Ask Dr. Forgiveness

How strong does a person have to be to forgive? It seems to me that it takes strength, maybe too much strength, to forgive someone who has been profoundly unfair. It almost seems unfair to expect forgiveness under this circumstance. Forgiveness asks too much of a person.

This question shows remarkable insight. We humans can get very enthusiastic about a new diet or a new exercise program or any other kind of discipline, only to fade out after a few weeks. To forgive one person may not take a great deal of will power to complete because the forgiver is focused, is doing something novel (and what is novel usually holds our attention if the activity is worthwhile), and is helpful to the forgiver. Yet, what of the second or third or tenth forgiveness attempt? It is here that we need what I call in my book, The Forgiving Life, a strong will–the kind of will that stays at the task even when it is hard to do so. At the same time, we should not continue the forgiveness journey (the second, and third, and tenth forgiveness effort) alone. We need a workout buddy. We need support. Try to find another or others who will support you and whom you can support in the forgiveness effort. Then your will can be bolstered, made stronger, by the other’s strong will and vice versa. It takes this kind of will to be physically fit. It takes this kind of will to be forgivingly fit.

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I have done a lot of forgiving in my time. There is one person whom I just can???t seem to forgive. I am very hard on her. The problem is that this person is me. How can I forgive myself? Any hints on this would be greatly appreciated.

You are not alone when you say it is hardest to forgive yourself. Most of us are harder on ourselves than on others. So, welcome to a large and not-so-exclusive club.

The pathway to forgiving oneself is actually not that different from forgiving other people. That pathway, of forgiving others, is discussed in detail in the book,??Forgiveness Is a Choice.??I recommend that book because the forgiveness pathway described there has the most scientific support of any forgiveness model out there.

OK, now to self-forgiveness. When you forgive yourself, the complication is that you are both an offended person and an offender. At the very least, you have offended yourself, you have broken your own standard in what you did or said. And, I might add, we rarely offend ourselves in isolation.

So, a first step may be to go to those whom you have offended and say you are sorry and ask for forgiveness. Please realize that those whom you approach may or may not be ready to give the gift of forgiveness. Thus, please be patient and understanding.

A second step then is to offer to yourself in forgiveness what you offer to others when you forgive them—compassion, gentleness, understanding, and love. Yes, even love. Give yourself permission, as an imperfect person, to love yourself despite what you did to offend yourself.

You are larger than your actions and words. You are more important than only your unjust words and actions, as is every person in the world. Allow this perspective toward yourself to gently wash over you until you believe it. This is the essence of self-forgiveness.

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I have heard the term ???false forgiveness,??? but I am not sure what it is and how can I make a clear distinction between the false variety and the real thing?

False forgiveness in essence is not about a moral response to someone who has hurt you. It is more about power than leveling the moral playing field (seeing the other and the self as precious, unique, special, and irreplaceable). There are two kinds of power-plays that someone practicing false forgiveness might show: 1) dominating the other person by constantly reminding him or her that, indeed, you have forgiven….and plan to do so tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that. You keep the other under your thumb by reminding them of how noble you are and how ignoble they are; 2) being dominated by the other person by giving in to unreasonable demands, hastily reconciling, letting the other have power over you. True forgiveness is gently and kind, honoring the humanity of the other person and the self. It does not dominate or allow others to dominate in a relationship.

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How do I know when I have truly forgiven someone? Sometimes I am still angry after I have worked through the process of forgiveness. Can you help me know when I have truly forgiven?

This is an important question precisely because many people hold onto at least a residual of anger when they recall deep injustices against them. Having some anger left over after you forgive is normal and not a sign of unforgiveness—-if—if the anger is not so intense that it is dominating your life. Is your anger controlling you or are you in control of your anger? If the latter, then take heart, you are probably on the road to forgiveness, especially if you have committed to ???do no harm??? back to the one who hurt you. Some of the best wisdom I have heard regarding when a person has truly forgiven comes from the late-great Lewis Smedes in his book, Forgive and Forget. He says that if you wish the other well, then you have forgiven. As a point of clarification, you need not wish the person well as your boss now or as your boyfriend now if reconciliation is not possible. As you wish the other well as a person, you have entered into the spirit of forgiveness.

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What happens when someone is repressing the memory of a grave injustice. For example, if a woman was molested as a child, and she cannot remember the incident. How can she ever forgive and be emotionally freed from this?

The unconscious mind is a difficult aspect of human psychology and it is the quality of our unconscious mind, unaccessible as it is to us, that has prompted this question. There indeed are aspects of the self that some people do not remember, especially if there has been trauma.

We can repress the memory. Repression is like shutting off the light so that you no longer can read a journal entry, forgetting its contents. Repression is a form of psychological defense against anxiety and is not necessarily a bad thing in the short-run if we need to re-group in order to move ahead in life. Yet, if there is unresolved trauma and we do not deal with it, this can be like the pebble in the shoe—a constant low-grade annoyance that will not let us rest. Sometimes it can cause great distress and we have no clue why we are feeling distress.

My best advice on this fascinating question is this: Deal directly with the deep hurts that are accessible to you. Forgive as best you can. Then be vigilant in asking the question, when you are ready, “But what else is in my past that has hurt me?” As you gain both strength through forgiving and proficiency in the forgiveness process, this can engender in you a confidence that you will not be overcome by traumatic injustices. This further aids you in lowering—slowly and across time—the psychological defenses such as a rigid repression that block the memory.

As a person, for example, forgives her father for Injustice A, B, and C, eventually she may be ready to tackle the issue of sexual abuse. Having confronted injustice that may have surrounded the sexual abuse and having grown in confidence that she will not be crushed by her own anger, that which is unconscious may become subconscious (just below the level of consciousness). It is here that fleeting aspects of that repressed memory may enter into consciousness, allowing the person to finally confront the abuse.

One more point involves false memory. It can happen that a person thinks he or she was abused and this is not the case. This, then, becomes a horrendous injustice against the accused. The false memory is centered on unhealthy anger, now displaced inappropriately onto someone who does not deserve it. The practice of forgiveness for genuine injustices against those who truly have been unjust to us can reduce unhealthy anger, making the displacement of anger into a false memory less likely.

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