I was deeply hurt by some words my best friend said to me. She kind of shocked me, actually, by what she said. I immediately said that I forgave her for that. Now I am wondering if I acted too quickly. Can a person forgive too soon?
A person can forgive falsely too soon, but there is no such thing as forgiving in a genuine way too soon. By “falsely forgive” I mean a kind of “forgiveness” that is insincere, done more out of pride or expediency rather than out of a heart-felt sense of compassion for the one who was unfair. We can “forgive” a boss who asks us, if this means keeping our job, while all the time we are fuming inside. This is not genuine and will likely not be helpful for either the forgiver or the forgiven.
On the other hand, there are actually documented cases of quick forgiveness of people who have perpetrated horrendous injustices. Here is one example: Corrie Ten Boom survived a concentration camp during World War II. She wrote a book, The Hiding Place, about her experiences. Following the war, she was in a German church talking about the virtues of forgiveness. After the talk, people came up to greet her. Much to her horror, the SS officer who abused her years ago extended his hand to her, asking for forgiveness. She did not want to grant it. She then said a quick prayer and, as she reports, she felt something like an electrical surge go through her right arm and so she was able both to shake his hand and at the same time to offer a love for this man that surprised even her. Without debating the issue of prayer here, she did experience something that day that was genuine forgiveness and was both sudden and complete.
The more you practice forgiveness, the more easily you will be able to practice it in a genuine way, at least at times and for certain circumstances.
For additional information, see The Forgiving Life.
The forgiveness path is just one more obstacle to overcome along life’s tough road. A family member of mine was murdered. I cannot see forgiving this person. Even if I did, that process seems just as outrageously hard as sitting here with no recourse toward the murderer. Am I stuck either way, as a forgiver or as someone who cries out for justice but finds none (the murderer has not been caught)?
First of all, my sincere sympathy for the pain you are being asked to endure. No one should have to go through this. The fact that you are even asking about forgiveness is showing a heroism that I want you, yourself, to see.
An important insight that you have is this: No matter what you choose, you will have pain. I would like to gently challenge one of your words: “stuck.” I can understand how you might feel stuck as someone who cries out for justice which is not forthcoming. You are not stuck, however, if you decide to forgive. I think you might be “stuck” right now because of indecision—Should you forgive or not? If you decide to go ahead, then you are no longer “stuck.” Yes, you will have pain because growth in forgiveness is painful. Yet, the pain of working through forgiveness is temporary. The pain of crying out for justice and not finding it may go on indefinitely. When you are ready to get un-stuck, please consider reading the book, The Forgiving Life. It helps you to grow in forgiving and to grow as a person of virtue—strong and even thriving in the face of great pain. I wish you the very best in your journey toward healing.
Learn more at What is Forgiveness?
I think that getting rid of one’s anger is not a good thing if the goal is to achieve justice. Don’t we need some anger as a motivator to get up and do something about continual put-downs by others?
Anger in the short run is seen as reasonable because the person is basically saying, “What you did was wrong. I am a person worthy of respect and that is what I am asking of you.” At the same time, if this anger stays with a person, deepens, and lasts for many months, it can be counter-productive. One then might demand too much from the other. One might turn the quest for justice into a motivation to seek revenge and hurt the other. So, we have to be careful when discussing the benefits of anger. There are such benefits in the short-run, but anger has a way of taking up residence in the human heart if we are not careful and thus the one harboring the anger can be damaged.
Learn more at Why Forgive?
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.
Plato reminds us in The Republic that justice is giving people what is deserved. This can include both rewards and punishments. If Person A offers $100 to Person B for building a table, the receipt of the $100 by Person B upon the successful completion of the table is fair or just. If Person C is guilty of a traffic violation and the rules of the city require any violator of this kind to be fined $100, then it is fair or just if Person C gives up $100.
Social justice, while not always defined in the same way by all advocates of this approach, basically centers on equality of outcome. For example, suppose a pizza establishment will not deliver in a neighborhood in which there is high crime and two of their delivery people were killed trying to make deliveries there in the past year.
Because innocent people in that neighborhood are not treated the same as people in safer neighborhoods, this may be considered unjust by social justice standards. Why? It is because the innocent need an equal outcome, successful delivery of pizzas, compared to those in safer neighborhoods. That the risk for the deliverers is not deserved is not an issue here. For the classical sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? They deserve to be safe in terms of laws of probability for being safe. For the new social sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve? Actually, the deliverers are not the focus now. The focus is on those who have no equality of ordering pizzas. There is a decided shift to one particular group and the emphasis on equality of outcome for them.
Now we are ready to show the difference between social justice for the imprisoned and forgiveness interventions for them. In social justice and in forgiveness, we both might focus, for example, on the childhood of Person D, who was abused by his father and now Person D has abused three children, for which he is arrested. Social justice, in focusing on his childhood, might have people see that Person D is not fully to blame for his actions, but instead his unfortunate background must mitigate the length of his sentence so that he is not unequally behind bars compared to others who were not abused and are not behind bars. The quest in this particular case is to alter the sentence and thus the time served.
For our forgiveness program, as we, too, focus on Person D’s horrendously unjust childhood, we try to help Person D, if he chooses, to forgive his father for his deep injustices. This process of forgiveness might reduce Person D’s rage and thus reduce his motivation to hurt others in the future. We do not suggest that justice now be altered. We focus on inner healing and not on altering the time he is to serve in prison. Justice in its classical sense is served in the forgiveness programs, while that classical sense of justice is not served when social justice is considered, at least in the example given here.
There is a substantial difference between forgiveness as a rehabilitation strategy for those in prison and the call to alter the sentence in social justice. If there is a call to reduce sentences without the concomitant attempt to eliminate rage, one has to wonder how just this solution is. Perhaps it is time to fold forgiveness interventions into the quest for social justice so that these work together. When a reduced sentence is going to occur, then it seems wise that the rage within first is reduced.