Sometimes we harbor deep resentment over a long period of time because we think we are somehow getting back at those who have wronged us as we keep the anger deep inside. Yet, in my own experience, those who hold onto that anger are punishing the self more than the other, who may not care that you are so angry. When a person deliberately keeps such anger inside, he or she is keeping the self in an emotional prison which eventually could rob that person of happiness. Forgiveness is one important way of letting that anger out, which then can increase happiness.
Our process model of forgiveness can be used with people of faith by adding themes common to that faith. For example, suppose a client is in the Work Phase of the forgiveness process. The task is to see the inherent worth of the one who offended. The counselor could ask, “Is the person who hurt you made in the image and likeness of God?”
There is no Christian imperative to forgive immediately. When Paul tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger, the Greek is parorgismos, an intensive kind of anger that could include revenge-seeking. He is not telling us to forgive immediately.
The term quality of life refers to an overall positive sense of comfort, contentment, or happiness with one’s life as it is experienced right now. Quality of life encompasses one’s physical strength and health, one’s psychological adjustment to life’s challenges, the fulfillment of one’s purpose in life, and the amount of support that one senses from important others in one’s life. Forgiveness can increase benefits in all of these areas in people who take the time to work through the process.
In one rather dramatic example, Mary Hansen and I helped terminally ill cancer patients to forgive those who had hurt them in the short time of four weeks. This brief time period is unusual, but in this case, the people knew that they were dying, their energy was fading, and so they did the intensive work of forgiving those in the family toward whom they were still fuming. Some of the patients had held on to this unhealthy anger for decades.
Upon forgiving those who had been very unfair to them, these courageous people reported that their overall quality of life, including how they were feeling physically, was significantly improved. They even reported that their purpose in life became clearer to them because they were leaving their families more settled, more at peace because of the forgiveness that they were offering as they were dying. We saw how their actual physical condition deteriorated over those four weeks while, at the same time, their overall well-being— their reported quality of life— kept increasing. Forgiveness helped these individuals to die well.
Enright, Robert (2015-09-28). 8 Keys to Forgiveness (8 Keys to Mental Health) (p. 5). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Discipline can include pardoning a child on occasion. For example, suppose you tell the child to stay in his bedroom for a half hour because he hit his brother. After 20 minutes you can go into the room and let the child know that you will not be asking him to spend the rest of the half hour in the room. You can say, by way of instruction, that you are showing mercy on the child. Mercy is going beyond what is fair. You then could ask that child to go and have mercy on his sibling, the one whom he had hit earlier. Pardon and forgiveness are not the same thing, but they are related. As another example, you can discipline a child and tell her this, “Even though I am sending you to your room and even though I am disappointed in what you did, I still very much love you as a person, as my child.” You are acknowledging her inherent worth as a person despite your being angry at the moment.
The philosopher McGary (1989) argued that forgiveness is nothing more than reducing resentment toward an offender. Unlike the ideas discussed previously, this is not a view of the reduction as passive and time dependent. His definition of forgiving is consistent with the first of our two-part definition covered in the previous chapter. Yet, McGary argued against adding the second part to the definition— that of a more compassionate and empathic stance toward the person. What is intriguing about his argument is that he manages to keep forgiveness within the moral realm as he takes the concept away from a sympathetic focus on the offender. McGary’s (1989) argument goes something like this. As a person gives up resentment, he or she can be motivated by the desire to be rid of negative emotions and by the desire to improve his or her relationships with people other than the offender.
McGary is aware of the psychological defense of displacement in which an angry person kicks the cat or yells at the children. Forgiving, as he defined it, is moral because the cat and the children have more peaceful environs as the person forgives. What is missing from the definition is anything approaching a moral sense toward the offender. A client may cease resentment but then have a cool detachment toward the offender. Giving up resentment by itself is not necessarily moral, especially if it is not done on behalf of the offender for his or her good. For example, Alice may cease resenting Seth because she concludes that he is not worth the trouble. She may see him as morally unredeemable and incorrigible. Is she forgiving Seth as she judges him this way?
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 963-971). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 959-963). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
Most people do find it more difficult to forgive family members because they are the ones who are supposed to be loyal toward and loving with you. When that expectation is broken, then it is hard to forgive especially if the forgiver has not had much practice in forgiving.
First, I would not rush this, but be patient with the person. Sometimes a person puts up the psychological defenses of suppression, repression, and/or denial for a good reason. The person may need some time, for example, to get used to what happened before starting on the journey toward emotional healing. When the person is ready, you first can work with him or her to make that which is unconscious (repressed or denied, for example) now conscious. What helps is this: If the person has the safety net of forgiveness and knows that he or she can confront and eliminate that anger, then the person is less likely to fear the uncovering of that emotion.
Another technique is to make the person aware of his or her inner pain as a result of an injustice. If the person can look within courageously and see how much pain is in there, then he or she may be motivated to get rid of that pain. The first step is to examine the pain and label it. Are you in mourning only? Are you angry? Are you perhaps even furious? The diagnosis helps the person see the amount of forgiveness work necessary now to heal.
Editor’s Note: This unsolicited article was written by an inmate in the Columbia Correctional Institution at Portage, Wisconsin, and first appeared in the Institution’s September inmate newsletter. It is reprinted verbatim.
September 2016 – This is my fourth incarceration and will be my last because of the life sentence I am now serving. During this time I have been in many groups, programs, counseling sessions, ad nauseum and was never able to understand why I kept hurting people.
At Columbia Correctional Institution I was assigned a psychologist who suggested I participate in a group based on the book Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope by Dr. Robert Enright of UW-Madison’s Psychology Department. I made the best decision of my life when I accepted the challenge.
This was the only program that ever asked me, “What happened to you to make you the way you are?” Everyone in the group had stories to tell about how they had been used, abused, and/or misused by those they trusted and/or looked up to. We began the process as a group of individuals mostly afraid to tell our stories or let others in. As we plodded through the first weeks some wanted to give up, some felt their stories too bad, and some just didn’t trust enough to share.
As we progressed and our stories came out, we were exposed to people we never truly knew – in my case, people I most likely would never have associated with. We became close like a family and knew the group was a safe place to deal with the anger and resentment that had plagued some of us over fifty years.
“This is the best program I have ever been associated with. . .”
We could talk about those who wronged us and altered our lives, and we could begin to forgive them and release our anger.
This is the best program I have ever been associated with and would recommend the book or program to anyone. If it’s not available in your institution, talk to you psychologists or chaplains about calling CCI for more information. You can also contact Dr. Enright at the following address: Dr. Robert Enright, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dept. of Psychology, 1025 W. Johnson St., Madison, WI 3706.
If someone repressed their anger, then they often will not think that they have anything to forgive. “Why should I forgive? I am over the hurt. The person really did not hurt me all that much.” A person who has repressed anger is not giving herself the opportunity to get rid of that anger and if it is very deep anger it could develop eventually into anxiety and psychological depression. It is because of these consequences of holding onto repressed anger that it is better to try to bring it to the surface and deal with it through forgiveness if someone has been cruel and therefore is the cause of the anger.
I wonder. Today I visited the Wikipedia entry on Genocide and found 558 scholarly notes there. This impressively detailed article generated a thought that I would like to share with you. Suppose that a person’s ancestors experienced genocide 500 years ago. Is it possible that people today are still experiencing the effects of such horror? It is easier to see the passing on of anger and stress when we can concretely see, for example, an angry father who has raised up an angry son. Yet, what of the passing on of the anger and stress that might reach back half a millennium?
I think it is possible that the deeply felt anguish of a genocide can be passed to the next generation…..and then to the next….and the next…..until it is our turn. Maybe the felt emotions are not the exact same as happened under genocide, but they may be painful nonetheless.
If this idea has merit, then how do we forgive that which we are not even aware because it has been blotted out of history? Perhaps it is not necessary to have to reach back and forgive all who have passed on the pain. Perhaps it is sufficient to forgive a parent who has caused you pain and this suffices to quiet the emotions. Someone has to stop the intergenerational transfer of pain if a subsequent generation is to be set free from a pattern that might have lasted for centuries. If so, then forgiveness is even more important than I had thought.