This guest blog was written by Rosemary Kite, Founder and President of Forgive4Peace in Los Angeles, CA.
They say that unforgiveness is like a poison you take hoping that the other person will die! I hope that’s not you.
Let’s start with the easy stuff. The science of forgiveness. Medical experts say that forgiving those who have wronged us helps lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate. The benefits aren’t just limited to the physical, though. Letting go of old grudges is known to reduce levels of depression, anxiety, and anger. People who forgive tend to have better relationships, be more optimistic, and overall, enjoy better psychological well-being.
So why is it so hard for us to do what is good for us to do? Well, forgiveness is about the hardest thing any one of us ever has to do. But the heart is a muscle and every muscle needs to be exercised. Forgiveness exercises the heart muscle, but not without the help of the head (and the hands for that matter), because forgiveness is above all, a CHOICE. So before moving onto the art of forgiveness, let’s try to define the word.
What exactly is forgiveness anyway? According to Dr. Robert Enright, an Educational Psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, forgiveness can be defined as follows:
“Forgiveness is a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.”
See. . . Forgiveness involves the head, the hands, and the heart (the intellect, the will, AND the emotions). Let’s take a minute to look at each of these components:
1st – THE EMOTIONS….where it all starts, in the ANGER. In forgiveness, we strive to abandon our right to resentment, that “re-feeling” of the sting of injustice. Resentment is a feeling, a passion, a movement we feel in a painful way as we strive to abandon the desires for revenge, retaliation, desires of getting even, settling the accounts, the wallowing in self-pity.
2nd – THE INTELLECT. By channeling our emotions through the intellect, we invite our reason to have a say and we work toward abandoning our negative judgments (the critical spirit, the condemnation, the name calling, the depressing self-talk).
3rd – THE BEHAVIOR. Our actions that sometimes speak louder than words. We try to abandon negative behavior in our gestures, attitudes and treatment of the other (the sourpuss, the cold shoulder, the bad-mouthing, the finger, the backbiting). By integrating these three dimensions of ourselves, forgiveness makes us WHOLE. Forgiveness makes us more human.
What forgiveness is NOT is: a four-letter word, excusing, condoning (suggesting that something bad is really something good), forgetting (it doesn’t produce amnesia of the event or the hurt; forgiving and the memory of the event can coexist), or pretending that nothing happened.
So if forgiveness is a choice; it is also a process that is multi-layered and cyclical and that is where the art of forgiveness comes in. It places no conditions such as an apology or remorse or even justice for that matter.
The art of forgiveness looks something like this:
- We stop dancing around denial and acknowledge the injustice in order to uncover the anger.
- We wiggle and wobble around the need to decide to forgive. To make a tough choice. To try to end the resentment. To try to be a loving person even to the one who was unfair to us. We try to learn what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he said: “Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
- Then we dig into the hard work of taking as wide a perspective as possible to re-frame the event, the anger and the pain. Can we consider the humanity in the person; can we see his/her woundedness, stress? Can we see that we both share a common humanity? That this person is not evil incarnate? Can we begin to feel any empathy? A softening of our heart toward understanding?
- Finally, we unearth the peace and freedom of letting go of resentment and bitterness; we release the pent-up anger; lessening the emotional anguish. We discover a freer heart; meaning in our suffering. We come to realize that, in the words of Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” We learn the great paradox of forgiveness: as you reach out to others in love, you yourself experience emotional healing.
So the secret art and science of forgiveness suggests that the best medicine we can possibly take to improve our physical, psychological, social and spiritual health is forgiveness. Forgiveness is like the pill that offers the deepest healing of the wounds that fester in the human heart.
If you want to be happy for a moment, take revenge. But if you want to be happy forever, forgive.
~ Rosemary Kite
Rosemary Kite and Forgive4Peace have been long-time supporters and financial contributors to the International Forgiveness Institute. Its mission is “to promote forgiveness education at home, at school and at work for the sake of world peace. Forgiveness fills the gap between our world’s unrest and world peace. All education fosters peace. Forgiveness education brings peace.” In addition to rewarding achievements in forgiveness, Forgive4Peace raises awareness of the importance and value of forgiveness in one’s everyday life. Visit the Forgive4Peace website here.
A Guest Blog by Dr. Suzanne Freedman
Editor’s Note: Forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is a sensitive and controversial subject that is being addressed by Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Dr. Freedman has studied and conducted forgiveness research with Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology on Forgiveness with Incest Survivors. This is a summary of a blog Dr. Freedman wrote that was posted earlier this month on the website “And He Restoreth My Soul.”
To view the complete blog, click here.
The idea of forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is often met with surprise, skepticism, and even horror. However, past research with forgiveness illustrates that forgiveness education and/or forgiveness counseling can be healing for those who have experienced past sexual abuse.
Freedman & Enright (1996) conducted an individual educational intervention using forgiveness as the goal with 12 incest survivors. Results illustrated that post intervention individuals were more forgiving toward their abusers, had decreased anxiety and depression and increased hope for the future as well as greater self-esteem compared to those who had not experienced the forgiveness education and themselves preintervention (see Freedman & Enright, 1996). Research with other populations who have experienced deep hurt also illustrates increased forgiveness as well as greater psychological well-being post intervention.
When discussing the topic of forgiveness for survivors of sexual abuse, it is important to be clear about what exactly is meant by forgiveness, specifically what forgiveness is and is not. . . According to Enright (2001) and North (1987), forgiveness can be defined as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and sometimes even love toward him or her”.
Notice in the definition that one has a “right” to feel resentment because of the way she or he was injured and that the offender does not “deserve” our compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward an offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings and sometimes even behaviors toward an offender can occur.
Why Forgive? Many survivors of sexual abuse often ask, “Why do I need to forgive? Why do I need to do all the work? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Of course, this is true but when one forgives, they are personally benefiting by freeing themselves of anger, bitterness, and resentment. . . . Forgiveness allows one to free themselves of negative feelings as well as find meaning in the worst of life’s event. It is also a selfless and compassionate act as one who forgives is helping to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred. Using a compassionate and generous heart to meet deep pain and hurt is one of the most difficult things to do. However, by doing so you are freeing yourself from the prison of anger and power the abuser has over you.
The points below illustrate how forgiveness is not the same as accepting or pardoning the sexual abuse, reconciliation, being weak, denying one’s anger or giving up, nor does it mean that justice cannot occur:
- Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing. . . .
- Forgiveness takes time. . . .
- Forgiveness is a choice one makes for her or himself. . . .
- Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation. . . .
- Forgiveness can occur in the absence of an apology. . . .
- Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. . . .
- Forgiveness does not mean Forgetting. . . .
Research supports forgiveness education and therapy as an effective form of treatment for those who have endured deep hurts such as sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness leads to decreases in stress, anger, anxiety and depression (Enright, 2001). People who are able to forgive also are more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate towards others. Forgiveness has physical heath benefits as well. Research illustrates decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches in those who have forgiven.
I wrote this blog to describe how forgiveness can be healing for individuals who have been deeply, personally and unfairly hurt by acts of sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness is an individual choice, and as such, we need to offer that choice to survivors of sexual abuse by accurately informing them about what it means to forgive, including what forgiveness is and is not, as well as respecting and supporting them when they choose to forgive.
For more information on how to go about forgiving and the benefits of forgiveness please check out the following resources:
Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness Is a Choice. Washington, D.C. APA Life Tools.
Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington D.C., American Psychological Association.
Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, 64, 983-992.
Smedes, L. B. (1996). The Art of Forgiving. Nashville, TN: Moorings.
Malcom, W., DeCourville, N., & Belicki, K. (2007). Women’s reflections on the complexities of forgiveness. New York, New York: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.
Lance Morrow: “Evil possesses an instinct for theater, which is why, in an era of gaudy and gifted media, evil may vastly magnify its damage by the power of horrific images.” If this is true, we need forgiveness all the more in our times.
Forgiveness is not justice and therefore focuses on effects, not direct solutions to injustice. When injustice reigns, it surely is the duty of communities to exercise justice to counter that which is unjust.
Yet, what then of the effects of the injustice? Will the quest for and the establishment of justice in societies suffice to cure the broken heart? We think not and this is where forgiveness is needed for those who choose it.
Is there a better way of destroying the damaging effects of evil than forgiveness? As a mode of peace, forgiveness is a paradox because at the same time it is a weapon, one that fights against the ravages of evil. By destroying resentment, forgiveness is a protection for individuals, families, groups, and societies.
Has the struggle with the injustice made you tired? Let us say that you have 10 points of energy to get through each day. How many of those points of energy do you use fighting (even subconsciously) the injustice as an internal struggle? Even if you are giving 1 or 2 points of your energy each day to this, it is too much and could be considered another wound for you.
When you consider the person and the situation now under consideration, do you see any changes in your life that were either a direct or indirect consequence of the person’s injustice? In what way did your life change that led to greater struggle for you? On our 0-to-10 scale, how great a change was there in your life as a result of the injustice? Let a 0 stand for no change whatsoever, a 5 stand for moderate change in your life, and a 10 stand for dramatic change in your life. Your answer will help you determine whether this is another wound for you. As you can see, the wounds from the original injustice have a way of accumulating and adding to your suffering.
What strikes me in particular about this young man is his apparent kindness. He does not have angry eyes. He talks in a respectful way to me. We are engaged in a conversation, not engaged in a battle of wills. He wants to learn more about forgiveness, but he knows he could pay a dear price for practicing it, especially if his family and peers begin to mock him.
“You can forgive and not tell anyone you did this, not even the one who hut you,” I said. “Those you forgive will know by how you respond to them, by how you are civil to them. You do not have to use the word, ‘forgive.’”
“I need my anger,” was his studied response.
“Yes, you have been hurt by others. Now you are hurting others. You are even hurting yourself by your actions. Do you see how those who hurt you at first are hurting you again? They may not be present to you, but they are inside of you, disrupting you, angering you, causing you pain and causing you to give pain to others.”
“They have hurt me twice,” was his insight. He got it.
“The key now is to deliberately commit to do no harm to those who have injured you. Another key now is to deliberately commit to do no harm to others. Don’t let your pain become others’ pain. When you do that, those who have hurt you win again. Those who originally hurt you win twice.”
Forgiveness Stops the Hurt So the “Bad Guys” Don’t Defeat You
How about you? Have others hurt you? Are you allowing them to win again?
Forgiving allows you to win for a change.