Our Forgiveness Blog
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: The Importance of Admitting and Expressing One’s Painful Emotions in Everyday Life and When Forgiving
A Guest Blog by
Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.
A recent article in the New York Times discusses the importance of helping teens become comfortable with “uncomfortable emotions,” specifically the importance of helping them accept these feelings as well as express them in this time of great uncertainty and sadness. Written by psychologist Lisa Damour, the article notes that our typical style of helping teens cope with negative emotions is to either downplay such emotions, be cheerleaders to help teens stay positive, and/or encourage them to focus on being as productive as possible. Unfortunately, these methods are not always helpful and can teach teens to bury, ignore, or numb their uncomfortable feelings.
When I read Damour’s article, I couldn’t help but think of how similar the ideas of “admitting to and bearing the unpleasant feelings” are to the first phase in Dr. Robert Enright’s 20-unit Process Model of forgiveness, The Uncovering Phase. This phase focuses on uncovering negative feelings and thoughts related to one’s hurt and then dealing with the resulting feelings, such as anger, in a healthy way.
As with psychological health, there are misconceptions of forgiveness and what is involved when forgiving. One of the greatest misconceptions has to do with the role of anger and other negative emotions in the forgiveness process. Most people incorrectly assume that anger has no role when forgiving. (Freedman & Chang, 2010). This is not true, as recognizing, admitting to and expressing anger is one of the most important processes in the model (Enright, 2001). We cannot forgive until we admit to our anger and deal with it in a healthy way. Anger and sadness are normal and natural emotions when times are tough and after being deeply, personally and unfairly injured by another.
However, it is sometimes easier to deny, suppress, or ignore our pain and uncomfortable emotions, than actually deal with them. Dealing with our anger and other uncomfortable emotions means recognizing and admitting to them. Doing this takes courage and strength, especially in a society that often encourages sweeping these feelings under the rug. Admitting to these feelings allows us to express and move beyond them, rather than get stuck in them or hold them in until we explode, which can happen if we don’t deal with our anger and other uncomfortable feelings (Enright, 2001).
Teaching and helping teens to pay attention to their feelings and express them in a healthy way means giving them permission to feel sad, anxious, and insecure, when appropriate. We are currently experiencing a very difficult and scary period and validating teens for all their emotions, both positive and negative, is an important step in the development of good psychological health, just as it is an important step in the forgiveness process.
When people experience interpersonal hurts, validating them for their anger and other painful feelings allows them to ultimately move beyond them to consider the decision to forgive. Damour discusses how one’s emotional strength and resilience becomes greater as a result of dealing with difficult experiences and feelings. Coping with emotional pain in a healthy way, after experiencing a deep hurt, also helps individuals face future interpersonal injuries with more strength, as they are building their forgiveness muscle each time they forgive (Enright 2001).
Normalizing, as well as validating painful and uncomfortable feelings by teens and especially by those who have experienced deep hurt, will help them admit to and express these emotions. Doing so will increase their psychological health and confidence in dealing with future painful emotions and experiences. It will also help individuals who are working on the process of forgiveness to make progress in their journey.
According to Damour, helping teenagers understand that psychological health includes both positive and negative feelings will give them a freedom that they may not have experienced before in their emotional development. Forgiveness also leads to a feeling of freedom, as one works through and moves beyond their anger and other negative emotions.
Helping teens and those who have been hurt recognize and express their painful feelings, will not only show them that they can bear those uncomfortable feelings, but will give them a sense of hope for the future whether they are facing the darkest of times or the darkest of emotions.
Damour, L. (2020). Helping Teens Make Room for Uncomfortable Emotions, New York, Times, May 17.
Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Freedman, S. & Chang, W. C. (2010). An analysis of a sample of the general population’s understanding of forgiveness: Implications for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32 (1): 5–34.
About Dr. Suzanne Freedman: A professor of human development at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal with Incest Survivors.
Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest and sexual abuse, eating disorders, and early adolescent development. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and forgiveness education. At the University of Northern Iowa, she teaches a variety of development courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness. Dr. Freedman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
More Forgiveness Commentary from Dr. Freedman:
- Kids Say the Darndest Things — About Forgiveness
- The Impact of Using Children’s Literature to Teach 5th Graders About Forgiveness
- Forgiveness: The Path to Restoring Your Emotional and Physical Health After Sexual Abuse
- The “F Word” for Sexual Abuse Survivors: Is Forgiveness Possible?
- Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors
Who are you?
In Chapter 6 of the book, The Forgiving Life, Inez said,
“I am a person who has been emotionally wounded; who has stood up to injustice; who is a person worthy of respect and mercy; and who is special, unique, and irreplaceable and therefore cannot be and must not be shunned, disrespected, or thrown away.”
At the very core of your being, do you believe this about yourself? Are you a person of worth? Why or why not? Do you have to earn your worth or is it inherent in you—unearned, absolute, and unconditional? Are you a person who loves, even if imperfectly?
Even if you have a long way to go in developing agape love, you are on your way when you forgive others. As you love them (as best you can under the circumstances), please continue to see yourself more and more accurately—as someone who is capable of giving and receiving love and therefore someone who can do much good in this world.
You are a person of great worth.
There are more chapters for you to write with the help of others as you continue “My Unfolding Love Story.” Forgiveness is not finished with you yet. How will you lead your life from this point forward? It is your choice. When that story is finally written, what will the final chapters say about you?
The beauty of this story is that you are one of the contributing authors. You do not write it alone, of course, but with the help of those who encourage you, instruct and guide you, and even those who hurt you. You are never alone when it comes to your love story. It does not matter one little bit how the story was turning out before you embraced the virtue of forgiveness. What matters now is how you finish that story, how you start to live your life from this point forward.
Enright, Robert D. The Forgiving Life (APA LifeTools, 2012). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.
When you suffer from another’s injustice, if you quietly endure that suffering, you are giving a gift to those around you by not passing on anger, frustration, or even hatred to them. Too often, people tend to displace their own frustrations and angers onto unsuspecting others. These others, then, end up inheriting the original person’s internal wounds because this person refused to bear the pain him- or herself.
I am not saying here that it is good to shoulder psychological depression or unhealthy anger by being silent and keeping it all in. On the contrary, here is the point: What happened to you is now a reality. It did happen and you cannot change that. You have inherited a certain amount of pain from another person. What will you now do with that pain? Will you try to toss it onto someone else in the hope that it somehow leaves you? Or, will you accept that this hurtful event in fact happened and you will not now pass the pain down the line to others? Consider taking this perspective in bearing the pain:
“If I can shoulder this pain now, I will not be passing it on to other people, even innocent people who never had anything at all to do with the original offense. My anger could be transferred to innocent people and they, in turn, could pass on this anger to someone else, who passes it to someone else, and down the generations my anger goes. Do I want that? Do I want my anger to live on as it is transferred for many years to come? I can prevent this from happening as I decide, today, to bear the pain that came my way.
I will not call what happened to me ‘good.’ It was not. But I will do my best to shoulder it, and, paradoxically, that pain is likely to start lifting from my shoulders as I accept it now. This pain is not forever and my bearing the pain may help reduce it faster.”
Reminder: As you bear the pain of what happened to you, you may be protecting others and future generations from your anger.
Enright, Robert. 8 Keys to Forgiveness (8 Keys to Mental Health), excerpt from Chapter 6. W. W. Norton & Company.
A community is a single, whole entity, with a common purpose, made up of persons, each of whom is a single, whole entity (Maritain, 1994). A community is not simply the sum total of the individuals in the community (a nominalist view). Think of a symphonic community of musicians. There is a harmony of persons performing different activities and with different talents in the orchestra. The group transcends any given part of the group (Wild, 1948). A symphony orchestra is more than the violin section only. Communities differ in their norms, beliefs, and actions (what Aristotle calls accidents).
Aristotelian realist philosophy states that communities have a common good (Aristotle, 1999/340 B.C.). A common good is defined by Plato (2015/330 B.C.) in The Republic as persons growing in the Cardinal Virtues of justice, courage, wisdom, and temperance with these emphasized within the group. These four virtues, in Plato’s view, are not generated by opinion or feelings, but they naturally apply to all persons and all communities. These are understood by reason and chosen by the free will of each person. In other words, the Cardinal Virtues are not forced upon us.
Let us, then, define these Cardinal Virtues: 1) Justice is offering one’s best to others and the community. Kreeft (1992, p. 60) describes Platonic justice through the poetic image of music: one strives to be in harmony with others as all cooperate and play a beautiful societal tune. This is the central virtue according to Plato in The Republic.
is going ahead despite fear so that one can do one’s best even when it is difficult to do so. 3) Wisdom is knowing the right response at the right time without having a rule-book nearby. 4) Temperance is balance, avoiding too much or too little in all we do, including practicing the virtues, in pleasure seeking, and work. In Book IV of his Republic, Plato (2015/330 B.C.) defends the view that all four of these Cardinal Virtues, together, help to mature individuals and to have a well-functioning community in which the greater good then benefits all.
As Wild (1948, p. 185) clarifies, the goal of the common good is human perfection for all in the community. The common good of the community, which includes the good of each person, is considered higher than the individual good. In other words, individuals can be in service to one another for the good of the other person and the good of the group.
Now, and importantly for how forgiveness fits into the common good of the community, when people are treated unjustly by others, anger can ensue, which can develop into irritability (Stringaris, Vidal-Ribas, Brotman, & Leibenluft, 2017) and even to hatred. Forgiving those who are unjust, then, can first reduce the anger, which in turn can reduce the desire for excessive recompense (in the case of justice), and the desire for reckless bravado (in the case of courage). Without hatred, temperance can be restored, and the clear, rational thinking of wisdom can once again be present. If the common good is to be just, to work in harmony with others, then forgiveness can keep justice in balance, by first reducing toxic anger, and thus preserving the central Cardinal Virtue (justice) in communities. If this is true, then forgiveness needs to play a central part in the common good of communities.
If this is true, then forgiveness needs to be fostered in individuals, families, schools, workplaces, and places of worship……now.
- Aristotle. (1999/340 B.C.). Nicomachean ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Kreeft, P. (1992). Back to virtue. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
- Maritan, J. (1994). The person and the common good. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
- Plato, translated by B. Jowett (2015/approximately 330 BC). The complete works of Plato/ the republic. Hastings, East Sussex, United Kingdom: Delphi Classics.
- Stringaris, A., Vidal-Ribas, P., Brotman, M.A., & Leibenluft, E. (2017). Practitioner review: Definition, recognition, and treatment challenges of irritability in young people. Journal of Child Psychology, 59, 721-739.
- Wild, J. (1948). Introduction to realistic philosophy. New York: Harper & Row.
One of the paradoxes of forgiveness is that as we give mercy to those who showed no mercy to us, we are doing moral good. Another paradox is this: As we bear the pain of the injustice, that pain does not crush us but instead strengthens us and helps us to heal emotionally.
When we bear the pain of what happened to us, we are not absorbing depression or anger or anxiety. Instead we realize that we have been treated unfairly—-it did happen. We do not run from that and we do not try to hurriedly cast off the emotional pain that is now ours. We quietly live with that pain so that we do not toss it back to the one who hurt us (because we are having mercy on that person). We live with that pain so that we do not displace the anger onto others who were not even part of the injustice (our children or co-workers, for example).
When we bear the pain we begin to see that we are strong, stronger actually than the offense and original pain. We can stand with the pain and in so doing become conduits of good for others.
Today, let us acknowledge our pain and practice a paradox: Let us quietly bear that pain and then watch it lift.