Ask Dr. Forgiveness

Do you think that, even when people deny severe injustices that were perpetrated on them, the effects of the injustices continue to exist in their subconscious mind?

Yes, it seems that when people are treated very unjustly, then trauma exists within them even if they are unaware of the connection between the current psychological symptoms and what happened in the past.  Sigmund Freud, well over a century ago, was aware that trauma can exist within the subconscious and the goal is to make that which is not conscious now fully conscious.  In other words, once insight into the past situation is understood, this aids people in breaking the denial, the repression, or the regression.  They then can deal with their reaction to what happened to them.  People, for example, may have a problem with trust, or have generalized anxiety symptoms, or deep fatigue and do not know why.  When they see the link between current psychological symptoms and unjust events that may have happened years ago, this can act as a motivator to forgive those who perpetrated the injustice, which then can lower the psychological symptoms of trauma.  A motivator to start looking courageously at what happened to us years ago is the current unexplained pain of psychological distress.  Insight shows us the cause of the distress; forgiveness shows us the way to cure of the distress.

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I have a partner who way too consistently exhibits childlike behaviors when he is frustrated and offended by other people.  He has temper tantrums.  He pouts.  He insists.  It seems to me that he is using the psychological defense of regression.  My question to you is this: How can I help him change this kind of behavior when he is treated unjustly?

Your partner’s exhibiting the psychological defense mechanism of regression could be caused by a number of issues as follows: a) He saw this exhibited by others in his family when he was growing up; b) his parents may have fostered a sense of entitlement in him so that he gets overly angry when things do not go his way; c) he wants to control others by his intense anger so that others acquiesce to him out of fear.    Regardless of the cause, he can change this regressive behavior if you can introduce him to what forgiveness is (and what it is not) and, with your encouragement, help him to begin forgiving others who are unfair to him.  As he learns to forgive, he will be fostering a sense of the inherent worth toward those who have offended him.  It will help him to check the temper tantrums because people who see the worth in others do not impose the pain of temper tantrums on them.  Once he begins to see the value of forgiveness toward others and develops a capacity for forgiveness, you might want to introduce him to self-forgiveness.  He may have to forgive himself for the times he was intemperate with others by his regressive actions of excessive anger toward them.

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Will you please clarify for me the distinction between forgiving and trusting a person who has harmed me?

To answer your question, here is an excerpt from the book, The Forgiving Life (Enright, 2012):

When you forgive, you do not say, Because I forgive you, I now trust you.” No. You can forgive and still not trust. If the person is showing you that he or she is a danger to you, then mistrust of his or her behavior is warranted. At the same time, and this is stated specifically to those who have experienced trauma, be careful not to confuse a general mistrust and particular mistrust toward a particular person. In other words, many traumatized people have a pervasive mistrust that needs work. Sometimes the traumatized person meets someone who truly is a good person, reliable, and safe to be with, yet the mistrust from past relationships is so great that he or she just cannot give of oneself in the new relationship. Knowing this and working deliberately on the previous issues of mistrust will help. Forgiveness will help. Time will help. Trust is such a delicate thing and needs work if it will improve.

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I’ve encountered a significant obstacle in my quest to comprehend the person who injured me.  The hurt makes me terrified to “step inside his shoes.”  When I am unable to accomplish this, I feel like I am not progressing at all and my entire forgiveness route kind of collapses.  How can I get unstuck, in your opinion?

I get the impression that you no longer trust this person.  If so, please remember that you do not always need to trust when you are forgiving.  When you are prepared to make amends (because you see that his behavior is not, at present, harmful to you), trust emerges. Please consider your degree of anger again if this realization proves to be helpful. Maybe you’re more enraged than you acknowledge. Try to forgive the one who offended you for a less serious injustice, if there is one.  As you work on forgiving this person for a smaller offense, you might get stronger in your ability to forgive him for a more serious injustice.  Starting the forgiveness process with someone else, who is not as difficult to forgive, is another possible approach.  Also, maintaining a strong will to forgive is crucial.  The strong will helps you to be motivated to keep on the pathway of forgiveness even when it is difficult to do so.

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I became aware of Rodney King being assaulted by officers when I was reading Chapter 3 of the book, Forgiveness Is a Choice. I had no idea that a person’s wrath could have such a profound impact on an entire community and subsequent generations. How can a generation get past the stigma associated with unhealthy venting?

Community forgiveness is a relatively new issue that has profound implications for the peace movement.  It is possible for people within an entire community to see the impact of continued rage and, together, decide to forgive the other community.  This, in theory, should have the effect of lowering the anger-temperature within and between communities as people decide to offer forgiveness to those on “the other side.”  Here are two references to the idea of community (or group) forgiveness:

Enright, R.D., Lee, Y.R., Hirshberg, M.J., Litts, B.K., Schirmer, E.B., Irwin, A.J., Klatt, J., Hunt, J., & Song, J.Y. (2016).  Examining group forgiveness: Conceptual and empirical issues.  Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 22, 153-162. DOI: http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/10.1037/pac0000153

Enright, R.D., Johnson, J., Fu, N., Erzar, T., Hirshberg, M., Huang, T., Klatt, J., Lee, D., Boateng, B., Boggs, P., Hsiao, T.-E., Olson, C., Shu, M.L., Song, J., Wu, P., & Zhang, B. (2020).  Measuring intergroup forgiveness: The Enright Group Forgiveness Inventory. Peace and Conflict Studies, 27,1-29.

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