Let us first define our terms. Empathy involves stepping inside the other’s shoes and understanding the world from his or her viewpoint. To sympathize with another is to see his or her distress and to react to that (without necessarily feeling that person’s feelings, as occurs with empathy). Yes, I do think that people can forgive by looking toward the other and seeing his or her woundedness without then going the extra step of entering into that person’s world through empathy. Sometimes, the thought of empathizing with a hurtful other is too frightening for the forgiver to try to accomplish. At such times, insight about how others have treated the person and his or her difficulty in dealing with this treatment can be sufficient to move forgiveness along.
Yes, I think it is fair to say that. At the same time, we have to be careful not to condemn those who are wounded by the unfair treatment of others. Sometimes, very angry people never have been shown the door of forgiveness that could set them free from the hopelessness you mention. Let us do our part to lessen a person’s experience with this kind of anger.
“Forgiveness is fundamentally unfair. Here we have a deeply abused person and now we ask her, in her woundedness, to reach out to one who hurt her. She now has two burdens, the original abuse and having to forgive. Please, let us first help her with the wounds from the abuse and put forgiveness on the shelf for her sake!”
So goes the most pervasive criticism of what forgiveness is and what it supposedly does in 2016. This criticism is likely to change over time and a new one emerge because, well, that is the way it is with forgiveness. There always seems to be one major criticism that is in season and acts as a barrier to forgiveness.
Thirty years ago, that in-season criticism was the equating of forgiving and reconciling. Once the logic was worked out that forgiving cannot be the same as reconciling, that one faded. After all, forgiveness is a virtue (as is justice and kindness and patience); reconciliation is not a virtue, but instead is a negotiation strategy of two or more people coming together once again in mutual trust. One can forgive and not reconcile. Thus, they differ.
Let us now turn to the current in-season criticism of forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness is a burden if:
………we pressure someone into forgiving;
………we tell the person that the only motivation for forgiving is to be good—-very good—-to the person who was not good to the one who might forgive;
………we critically judge the would-be forgiver for not forgiving.
Yet, we can unburden the forgiver, as well as forgiveness itself, when we realize that:
………forgiveness is the forgiver’s choice. It is not our place to pressure someone to forgive (or not to forgive). Give the person freedom to make the decision;
………there are many motivations to forgive. One healthy motivation that often exists early in the process is the desire to be free from emotional pain. The forgiver is motivated to become emotionally whole. The forgiver, at this stage of the process, is not so interested in doing wonderful things for the one who was not wonderful. These are very different motivations and need to be distinguished, especially early in the process;
………it is wrong to condemn a struggling person who is ambivalent about forgiveness. Maybe the person needs more time; maybe the person needs more information about what forgiveness is (and not the colloquial misunderstandings that cloud the understanding). Again, it is the choice of the one who was abused.
When we unburden the abused person by clarifying these issues, then it is clear that we are not placing a new burden on the person by discussing forgiveness. Notice that I did not say “suggesting forgiveness.” Let us discuss and then let the person decide.
So, what will be the new criticism of forgiveness that could block, without justification, a person from exploring forgiveness?
You make a good point that anger seems to have the upper hand right now in social media as people vent about politics, community unfairness, and other issues of injustice. Yet, we now have an unprecedented opportunity to get the message out about forgiveness as one approach to unfairness. Introducing a quotation about forgiveness on one’s own social media page, for example, could reach hundreds of people. Persevering in your posting about forgiveness could bear more fruit now than you might realize. As people are free to vent on social media, as you say, you now are free to talk about the paradox of being good to those who are not being good to you.
When I started working at a domestic violence shelter for women and children just over three years ago, forgiveness was the last thing on my mind. My formal education focused on teaching “coping skills” so that clients with mental illness could learn to survive in a cruel and dangerous world. If learning how to cope didn’t do enough to reduce their symptoms, I was taught to rationalize their lack of success as just being part of the mental illness and to refer them for a medication evaluation. Methods that promoted healing were simply left out.
I held a personal belief that forgiveness was the way to heal from trauma, but my employer didn’t offer it. Instead, we focused on domestic violence education and coping skills as a means to survival. But, this did nothing to promote healing from the very wounds that we told our clients put them at risk for abuse. So, the cycle of violence continued and we functioned more like a revolving door than a place of recovery.
When I realized that our programs were not providing what we promised, I wanted to do more. I wanted to do more than help my clients survive because even though they learned how to survive, they didn’t learn how to stop the abuse. After several months of trying to figure out what I could do with women who may or may not be in shelter for more than a few months, I recalled what I had learned from Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and proposed his forgiveness therapy method as a way to resolve feelings like anger, shame and guilt.
It was a risk to even suggest that victims of domestic violence could forgive their abusers. But, I was able to convince my supervisor that learning the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation had the potential to reduce violence against women. So, after receiving permission, I designed a 10-week group based on the Enright Forgiveness Process.
After only a few weeks, I noticed a major change in the women. Instead of being irritable and short-tempered, they were kind and compassionate to one another and we had fewer reported problems in shelter living. While I anticipated healing, I certainly didn’t expect my job to be easier or for it to happen so quickly. I thought I was teaching them how to forgive their abusers, which they did. But, something bigger was happening. They were learning how to love each other and to experience joy in their suffering. That’s when everything that I had learned from Dr. Enright made sense and I was given a new purpose.
I have been using forgiveness therapy now for more than three years. I continue to use it more than any other method because I have witnessed real healing from trauma and mental illness. I’ve found that there is more pain in forgiveness, but it doesn’t last as long and the forgiver is stronger because of it if they persevere. Forgiveness moves the person from a state of anger and victimization to a state of courage and grace. And when the person chooses to love instead of hate the person who hurt them, they discover that all that is left is love. The Enright Forgiveness Process teaches people how to love and healing is the result.
Personally, I can’t think of a better outcome. I hope that my experience with forgiveness therapy will inspire other mental health professionals to complete the continuing education course from the International Forgiveness Institute. While forgiveness only requires the person who was hurt to forgive, they shouldn’t have to do it alone.
Carly Elms is a family therapist at the Franciscan Forgiveness Center in Independence, Missouri where she offers forgiveness therapy to individuals, couples, families, and religious communities throughout the Kansas City metro area and Northwest Missouri. Along with her Masters in Clinical Social Work (MSW), she has a Masters of Education in Educational & Counseling Psychology (M.Ed.). She is a U.S. Air Force veteran. Carly successfully completed “Helping Clients Forgive,” the International Forgiveness Institute’s online Continuing Education Course, with one of the highest scores ever recorded.
Read more about Carly Elms at CatholicTherapists.com.
The length of time to forgiveness can vary greatly across people and even within any given person, depending on who did the hurting and how deep the anger is. We find that consistent work on forgiveness for about 12 weeks for many people can produce a reduction in anger and a promotion of emotional healing.
This is not a rigid rule at all. Some people require a year of forgiveness work before the anger no longer is in control. A key to keep in mind is this: Even if you have some anger left over, even if you have not perfectly forgiven, you can lead an emotionally-healthy life although some anger remains. Keep working on forgiving, knowing that it is a path to keeping anger under your control rather than the reverse.
Editor’s Note: Forgiveness has matured into a world-wide movement, including in India. This article is excerpted from a more lengthy news story in one of India’s largest business publications.
LiveMint.com, New Delhi, India – In his 2015 book, 8 Keys To Forgiveness, psychologist Robert Enright cites research to demonstrate the power of forgiveness. In a study conducted with fellow psychologist Suzanne Freedman, he found that incest survivors who underwent a 14-month programme to forgive their perpetrators were free of depression one year after the programme ended. The study was published in the Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology in 1996.
In another study, published in the Psychology & Health journal in 2009, Enright and his colleagues worked with men who were admitted to the hospital with cardiac problems. After undergoing forgiveness therapy, which involved 10 weekly sessions of identifying and forgiving those who had wronged them, the men not only exhibited reduced levels of anger but also had healthier hearts.
Intriguingly, Enright has even found that students who were unable to concentrate in school owing to anger issues benefited from forgiveness counselling, so much so that they actually raised their grades from D to C, were able to focus better and had more amiable relationships with others. This study was published in the Journal Of Research In Education in 2008. Thus, forgiveness can have a positive ripple effect, wherein mercy extended to one person radiates to others.
If forgiveness, then, can have such a positive impact, how can we practise it more often? As Enright says, forgiveness goes beyond saying “I forgive you”. In fact, the words do not even have to be uttered; rather, they have to be felt. In its essence, forgiveness entails “extending goodness towards those who have hurt you”. It involves acknowledging the inherent worth of every human being. And, as we all know, this can be hard even at the best of times, and can become a Herculean task when we have been wronged grievously.
Enright, however, says that we can become “forgivingly-fit” with practice. By first forgiving people whom we love for minor misdemeanours, we can gradually graduate to forgiving those who have injured us in more heinous ways.
Finally, forgiveness should not be mistaken for weakness. As Mahatma Gandhi aptly put it, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Aruna Sankaranarayanan, the author of this article, is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties in Andheri, a suburb of Mumbai, India. She completed her undergraduate studies at Mount Holyoke College and acquired her doctorate in developmental psychology at Harvard University. Both schools are in Massachusetts, USA.
Mint is one of India’s premium business news publications and the clear No.2 among business papers in terms of readership. LiveMint.com is Mint’s online portal and is among the fastest growing news websites in India.
To explore more of Dr. Enright’s compendium of peer-reviewed forgiveness research from the past 30+ years, visit the Research Section of this website.