Ask Dr. Forgiveness

My 15 yr old son and I argue a lot. All his life he witness me curse others and his dad and even him and his siblings out. For several years probably starting at 12, I begin to curse him out as if he was grown. I showed my sorrow and he forgave me. Lately on and off for the past 2 years esp recently we have had major disputes in which he curses at me calls me names and dont listen to what I say. I react by cursing him out. Today was the worse of all, I completely said harsh things to him like just die, I hate you, I don’t care, go to the streets… vicious things. He already said he will never forgive me and I understand why. I am at a cross road to believe he is still a child and what I say can hurt him… I tell therapist all day and others that it is me that fed his anger over the years it is my fault and everything he does disrespectfully to me I caused it and may even deserve it. I said negative things to him that may put his life in danger or mines. I cant go to bed knowing I was so hateful with my words b/c I feel I should be dead in my sleep b/c of my disrespect to God’s children, my child I was blessed with. I need him to understand I didn’t mean it, I snapped and I let my hurt feelings try to hurt him worse. Please help me get thru to him. I know he needs time from me b/c he already have odds against him being a product of a single parent, low income, angry, depressed mom. I want him to gain an opportunity b/c I am sending him to the streets, which is my biggest fear. Please help.

First of all, I am sorry for all of the heartache in your son’s life and in yours. There is a positive side to all of this: You are aware that you have hurt your son by your words. You are facing this head on, without backing off. This shows great courage.

We now have to do two things: 1) You will have to work on stopping the “cursing out” of your son and 2) You will have to get through to him that you have not intended to put his life in danger, as you say.

The first step is for you to recognize the sources of your own anger. As you have “cursed out” your son, was there someone in your life when you were growing up who did the same to you? If so, you will need to practice forgiving this person (or people) so that your strong and unhealthy anger can diminish. Start to forgive those in your life who demeaned you by their words.

The second step is to examine any anger that you have toward your son’s father. You say you are a single parent. Are you angry with the father for not being there with you? If so, you could be displacing your anger onto your son.

The third step, once you have figured out the sources of your own anger, is to humbly go to your son with this information. Let him see that you are emotionally wounded by others. Be specific so that he sees how others were very angry with you and how you have learned to be angry and how you are now passing that on to your son. He needs to see this pattern so that he can avoid embodying that anger and then passing it on to his own children. He needs to practice forgiveness toward you as you practice forgiveness toward those who “cursed you out” in the past.

If you do not have a copy of the book, The Forgiving Life, please leave your mailing address with our director (director@internationaforgiveness.com) and we will send you a free copy.

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I am thinking that forgiveness is basically a fancy way of simply practicing relaxation training when I think about my mom, who has been really unkind to me. So, is that what forgiveness basically is—relaxing when thinking about the one who hurt me so that I am no longer mad?

Although relaxation and forgiveness can reduce angry feelings in a person, the two are substantially different. You can be relaxed and still hate a person. When you forgive, you may be relaxed or you might not be relaxed. Yet, when you forgive, you definitely are not hating those who have been unfair to you. Forgiveness is a moral response of goodness whereas relaxation is morally neutral. So, relaxation and forgiveness cannot be synonymous.

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I am still very angry with a friend from a recent betrayal. Is it phony to start forgiving now? Should I let my anger subside for a while? It seems to me that I am not being genuine if I start to forgive when so angry.

Writing to our website suggests to me that you are more ready to forgive than your words indicate. As you know, forgiveness is your choice and so you should not feel pressured into doing so.

Please keep in mind that your decision to forgive should not be dictated by your feelings. Your will to forgive can supersede your angry feelings. When we will to forgive, we make a decision to forgive and we begin to think about the one who hurt us in new ways, such as seeing his or her inherent worth.

If you start the forgiveness process and are overwhelmed by your feelings of anger, you might want to calm down for a while. How much time you need can vary by your experience with forgiveness and by how deeply you have been hurt. As a general research finding, the deeper a person forgives, the more that anger diminishes. This is one reason why you do not want to wait indefinitely to forgive until you no longer feel anger. Forgiveness itself can and does reduce this unpleasant emotion.

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I work in a small business. One of my colleagues is constantly late for meetings, which holds up the rest of us. As she enters the room and is late as usual, she always says, “Please forgive me for being late.” I don’t quite know what to do with this. Any suggestions?

This seems to be an issue of justice more than an issue of forgiveness. Your colleague seems to equate forgiving with just letting something go. She may be using this view of forgiveness as a way of not changing her own behavior. Because the behavior (lateness to meetings) is disruptive, then this issue needs to be addressed through proper channels and in an appropriate way.

Whether or not your colleagues or you need to forgive her is a different matter. Is her behavior causing resentment? If so, then your forgiving is reasonable. If her behavior is merely annoying, then correcting the behavior may take care of the annoyance and so there will be nothing to forgive.

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I am a single mother of a five-year-old autistic child. She has a tendency to scream unexpectedly when we are in public places. Just yesterday, she let out such a loud one in a department store that all within ear-shot stopped and stared. It can be so embarrassing. Do you recommend that I forgive my daughter under these painful circumstances?

Yours is a fascinating question because it raises a further question: What is the nature of wrong-doing. Let us first discuss that and then turn to your question. I want to examine the issue of wrong-doing first because forgiveness takes place in the context of another’s (or others’) wrong-doing. If we find no wrong-doing on the part of your daughter, then forgiveness would not be recommended.

For something to be morally wrong, we need to examine three issues: the act itself, one’s intentions in performing the act, and the circumstances surrounding the act.

The act itself of yelling out in a public place is not wrong when, for example, a person is being robbed. That circumstance of robbery makes the act of yelling good because it may prevent the wrong-doing of robbery. Thus, yelling in a public forum is not, by itself, an unjust act.

Your daughter’s intentions are not likely to be morally wrong. Given her autism, we can induce that she is not trying to cause trouble by embarrassing you or by harassing customers in the store. Her intentions are likely a response to something uncomfortable within her or it could be some kind of a conditioned response to something in the environment of which you are unaware. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that your daughter’s intentions are not morally wrong.

The circumstances, of being in a crowded store, do suggest decorum, but again we have to factor in the circumstance of your daughter’s autism. Her autism is likely to contribute to her behavior much more strongly than norms of conduct in public places.

When we examine the act itself, intentions, and circumstance, it is clear that your daughter has not engaged in wrong-doing. Thus, I would not recommend that you forgive. Instead, I recommend that you understand her action in the context discussed above. You might consider practicing acceptance (for now) of her actions that embarrass you (as you have stated). Further, you might take steps, through behavior modification techniques, to condition her behavior toward not yelling in public places by rewarding her for quieter behavior when in such places.

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