Ask Dr. Forgiveness

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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Once I forgive, can the feeling of anger return? If it does, do I have to start forgiving this same person for this same injustice all over again?

Not only might anger return after you forgive, it is likely and so please do not be thrown by this when it happens. We are imperfect and so we forgive imperfectly.

When Suzanne Freedman and I studied incest survivors who forgave their perpetrators, one important observation that we eventually made was that the courageous incest survivors, once they had forgiven, did not have high scores on the forgiveness inventory which we gave to them. Instead, they tended to get average (not outstanding) scores on forgiveness. Yet, this was sufficient for them to become emotionally healed (depression and anxiety were significantly reduced and self-esteem and hope for the future significantly rose). They still had some anger, but it was not unhealthy anger, the kind that can poison a person’s psychological insides.

Do you have to start over again if the anger returns? It depends on whether or not the anger is now the unhealthy kind (causing you to lose energy and sleep and making you irritable in your relationships) or whether it is healthy anger (motivating you to do good in the world). If it seems to be unhealthy anger, then, yes, start the process of forgiveness again with this same person and same injustice. In all likelihood, your second time forgiving may be easier and quicker than the first; the third time easier and quicker than the second.

To have to persevere in forgiving is not dishonorable nor is it a sign of failure. Instead it is a sign of courage and perseverance in the face of difficulty.

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