I loved seeing the article on forgiveness in last month’s newsletter. I have discovered in my 30 years of studying forgiveness from a psychological perspective, that there are many misconceptions associated with what it means to forgive and contexts associated with forgiveness.
A common comment I hear from students in my university course on interpersonal forgiveness is that forgiveness is more complicated than people realize. It may not be the same notion of forgiveness preached by one’s parents or a religious leader. It goes beyond just saying the words, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” Although we often ask for forgiveness for minor injuries, forgiveness occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt (Smedes, 1996, The Art of Forgiving).
Specifically, forgiveness involves a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward an offender, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, empathy, and goodwill toward one’s offender (Enright, 2001, Forgiveness is a Choice). Notice that in this definition, one has a right to resentment and that the offender does not deserve one’s compassion and goodwill.
Although frequently confused with forgetting, acceptance, condoning, excusing, pardon, and denial of anger, forgiveness is none of these. When we forgive, we decrease our negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the offender and over time, increase our positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors toward the offender. We can also only forgive for the way that we were personally impacted by an offense.
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 people 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.
I began my career by educating adult incest survivors about forgiveness, and have recently turned my attention to children and adolescents. By teaching students about the psychological process of forgiveness, we are helping them develop healthy ways to express feelings, understand the perspective of others, and practice empathy and kindness.
As summarized by a 5th grader who was part of a forgiveness education program that I taught:
“I’ve learned that anger is a natural feeling. It takes time to forgive. You don’t have to forgive right away. They don’t always apologize. Forgiveness is one step closer to healing. You don’t have to be friends with the offender after. Apologies make forgiving easier. Forgiveness is made by the person who was hurt. If you want revenge, then you haven’t forgiven in your heart.”
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 all-consuming 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.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of SEL in Action, “a newsletter written for educators, by educators to share real world stories, questions, ideas and opinions about how to address the social and emotional needs of students and the adults who teach them.” Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.
Dr. Suzanne Freedman is the author of The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness, a curriculum guide for 4th and 5th grade students she co-authored with Dr. Robert Enright.
Dr. Freedman was recognized with a Veridian Community Engagement Fellowship (Fall 2020) for “meeting a community need through teaching and/or scholarship.” That same year she was also awarded a Kern Family Foundation Grant for a project that “examined ways that moral virtues, such as empathy, can be infused into a course on child and adolescent development.“
Learn more about Dr. Freedman and her work at the University of Northern Iowa.
When this happens, I recommend: 1) more time in forgiving this person and, if this still is not working, 2) try to see if this person reminds you of someone else in need of your forgiving. For example, a person is having trouble forgiving his wife. His wife has behavioral patterns similar to his mother, whom he has not forgiven. I then recommend that he forgive his mother first. When he then focuses on forgiving his wife, the anger toward his mother is not getting in the way of that forgiving.
You say that suffering makes us stronger. I say, when it comes to children, that what they need is to be safe from abuse, not to become stronger. What do you think?
I do not imply that we should seek suffering for the purpose of becoming stronger. Instead, my point is this: When we are treated unjustly and as we suffer, we often mature as persons. For example, we become more sensitive to the suffering in others. Now here is the important distinction between what I just said and what I think you are saying: Even adults, when they are abused and suffer, need to find a place of safety. To become strong does not negate the necessity of doing all one can to be safe. So, both adults and children need to be kept safe as they suffer. Both, also, may grow stronger as they suffer. To be safe and to grow stronger can occur together.
I am motivated to forgive my ex-husband for the sake of the children. In other words, I do not want them to grow up hating their father. Is this a good reason for my forgiving him?
Yes, this is an excellent reason for forgiving. You want to protect your children and this is very honorable. You are not thinking of yourself, but of them and that, to me, is heroic. I think your children will benefit greatly from your decision to forgive and your actions of forgiving. I wish you the best with this.
Ruchi Singh is a young woman who refused to be just another statistic of domestic violence. To turn her life around after fearfully incurring years of abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband, Singh decided to choose courage—and forgiveness.
“Life is made up of millions of moments but there comes a moment that decides the rest of our life,” Singh says. “For me, it was the night my husband (now ex-) put a knife to my throat, threatening to kill me. I am lucky he changed his mind.”
Although Singh wishes she did not have to know how it feels to be terrified in her own home, she acknowledges that it happened and that she had to choose what was going to drive her life—fear or courage.
“I chose courage,” Singh now tells anyone who will listen. “I chose courage, gave myself a voice, and took ownership of my life. The moment I took responsibility for my life, I moved from a place of weakness to a position of strength.”
After the knife incident, Singh was able to get away from her husband in Sydney, Australia, and return to her home in India where she told her parents for the first time about the abuse she endured. With her new-found courage, she told her husband she was not coming back to him and instead filed for divorce.
“Forgiving my husband was something I needed to do to avoid becoming a negative person,” Singh now relates. “I didn’t want to be cruel and hurtful like him. One way of staying internally clean has been by never calling him abusive names. I have even blessed him. It’s not easy, but it’s helped me free myself.”
Singh clarifies her statement by adding that forgiveness does not mean saying she is okay with her husband’s treatment of her, but that she can now continue with her life in a more peaceful frame of mind.
“The reason I forgave him was because holding onto hate would have been very harmful for my mental wellbeing,” according to Singh. “I started my new life by creating awareness on domestic violence together with the message on courage, confidence and the power of communication. Little did I know that it was the beginning of an amazing journey.”
For Singh, forgiving didn’t come easily. It took her three months of intense meditation and hard work to forgive, in large part because her ex had never apologized and he still said everything was her fault.
“I couldn’t just think myself into forgiving, I had to take action,” Singh says. “I had to clean out the muddy water by feeling my way through all the ugly emotions until finally these negative feelings began to dissipate. Also, the chronic hip pain I’d had for four years, which no specialist could figure out, disappeared after I moved away from the relationship.”
Today Singh is an international keynote speaker, best-selling author, talk show host, and humanitarian who runs her own personal leadership and communications company. Courageous leadership is at the heart of everything she does. She brings that to her website talk show “RuchiSinghTalks” where she provides a safe platform to have uncomfortable but important discussions.
“I share my story to create awareness about this epidemic (domestic violence) which impacts millions all over the world,” Singh says. As she outlines in her video The Power of Forgiveness: Mindset Motivation, she believes everyone has within them “the power to transform and recreate your life.”
Last year, Singh was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the 2020 Peace Summit of Emerging Leaders held at the United Nations Conference Center in Bangkok. The Summit is designed to inspire and empower young people who are passionate about positive social change. The 450+ attendees from 55 countries gave her a standing ovation.
Singh is featured in a documentary film “Till Death Do Us Part” that was the official selection of the 2020 New York Lift-Off Film Festival. That same year, she received one of her country’s highest awards, the Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Award (named after the 2nd President of India).
Learn more about Singh’s amazing transformation and decision to forgive on The Forgiveness Project website.
Visit Ruchi Singh’s website.