What Forgiveness is
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.
Editor’s Note: This Guest Blog was written by Dr. Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., a professor in the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It first appeared as “Your Passport to Forgiveness” on And He Restoreth My Soul Project, a website for sexual assault victims. The site was developed by author, professional speaker, and forgiveness-advocate Darlene Harris.
“Just forgive her already.”
“Forgiveness is the right thing to do.”
“Forgive and forget.”
These are frequently heard statements after someone experiences a deep, personal, and unfair hurt. Although society encourages forgiveness, it does not often share with us what forgiveness looks like, the path to achieve forgiveness and/or the benefits of forgiving. These aspects of interpersonal forgiveness are critical and must be included in conservations about forgiving. Child sexual abuse and incest are some of the deepest hurts an individual can experience, and as a result, most abuse survivors are advised against forgiving these deep hurts. However, if accurately understood and practiced, forgiveness can be very healing for sexual abuse survivors. This blog will discuss some of the most important points regarding what forgiveness means, the process of forgiveness, and the benefits of forgiving.
For sexual abuse survivors to choose to forgive, they first need to know what it means to forgive. Forgiveness is accomplished when one experiences a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender, and maybe over time, a gradual increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors may occur toward the offender (Freedman & Enright, 2017).
Unfortunately, this process does not magically happen overnight. Enright & the Human Development Study Group (1991) developed a four-phase process model of forgiveness that initially included 17 guideposts and later expanded to 20 (Enright, 2001). Forgiveness is more than just letting go of anger, hatred, and revenge; it also includes accepting the offender’s humanity and value as a person, despite their hurtful actions (Freedman & Enright, 2017). Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing or deny or ignore your feelings of pain. Forgiveness includes the courage to face and acknowledge one’s hurt, as well as feel the emotions related to the hurt.
Although it can be too early to forgive, it is never too late to forgive.
Dr. Suzanne Freedman
In fact, the first phase of the process model developed by Enright (2001) involves Uncovering One’s Anger, which includes recognizing and naming one’s anger, identifying its cause, and expressing it in a healthy way. If we try to avoid or repress our feelings of anger and hurt, we are not able to move beyond them. If someone did something to us, which was totally unfair and deeply painful, such as sexual abuse, our anger is absolutely justified. Thus, despite society’s misconceptions about anger’s role in the forgiveness process, feeling and expressing anger in a healthy way is encouraged and necessary prior to forgiving (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2016).
Deciding to Forgive is the second phase in Enright’s (2001) model. Forgiveness is an individual decision that only the injured can make for themselves. Thus, although one can be educated and encouraged to forgive, it is always up to the individual whether they choose to forgive and when they are ready to forgive. Forgiveness requires great effort and hard work, even though we receive messages and expectations from society about quick forgiveness. As a result, people often perceive forgiveness as a shortcut to healing. This can be similar to thinking, if I say the words, “I forgive you” out loud, I have forgiven and am healed.
In the context of a deep hurt, such as child sexual abuse, forgiveness requires more than just saying the words. Incest survivors who participated in a forgiveness education research project took an average of 14.3 months to forgive (Freedman & Enright, 1996). Thus, asking individuals to forgive too early, or before they are ready, will lead to false forgiveness and negative consequences. Although it can be too early to forgive, it is never too late to forgive.
Identifying and naming the specific injury one personally experienced is also very important when working on forgiving. You can only choose to forgive for the way you were deeply hurt and affected by the offense. We cannot forgive for, or on behalf of, our father, daughter, brother or friend. For example, hurt my child, hurt me. However, I can only forgive the offender for the way I was hurt when my child was hurt. I cannot forgive the offender for the hurt my child experienced; only my child can do that (Smedes, 1996).
The third phase of forgiveness is the Work Phase and involves coming to a place where you are able to recognize the offender’s humanity and worth as a human being and begin to feel empathy and compassion for them. Learning more about the offender and their background is helpful in understanding the context of the injury, and expanding one’s view of the offender. This is not done to excuse the offender and their actions, but to better understand the offender as a complex human being, i.e. not just the monster who hurt you.
Forgiveness is not forgetting, condoning, saying that what happened was okay, or that justice cannot occur. Forgiveness is saying, I see your humanity, and that you are made up of more than your most terrible act. Sarah Montana, in her fabulous Ted Talk, The Real Risk of Forgiveness – And Why It’s Worth It, shares her experience forgiving the murderer of both her mother and brother. She passionately states, “I know what you did, it’s not okay, and I recognize you are more than that. I don’t want to hold us captive to this thing anymore. I can heal myself and I don’t need anything from you”.
Another common misconception about forgiveness is that you cannot forgive unless you receive an apology from the offender. This may be true for reconciliation but not forgiveness. Forgiveness is something a survivor can do all on their own, for their own well-being, without any response from the offender. Forgiveness can sometimes lead to reconciliation between the injured party and the offender, but it does not have to.
The Deepening Phase is the final phase in Enright’s process model and is characterized by finding meaning in the pain and suffering, the emergence of a newfound purpose in life, and the realization that one is not alone in their pain. These guideposts lead to an increase in positive feelings, as well as feelings of increased peace and freedom (Freedman & Enright, 2017).
With an accurate understanding of what it means to forgive, respect for one’s own timeline in forgiving, and support from others in one’s forgiveness journey, the forgiveness process allows one to heal. Research shows that forgiveness is an effective way of restoring both psychological and physical health following abuse and other deep hurts. Specifically, forgiveness is associated with decreases in depression, anxiety, and anger and increases in hope and self-esteem (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Freedman & Enright, 2017). Physical health benefits of forgiving include decreased blood pressure and improved heart functioning (Enright, 2001).
“Forgiveness is the only path to freedom,” according to one domestic abuse survivor. “When willfully abandoning resentment and related responses, there is air that extends through the depth and width of my soul, leaving little room for the dark places that once consumed me.”
– Freedman & Zarifkar, 2016
I am often asked “why forgive”, and my response is always the same, “What’s the alternative?” Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury or damage caused by the injury, it allows us to move forward in our lives free from the negative effects of anger, hatred, and resentment. It offers us a way to heal while still acknowledging that what happened to us was wrong, unfair, and extremely hurtful. For more information regarding what forgiveness is and how to go about forgiving, check out the references below.
- Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R. D., and the Human Development Study Group. (1991). The moral development of forgiveness. In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development, (Vol. 1, pp. 123-152). Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.
- Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
- Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (2017). The use of forgiveness therapy with female survivors of abuse. Journal of Women’s Health, 6:3 DOI: 10.4172/2167-0420.1000369
- Freedman, S. & Zarifkar, T. (2016). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and guidelines for forgiveness therapy: What therapists need to know to help their clients forgive. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 3(1), 45-58.
- Montana, S. (May, 2018). Ted Talk: The real risk of forgiveness – And why it’s worth it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEK2pIiZ2I0
- Smedes, L. B. (1996), The art of forgiving: When you need to forgive and don’t know how. Nashville, TN: Moorings.
About Dr. Suzanne Freedman: A psychology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal with Incest Survivors.
Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest and sexual abuse, eating disorders, early adolescent development, and at-risk adolescents. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. At the University of Northern Iowa, she has taught a variety of psychology courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness. Dr. Freedman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Permission to repost this blog was provided by both Dr. Freedman and Darlene Harris.
Our Theory of Forgiveness: Excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Forgiving Life (APA Books, 2012)
Our theory starts with the premise that all people need to both give and receive love to be healthy and to have psychologically healthy families and communities. I am not alone in this view when we study the ancient literature, going back to the formation of the Hebrew nation, thousands of years ago, with the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. I am not alone when we turn to modern-day heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. Unconditionally loving others, despite their blemishes and faults, was at the heart of their message.
I am not alone in this view when we consult modern philosophy, in which Gene Outka has shown the centrality of love for morally good human interaction. I am not alone in this view of the primacy of love when we examine the earliest roots of psychology, going back over a century to the pioneering work of the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, who made the famous statement that each person’s purpose is to work and to love if genuine mental health will result, a theme which continues to resonate with psychoanalysts in the 21st century. Contemporary social scientists such as Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon make the compelling biological case that love is at the central core of who we are as humans. I continue not to be alone in this view when I ask people of good common sense about what is of the utmost importance to them.
All people require love, both the giving and the receiving of love; this is not an option. Robert D. Enright
On this issue, people who use the method of religious faith to understand the world, some people who use the method of deductive logic and philosophical analysis, some people who use the method of psychoanalysis, and some people who use the method of modern biological and social science are in agreement—The essence of our humanity is to love and be loved.
So frequently I hear this: “Forgiveness is for you, the one who was injured.”
I think this actually can be a distortion of what forgiveness is. We need to make a distinction between:
- the end point or goal of forgiveness, and
- a consequence of forgiving.
These are different. The goal is that to which forgiveness actually points. Given that forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is concerned about goodness toward others. Justice as a moral virtue is not primarily for the self but for all with whom you come into contact directly or indirectly. Patience is directed toward those who are moving slower than you would like. Yes, one can be fair or just to the self and patient toward the self, but these are not the primary goals of either virtue. They are outwardly directed to others. It is the same with forgiveness because, like justice and patience, it too is a moral virtue. The end point of forgiving is to reach out in goodness directly toward the one or ones who have been unfair to you.
Yes, there is such a thing as self-forgiveness, but notice that the wording is intended to expressly direct the attention toward the self. In the case of forgiving as it typically is used, the word “self” is not included.
A consequence of forgiving, shown frequently by our research, is that as a person extends goodness toward offending others, then the one who forgives experiences considerable emotional relief. Excessive anger, anxiety, and depression all can go down in the one who genuinely forgives.
These emotional-health consequences, while very positive and desirable, are not the ultimate goal of engaging in the moral virtue of forgiving. If it were, then this would be the goal for all of the moral virtues and such practice likely would degenerate into self-serving activities and therefore not be virtuous at all.
Is forgiving for the forgiver? No, this is not its goal. Is a consequence of forgiving emotional relief for the forgiver? Yes. And this distinction between goal and consequence makes all the difference in understanding what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish within the self.
The entrance of the idea of forgiveness into the social sciences is quite recent. The first publication within psychology that centered specifically on people forgiving other people was published in the late 20th century (Enright, Santos, and Al-Mabuk, 1989). That article examined children’s, adolescents’, and adults’ thoughts about what forgiving is. In other words, the study took one slice of forgiveness, in this case people’s thoughts, and examined those thoughts from a scientific perspective. Such an investigation, of course, does not then imply that forgiving is all about thoughts and thoughts alone just because that was the focus of the scientific investigation.
People forgiving other people is an ancient idea, first explicated thousands of years ago in the story within the Jewish tradition of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers who sold him into slavery. The portrait of forgiveness in that ancient report includes Joseph’s entire being, not just his thinking, as he shows anger, a sense at first of revenge, which slowly transforms into tenderness toward his half-brothers in the form of weeping, hugs, generosity, and an outpouring of love. His entire being was involved in the forgiving.
Philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, have developed what is known as the virtue-ethics tradition to explain morality. To be virtuous is, like Joseph, to produce a moral response with one’s entire being: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations toward goodness, and relationships that reflect that goodness.
Psychologists, in contrast, and especially if they do not rely on this wisdom-of-the-ages, tend to compartmentalize forgiveness. For example, they may borrow from personality psychology and conclude that there is a trait of forgiving and a state of forgiving and these are somehow different. A trait forgiver, it is assumed, already has a personality geared to forgiving. In other words, expertise in forgiving is not forged by practice, practice, and more practice as we all have this opportunity toward developing expertise in forgiving.
Other psychologists, when they do not take the virtue-ethics position, tend to think of forgiving as mostly emotional as the forgiver substitutes more pleasant feelings for the existing resentment toward an offending person. Substitution of feelings, as seen in the Joseph story, is only one part, and not even the most important part of forgiveness. Offering love in a broad sense is the most important part.
The bottom line is this: Taking only a psychological perspective on the concept of forgiving tends toward reductionism, breaking up of forgiveness into smaller and more exclusive parts than should be the case. This tends to distort the concept of forgiveness. If a distorted view of forgiveness is presented to clients in therapy, are we helping those clients reach their highest potential as forgivers?
Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.