Ask Dr. Forgiveness

How should I respond to some one to whom I have asked forgiveness for wrong doings, says that I have been forgiven, but constantly reminds me of my wrong doing?

There are two basic reasons why someone would remind you of the wrongdoing: 1) The person is now interested in helping you correct a behavior still in need of correction, or 2) He or she is still quite angry, despite the proclamation of forgiveness.

With regard to point #1, I ask you to examine your behaviors to see if the ones that led to your seeking forgiveness are still present. If so, then the person’s reminders are charitable, intended to help you change.

Yet, you used the word “constantly,” which suggests to me that point #2 is actually operating here, not point #1. If this is the case, then you have to approach the person with the understanding that he or she might think forgiveness was offered to you, but it has not been offered in any complete form. Perhaps the person has taken some important steps in this direction, and I urge you to try to see this first if it is the case. Then, with this perspective (that the person might at least be trying to forgive you), I recommend the following:

1) When he or she brings up the transgression again, you should work on forgiving the person first before approaching him or her.

2) When you approach the person, you could say something like this, “I notice that you forgive me for what I did, but you keep bringing it up. This is making it hard for me to move on in a dignified way. Is it possible that you are still angry with what I did? Is it possible that you need to forgive me more deeply?”

If he or she has anger left over, please be ready for a response that could be defensive (“Oh, no, I am not angry any more”) or confrontational (“What do you mean? You are too sensitive.”) In either of these cases, you may need to practice forgiving this person for the continued anger and his or her inconsistent message of forgiveness. You may have to repeat this pattern for a little while: forgive, approach the person gently about the issue, forgive again, and approach again.

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Are people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder human?

There are certain psychological disorders which some people exhibit, making it very difficult to interact with them. The Narcissistic Personality Disorder is one of these. It is considered to be a chronic state of self-absorption. Some of the symptoms that go into the diagnosis include these: extreme reaction to criticism such as excessive humiliation or even rage; takes advantage of others to achieve his or her goals; excessive preoccupation with beauty and ideal love or power and success; has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment (the others in his or her life, for example, are expected not to show any anger whatsoever); and disregards the feelings of others.

Living or working with someone who consistently shows these symptoms is a challenge. You are probably demeaned for small things and you have to guard against believing the false accusations against you as true. This requires standing in the truth of who you are as a person and seeing the distortions that the other person has. Because the narcissistic patterns are consistent, you are faced with consistent challenges.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to slip into the incorrect thought that the other is not human. The struggle is to work on seeing the inherent worth of this person, not because of what he or she has done, but in spite of this. I recommend that you read pages 179-182 in my new book, The Forgiving Life. It will help you see the truth about this person, who in all likelihood is deeply hurting. He or she is human. Your struggle now is to see this, to see beyond the frustrating behaviors. Your forgiving the person will help you to see his or her humanity.

I further urge you to read this section of the book and apply it directly to yourself. Sometimes we start to devalue ourselves because of the constant criticism given out by someone suffering in this way.

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There was a rash of strong tornadoes in the Midwestern United States last week. Is it appropriate to encourage children, who become frightened by such serious natural disasters, to forgive such weather events? I am thinking that forgiveness might reduce anger and calm the children when they think of these dangerous weather conditions.

In your asking this question, I can see that your intentions are honorable toward children. You are trying to find a way to reduce their anxiety. Yet, we do not want to distort what forgiveness is for the sake of people’s comfort. Forgiveness occurs when a person has been treated unjustly by other people. Weather events cannot act unjustly for obvious reasons; they do not have motivations to act in morally good or bad ways; they do not have free will. Thus, no weather event, no inanimate object can do moral wrong and so it cannot be the target of forgiveness. Instead of asking the children to forgive in such circumstances, I recommend that you work with them to accept what happened. Acceptance might also calm the nerves. By not introducing forgiveness in this context you are preserving its true meaning for when a child does have to forgive another person.

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To forgive is to substitute a happy feeling for a sad and angry feeling, it seems to me. As long as you can do that, then you are forgiving the person. What do you think of this?

You seem to have part of the essence of forgiveness correct and yet there is more depth to it. When a person goes through the process of forgiveness, then he or she (usually slowly) transforms negative emotions (anger, discouragement, resentment) into more positive ones (happiness, joy, love). Because this is a process that can take time, we probably should not use the word “substitute” to describe the emotional transformation because “substitute” sounds as if we just quickly switch out one set of emotions for another.

Besides a transformation of emotions, the forgiver transforms thoughts from negative to more positive and behaviors also to the more positive. Besides all of this, as a person forgives, he or she grows more competent and consistent in the practice of forgiveness, sometimes reaching the goal of forgiveness more quickly after the 100th attempt compared with the first attempt. I point out all of these characteristics so that you are not left with the view that forgiveness is primarily emotional and that the change typically occurs quickly, which it does not for most people who are deeply hurt by another’s hurtful actions.

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Not all the time, but sometimes I feel guilty when I forgive someone who has been very cruel to me. I question whether the person deserves to be forgiven. What can you offer me to reduce my feeling of guilt?

You may be feeling guilty when you forgive because you think you are letting the other person off easily. If so, then you are thinking of forgiveness as part of the virtue of justice (doing what is fair, giving someone what he or she deserves). If you are thinking this way, then it follows that you might see yourself as thwarting justice as you forgive, which would increase guilt. After all, we want to do what is fair, not contribute to injustice. Yet, forgiveness is part of mercy (giving goodness to a person who hurt you, not because of what he or she did, but in spite of this). When you forgive, please try to remember two issues: a) You are not letting someone off easily, but instead you are expressing mercy, and b) as you express mercy in the form of forgiveness, you can exercise justice. In other words, hold the other to a high standard. This should help you not feel guilty as you forgive.

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