For decades, our group has been monitoring and trying to correct false definitions of what it means to forgive those who acted unjustly. For example, in defining what forgiving is, some authors have erroneously equated forgiveness with excusing the wrong done, automatically reconciling, and abandoning a quest for justice.
I have come to realize that even the process of forgiveness (how people go about forgiving) can be prone to misinterpretations, to errors in what actually occurs when a person engages in the process of forgiving. To correct these errors, let us consider four responses to these misconceptions.
- As a person walks the path of forgiveness, there is a tendency to say, “I have not done enough; I have not reached perfect forgiveness.” This kind of thinking expects too much of the forgiveness process. As Lewis Smedes said in his book, Forgive and Forget, forgiveness is for imperfect people. We rarely reach a perfect state of forgiving. We must be careful not to disparage ourselves if we still have some work to do on the forgiveness process once we exert time and effort on it. Often in our research, when people are gravely hurt by others and are very low in forgiving, they tend to go to the middle part of our forgiveness scale, not to the higher end. Yet, this progression makes all the difference as people shed excessive anger, anxiety, and depression, and can increase in self-esteem. The message here is this: Try to be temperate. On the one hand, do not expect perfect forgiveness. On the other, do not give it a half-hearted effort, concluding that, since you are not perfect, there is no need to keep trying. Strike the balance between too little effort and too high an expectation for you as a forgiver. You will know you are making progress as your anger lessens and as you wish the offending person well (as Smedes reminded us in his book).
- Here is another worry about the forgiveness process: “My process of forgiveness may create an expectation in the other that he now deserves to be back in my life.” Your engaging in the process of forgiveness may lead to a variety of different reactions in other people. Some may now demand reconciliation. This is not your fault. It is a misunderstanding on the part of the one who acted badly. Other people’s misinterpretation of your forgiving, of your goals in doing so, is not your error. It is the other’s error and so please do not hold yourself responsible (or the process of
forgiveness responsible) for the other’s misinterpretation. You may have to clarify that your forgiving does not necessarily mean that you are ready to reconcile. The forgiveness process, as goodness toward others, remains good even if others misunderstand.
- Here is another: “My process of forgiveness may be so time consuming as to imbalance my full life.” This is another issue of intemperance. We can over-do (or under-do) just about anything. Be careful not to place forgiving so high on the priority list that you spend far too little time with loved ones, or neglect your job, or fail to get adequate exercise or rest. The process of forgiveness is part of a complete life.
- And here is our fourth worry about the forgiveness process: “Even as I engage in the process of forgiveness, I may not end all anger.” This kind of fear is common. People want to be done with anger and discontent which are effects of the unjust treatment against them. Even if all anger does not subside, in all likelihood, as you practice forgiving, and then try again…..and then again…..the anger lessens. You, then, are in control of the anger rather than the anger controlling you.
The definition of forgiveness can be distorted. Understanding the process of forgiving can be distorted. Do not let these distortions deter you from the life-giving practice of forgiving.
If you have reduced your anger as you have forgiven and if you now are in control of your anger (rather than your anger controlling you), then yes, I would say that you have forgiven or at least are well along the pathway of forgiveness. Sometimes not all anger is eliminated, especially when we are treated very badly by others. If you feel anger welling up in you again, then please revisit the forgiveness process toward this person.
I am having a very hard time forgiving my husband and now I am beginning to wonder if I am struggling with this because too often my husband’s behavior reminds me of my father’s imperfections toward me. Do you think this is possible, that I am blocked from forgiving my husband because of my past history with my father?
I think this is a very insightful point. It definitely can be the case that people have difficulty forgiving a partner because of similarities between the partner and the forgiver’s parent. I suggest that you first forgive your father for what you are calling his “imperfections” toward you. Once you have walked the pathway of forgiveness with your father, your forgiving your husband then may be deep and therefore more effective. The fact that you see this connection between father and husband is important and I think this will help you.
Your research tends to show that as people forgive, their own self-esteem rises. Why do you think this happens?
It seems to me that as people bear the pain that others caused them, there is a tendency for the forgivers to realize that they are stronger than they previously had realized. They see that they can endure pain and in that pain, they can be good to others, particularly to those who acted unfairly and even cruelly. This shows the forgivers that they are good people and this can lead to an increase in liking the self. Too often, when people are beaten down by others, the victims begin to believe the lie that they are less than they truly are. Forgiving helps to correct this lie.
I would say the biggest surprise was how effective forgiveness therapy is in the context of very deep trauma caused by other people’s unfairness. Forgiveness therapy seems to be even more effective in reducing clinical levels of anger, anxiety, and depression than other models of psychotherapy that preceded forgiveness therapy within the social sciences. As just one example, the Freedman and Enright (1996) study showed that incest survivors, upon forgiving, went from clinical levels of depression to non-depressed status and this continued at the one-year follow-up. The reference to this work is as follows:
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.