Tagged: “Inherent Worth”

The Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness

By Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.
Professor, University of Northern Iowa

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.

Photo by Thalyson Souza on Unsplash

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

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.

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New, Just Published Curriculum Guide – THE COURAGE TO FORGIVE: EDUCATING ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN ABOUT FORGIVENESS

Grade school educators, counselors, and homeschooling parents now have a new resource available to help teach their 4th and 5th grade students (ages 9-12) about forgiveness. Serving either as a Social-Emotional Learning or a Character-Education curriculum, the focus is on what forgiveness is, is not, what forgiveness looks like, and the basic concepts associated with forgiveness, including kindness, empathy, perspective-taking, and healthy expression of anger.

The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness uses children’s literature and incorporates the latest social-emotional learning (SEL) and character education principles into its 16-lessons. Each lesson in the 64-page guide is approximately 45-minutes in length and lessons include a variety of activities for students to complete, group and individual discussion questions to reflect on and answer, and even an opportunity for students to write their own book about forgiveness. One life-long teacher was so impressed after previewing the guide that she called it her “character education handbook.”

This new curriculum includes the model of forgiveness developed by Dr. Robert Enright, as well as techniques honed by Dr. Suzanne Freedman during her 2015 research with 5th grade students in a racially-diverse Midwestern school. Selected children’s books, such as, The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester are used to teach and illustrate forgiveness and related concepts. Book summaries and online videos of the books are included with the curriculum guide.

As stated by Dr. Freedman in the introduction to the curriculum, “It is hard for students to forgive if they don’t know about forgiveness or see examples of it. The children’s literature used in this curriculum illustrates what forgiveness looks like, what’s involved in forgiving and the impact of forgiveness for both the characters who do the forgiving and those who receive it. 

“Helping students develop empathy toward others is a key strategy not only in character-building but in bullying prevention and intervention,” according to Dr. Freedman. “It is critical that we help kids develop empathy early in their lives and this curriculum guide is a great way to do that. Plus, the short sessions using children’s literature are fun for the kids so they are eager to learn.” 

Although this curriculum was written specifically with 4th and 5th grade students in mind, it can be used with older (middle school students) or younger students, since activities can be modified as necessary. Even adults will find the curriculum helpful in their understanding and practice of forgiveness.

“SEL programs are being recognized as an important part of the school curriculum for all students,” Dr. Freedman adds. “In this guide, SEL is incorporated with Forgiveness Education in order to teach students how to recognize and express anger and other emotions in a healthy way, understand the perspective of others, and recognize the humanity in all.” 

The following quote illustrates how one 5th grade student benefited from learning about forgiveness:

“I like forgiveness because it helps me learn how to forgive people. Before forgiveness I was mean and rude to people- I learned to forgive people. I had a lot of anger before but since you came here- I learned to control my anger and calm myself down!”

For more information about the curriculum, read the full 15-page introduction to the guide. 

For more information about the research behind this curriculum guide, read The Impact of Using Children’s Literature to Teach 5th Graders about Forgiveness.


 

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I have low self-esteem from being treated unfairly by someone in my family. What do you recommend I do to reverse this?

1)  Stand with courage in the truth: “I was wronged.” If none of this is your fault, say that to yourself: “This is not my doing. I did not bring this on myself.”

2)  Stand further in the truth: “Even though this person may have a bad view of me, I refuse to share that view of myself with this person.” Resist the lie.

3)  As you stand in the truth, be aware of your strength in doing so: “I am enduring what I did not deserve. I am stronger than I thought.”

4)  Commit to doing no harm to the one who harmed you. As you do that, reflect on who you are: “I am someone who can endure pain and not return pain to the other.”

5)  Finally, conclude in the truth: “I will not be defined by the injustices against me. I am more than this. I am someone who endures pain and is a conduit for good to others.”

NOTE: This answer is reproduced from my Psychology Today blog: Why You Might Have Low Self-Esteem and How to Cure That.

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Your forgiveness process suggests that we need to take time before we forgive. Is it ever all right to start forgiving from the very beginning, when the hurt is fresh because the injustice just happened?

Most people are not ready to forgive right away because they need a period of calming down, of being angry, and of exploring what happened. This, however, does not imply that no one begins to forgive immediately. If you are treated unfairly and are well-practiced in the art of forgiving, then going ahead right away with some of the forgiveness exercises is fine. This might include, for example, beginning to see the inherent worth in the one who hurt you.

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Lately, I have been having condemning thoughts toward the person who betrayed me. Much to my surprise, I am finding that I am drifting into another pattern, that of even condemning myself. Is this normal and maybe even truthful about who both of us are?

My answer comes from my book, The Forgiving Life (2012), chapter 1:

“As we continually live with love withdrawn from us and a resulting resentment (with the short-term consequences of thinking with a negative pattern, thinking specific condemning thoughts, and acting poorly), we can settle into a kind of long-term distortion of who the love-withdrawing person is, who we ourselves are, and who people are in general. The basic issue here is that once love is withdrawn from us, we can begin to withdraw a sense of worth toward the one who hurt us. The conclusion is that he or she is worth-less. Over time, we can drift into the dangerous conclusion, ‘I, too, am worthless.’ After all, others have withdrawn love from me and have concluded that I lack worth, therefore I do lack worth. Even later, we can drift into the unhealthy conclusion that there is no love in the world and so no one really has any worth, thus everyone is worth-less.” In other words, this thought pattern is something to recognize and then to resist by working on the thought that both of you have worth.

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