The Value of Forgiveness

2020 brought plenty to be angry about. There’s been a global pandemic, a national reckoning with racial injustice, an economic crisis and a presidential election – all of it debated each day on social media. But University of Northern Iowa (UNI) education professor Suzanne Freedman, who has specialized in forgiveness research over nearly three decades, says now may be a good time to remember the benefits of forgiveness, empathy and understanding.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Offsetting his dreary assessment of this unusual year with a final note of optimism, writer Steve Schmadeke used the paragraph above to set the stage for an informative article about the benefits of forgiveness that was printed last week in the online periodical INSIDE UNI. The article featured the forgiveness philosophy of Dr. Suzanne Freedman, a UNI professor of human development who is also a former graduate student and long-time research associate of Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Here are some of Dr. Freedman’s pronouncements as quoted in the UNI article:

What are the benefits of forgiveness?

I am often asked, “Why should I forgive?” and my response is always the same: “What’s the alternative?” Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury or damage, 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.

Freedman3Research has found that benefits of forgiveness for children, adolescents and adults include greater psychological and physical well-being, including decreases in anger, anxiety and depression. It also shows increases in hope, self-esteem, feelings of peace, improved relationships and academic achievement for students in school, as well as decreases in blood pressure, headaches and stress.

How does forgiveness deal with anger?

We have a right to feel resentment and anger. Many people criticize forgiveness because they mistakenly believe that anger is not part of the process. In fact, the opposite is true. We need to express our anger before we can forgive. Forgiveness involves admitting that one has been hurt, working through the feelings related to that hurt and then moving beyond them. The other important point is that the offender does not deserve our compassion because of their hurtful actions. However, we give it nevertheless.

Is self-forgiveness a real thing?

Self-forgiveness is a real thing. We have a model of self-forgiveness that is similar to our model of forgiving another. Self-forgiveness occurs when we have to forgive oneself for committing a deep, personal and unfair hurt. However, like in forgiving others, it occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt. 

This can be hurt you have suffered due to your own actions. People who find self-forgiveness may be less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior or even hurt others. 

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Our society needs to do a better job of helping people realize that they can move on from their worst pains or actions. When individuals view themselves from the lens of only their hurtful behavior, they are not recognizing the fact that all human beings have inherent worth. Forgiving yourself will make it easier for individuals to become more forgiving of others, too.

Read the full UNI article: The Value of Forgiveness


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ABOUT DR. SUZANNE FREEDMAN:
A professor of human development at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned 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.

At the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman teaches a variety of development courses including Studies in Forgiveness–an online, continuing education course designed primarily for upper-class psychology, counseling, and clinical students preparing to work with clients as helping professionals.

Dr. Freedman can be reached at freedman@uni.edu


MORE FORGIVENESS COMMENTARY FROM DR. FREEDMAN:

“I was hurt in a 5-year relationship and now I am hesitant to get into any other relationship. Does this lack of courage on my part suggest that I have not forgiven the one who hurt me?”

The issue here seems to be one of a lack of trust. You may or may not have forgiven the one with whom you were in a relationship for the 5 years. Even if you have completely forgiven, you still may lack trust and this is not a sign of unforgiveness. It is a sign that you know hurt is possible when you commit to others. Forgiveness can help with taking the risk and at the same time your using common sense in the new relationship, along with sincere acts of trustworthiness by the other, should help to slowly create a trust with the new person.

If I forgive to feel better, am I being selfish?

There is a difference between what forgiveness is (it is being good to those who are not good to you) and your motivation to forgive.  There is nothing wrong with being good to another person so that you can emotionally heal.  Here is a link to one of my essays at the Psychology Today website that gives you more information on this: 9 Purposes for Your Life When You Forgive.

“My father abandoned our family when I was 6 years old. I am now grown, in college, and he has come around now that the pressure is off. He wants to establish a relationship with me, but I do not even know him. Does it seem kind of phony to now go ahead with this?”

It is never too late to forgive. You see your father’s mistakes. I think that he sees them, too. You surely have a right to your anger. At the same time, you could give your father a huge gift of mercy and aid your own emotional healing if you have mercy on him and consider forgiveness. It will take a strong will and courage for you to do this. You will know if and when you are ready.

“I cannot forgive Hitler. To do so would be folly given his evil acts. So, in some cases is forgiving an act of folly?”

Forgiveness is a moral virtue. All moral virtues (such as justice, patience, kindness, and love-in-service-to-others) are good. Therefore, forgiveness is good. Goodness is not folly. Because forgiveness is part of goodness, it follows that forgiveness cannot be folly.

That said, you may not be ready right now to forgive certain people for certain unjust actions. This does not make you a bad person. Forgiveness does not have the same quality as justice. Certain forms of justice are so important that they are encoded into laws of the state: Do not murder, for example. Forgiveness is not codified into law because it is the person’s choice whether or not to forgive a given person for a given unjust action. So, if you do not want to forgive Hitler for the pain he has caused to you (and he can cause pain to those who were born long after World War II), then you need not do so, and remain a good person.

“Is it harder to forgive if a person is filled with anger compared with another person who is filled with pain and sorrow after being treated unfairly?”

It seems to me that if the anger is very intense and includes resentment or even hatred, then, yes, it is harder to forgive. Some people who are fuming with anger cannot even use the word “forgiveness” because it intensifies the anger. At the same time, if a person has deep sorrow, sometimes there is an accompanying lack of energy and the person needs some time to mourn first. At such times, the person needs to be gentle with the self as emotional healing takes place.

What’s so bad about a little anger to keep the obnoxious people away?

It is normal to feel some anger in the short-term when others act unjustly.  It is the long-term anger that can last for decades that can be the problem.  That long-term anger can deplete one’s energy and cut into one’s happiness.  It is under this circumstance that the unhealthy, long-term anger needs to be addressed and reduced.

“The self-help literature seems to emphasize emotional healing once one forgives. My question is this: How can I use my own journey of forgiving to benefit others?”

We have to make a distinction between what forgiveness is and one important consequence of forgiving, namely being healed of powerfully negative emotions. When we forgive, we offer goodness toward the one who hurt us. The paradox is that we as the forgivers, then, can experience emotional relief. Yet, that is not the end of the story. As you forgive, you begin to know the pathway of forgiveness and now can help others, such as family members, think about and practice forgiving. Your experience might prove to be valuable to those who are new to the process of forgiving.

I forgave and the one who offended me laughed. Now I am offended. Any advice?

Yes, the advice is this: When you forgive a person, ask yourself if it is best to let the person know by saying, “I have forgiven you” or whether it is best to show forgiveness in other ways such as a smile or attending to the person’s spoken ideas.  The other person, in your case, was not ready to hear the words.  I recommend patience and forgiving even for the laughter.  Then, try to show forgiveness without using the words “I forgive you.”

Forgive and forget: Do these really fit together?

I have come to realize that when we forgive, we do not develop a kind of moral amnesia.  Instead, we remember in new ways, without the deep pain we experienced at first.  We tend to remember the hurtful experiences of our life (such as a broken bone when the adult-person was a child, for example).  When we remember injustices in new ways, this helps us avoid being treated badly again in the same way by the same person.