Archive for December, 2022
I have a friend who is constantly saying that he is “transcending his anger.” In other words, when he feels angry, he stays in the moment, observes the anger without reacting to it, and then it goes away. He says that forgiveness is not necessary as a way of dealing with his anger. What is your opinion of this as an approach to rid oneself of angry feelings?
If the anger is temporary and likely will fade on its own, then patience and being aware of that anger may be antidotes to the current unpleasant feelings, including his response of not behaviorally reacting to the anger. On the other hand, if the anger is caused by the injustices of others and if that anger has been with him for weeks or months or even years, then this kind of awareness and “staying in the moment” likely is not curing the anger. In other words, his “transcending his anger” is a short-term adjustment to the anger, but when he is not practicing this “transcendence” the anger may be resurfacing. It is under such circumstances that forgiving (presuming he was deeply hurt by others’ injustice) may add to the healing of the current anger. I say this because forgiveness does not just manage the anger in the present moment. Instead, forgiveness can actually reduce the anger to manageable levels and keep it away.
Suppose someone makes a mistake without deliberately trying to be unfair. Can I forgive this person or does there have to be deliberate intention on that person’s part to act with malice?
You can discern an unjust action, according to the Medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, by examining three things: the act itself, the intention, and the circumstance. If a person, for example, disrespects you (the action), decided to disrespect you (the intention), and did so in front of others, which embarrassed you (the circumstance), then it is obvious that this person tried to hurt you and you can forgive this person. Now suppose that someone had no intention of hurting you, such as failing to show up for an important meeting (the action). Suppose further that the circumstance was such that this person became quite ill right before the meeting. Only the action was challenging for you, but the intention was to attend the meeting and the circumstance was sudden illness. This seems to me to be a case of accepting what happened, not a case of forgiveness for most people. Now suppose as another example that a driver was texting on a cell phone (the act), did not at all mean to hit your car (the intention), but indeed did hit your car (the circumstance). Even though there was no intention to harm you, the action itself of inattentive driving can sometimes have a bad outcome, as happened in this case. The action is so serious that even without intent to harm, this is an unjust offense and so your going ahead with forgiving is appropriate. In other words, you can forgive a person who had no intention of harming you.
I recall that there was a quotation from Aaron Beck on the back cover of your first book for mental health professionals, Helping Clients Forgive. I no longer have that book cover. Would you please restate Dr. Beck’s quotation for me? It had to do with Forgiveness Therapy being stronger than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy when people are treated very unjustly by others.
Yes, I can provide that. Here is Dr. Aaron Beck’s quote on the back cover of the book, Helping Clients Forgive, by Enright and Fitzgibbons (2000): “Anger and the wish to punish a family member or friend for past grievances often remain resistant to the most useful cognitive-behavioral approaches. In this volume, Enright and Fitzgibbons show how forgiveness can help to finalize past resentment and allow people to lay their past grievances to rest. This is essential reading for anyone working with patients, as well as for those people who cannot relinquish past hurts.”
I am in graduate school studying to be a mental health professional. Held in high regard is the issue of insight. The point is to break down the psychological defenses so that the person now is aware of what is causing the anger or the anxiety or the discontent. How does forgiveness compare and contrast to the call for insight?
In our Process Model of Forgiveness, we have four phases. The first phase asks the client, when that client is ready, to see the amount of anger in the heart, caused by other people’s unfairness. There is more to this phase than just this, but my point is that we do make room, lots of room in fact, to explore the psychological defenses and to gradually see how current and persistent anger is connected to unfairness toward the client that might have occurred many years ago. Yet, awareness or what you are calling insight is only the beginning of Forgiveness Therapy. In other words, as a person now sees the depth of anger, what does the person now do to get rid of that anger? We find that insight is not enough. It is in deliberately reaching out to those who acted unfairly with the moral virtue of forgiveness, this has a way of softening the heart and thus reducing the anger to manageable levels. In other words, when deeply hurt by others, the inner trauma is not reduced to an important degree without forgiveness, which the client must freely choose for the self.
What advice can you offer to me about the following frustrating situation: I have forgiven my partner, offering compassion and empathy toward her. She was insensitive to me on several occasions when she was under deep stress at work. She is convinced that other people cannot know her own private world and so empathy, in her view, is unreachable. In other words, my words of empathy are hollow for her. What do you suggest that I do? I ask because she seems to think that true forgiveness, involving empathy, is impossible.
This is a very interesting situation. I say that because I have not encountered a situation like this until you brought it up. If she thinks that you cannot know her inner world, even though you are convinced that you are able to do this to a degree, then you might try a different approach. Instead of using words that suggest you have empathy for her inner world, try to focus instead on her behavior and circumstances, not to excuse her behavior but to put it in the context of her recent challenges when she hurt you. She should be able to see that you are able to concretely observe the behaviors and circumstance that increased her stress and likely contributed to her insensitive remarks. She then should be able to understand that you are viewing her as a valuable person who is more than the insensitivities she has shown to you.