of 180 handouts developed for clients, counselors and trainers in human relations. He has also developed two training modules: Ten Cardinal Rules for Dealing with Angry Clients, Citizens, and Teammates, and Conflict Resolution Skills for teams. These are sold with permission to copy and use in your own setting.

Institute for Human Responsiveness, Inc. 6200 Winchester Road, Lexington, KY 40509-9520, tel 606-293-5302, Email Pbbaute@aol.com

 

A further reference on forgiveness is Dr. Robert Enright, PO box 6153. Madison WI 53716-0153 608-222-0241. Email enright@itis.com




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