Coordinating Forgiving and Seeking Forgiveness

When a person is ready to be forgiven, the other may not be ready to forgive.

I have stated previously that to forgive is courageous and even heroic when treated unjustly by others. As you do the hard work of being good to those who are not good to you, as you approach the other with this offer of forgiveness, it sometimes can get complicated. The complications then can lead to new hurts and even a new opportunity to forgive. Consider six issues regarding the granting of forgiveness and the seeking of it:

1.  When people forgive, they go through what can be a lengthy and challenging process. They commit to doing no harm to the one who was offensive. They try to see the offending person in a much wider context than only the offending behavior. They try to see the inherent worth in the other, offer compassion, stand in the pain lest they give that pain right back to the other, and they try to be merciful. Such overtures at times can backfire as the other is not ready to seek forgiveness. Thus the forgiver might be met with such statements as: “What do you mean? I did nothing wrong. You are overly sensitive and are over-reacting.”

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs

2.  When people have offended and seek forgiveness, they, too, go through a potentially lengthy and challenging process.  They try to see the offended person as wounded, as in need of some assistance to overcome the hurt. The offending people see the inherent worth of the offended, have empathy on what they are enduring, and want to reach out to make things right. Such overtures at times also can backfire as the offended one is not ready to forgive. The forgiveness-seeker might be met with these kinds of statements: “What’s your game now? You are constantly doing this and I have had it. Don’t bother me with your sob story.”

3.  The take-home message for those of you either trying to forgive or seeking forgiveness is this: Try to see where the other person is in the process (of either forgiving or seeking it). Both of you may be in very different developmental places in your respective healing journeys. Getting a sense of which of you is far along and which of you is not ready is highly important so that each of you can be patient with the other and with the self. . . .

Read the final three issues of this blog on the Psychology Today website where it was posted on December 5, 2018.

Robert

My partner and I have quite different political views.  I respect his position, but he definitely does not respect mine.  We argue a lot.  My question to you: How can I forgive him when he is so aggressive about political matters?

I think you need to talk with him about what it means to be a person.  Are people more than their political positions?  If so, what is this “more” that goes beyond the political?  Does he see these other important qualities in you?  I think he needs to broaden his perspective that human beings in their importance transcend politics.  This is not easy to learn and so he and you will have to work on this more transcendent perspective.  As you forgive, try to see these larger human qualities in your partner.  Such a wider perspective likely will help you in the forgiveness process.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.

My mother refuses to accept my forgiveness.  I am an adult who lives away from home now.  She denies any neglect even though both my brother and I carry scars from her inattention when we were growing up.  My brother and I carefully have examined this issue and we are in agreement about the unfairness.  How do we get my mother to see this?

It seems that your mother is in denial about what happened.  Such a psychological defense mechanism can be hard to change.  Your mother may need time on this.  If she sees your support and unconditional love, then this may help reduce the denial.  When she sees and experiences your unconditional love try—gently—bringing up one concrete instance of neglect in the spirit of forgiving.  The concrete referent and the unconditional love in combination may aid your mother in breaking the denial and being open to your forgiveness of her.

For additional information, see My Mother Robbed Me of Trust.

Does the process of forgiving myself differ at all from the process of forgiving someone else?

You can follow the same Process Model when forgiving yourself.  Most of the time, when we offend ourselves, we also have offended others.  If this is the case for you, then as you forgive yourself, consider seeking forgiveness from those whom you have hurt by your actions.

For additional information, see How to Forgive.

I am forgiving my boss for harsh language about a month ago.  Now this week he is dumping all kinds of work on me with unrealistic deadlines.  Can I forgive him for both of these issues at the same time or is it better to take one at a time?

If the boss has a pattern of unjust behaviors, then you can forgive for the pattern itself rather than take each incident one at a time. If there are only two incidents as you describe, I would recommend forgiving the boss two times, for each discrete incident.  It will be less complicated if you separate the two.  Yet, if these two are part of a pattern, it may be better to forgive for the pattern so you do not have to forgive the boss 10 or 20 or 50 times.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

Is it less meritorious to say to oneself about the other person, “I forgive you,” than to say this directly to the offending person?

The answer depends on how the other will respond.  If that person is not ready to hear those words or to seek forgiveness, then rejection of your overture can happen.  If the other sees no wrong in the actions, then rejection of your overture again can happen. In other words, it depends on the circumstances between the two of you.  You certainly can say within yourself to the other, “I forgive you, “ and this is reasonable if proclaiming those words to the other will create more tension between the two of you.

For additional information, see 8 Keys to Forgiveness.

Criticisms of Forgiveness — 5th in a series: “Women Are Controlled by Men in Forgiving”

“The self-help books target women; research sometimes targets women. Forgiveness is asking women to tolerate men’s injustice; men would not be asked to do this toward women. Therefore, forgiving is playing out the power differential in the new societal struggle (which, to Marx, belonged once to ownership and labor in industry), which is the battle of the sexes.” Lamb (2002) made this point.

The argument is helpful if clinicians and researchers focus attention on only men or only women. In actuality, however, the pioneering research and interventions have been concerned about both. For example, Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis (1995) educated both college men and women in forgiving deep hurts. The first empirical study on person-to-person forgiving published in psychology included both men and women (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989).

Although it is true that some self-help books are geared toward women only, most talk to both genders (see, e.g., Smedes, 1984, 1996). Our studies on participants with postabortion emotional effects (Coyle & Enright, 1997) and on those with coronary artery disease were exclusively with men. Our studies of participants in drug rehabilitation (Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004) and of adult children of alcoholics (Osterndorf, Enright, Holter, & Klatt, 2011) include both men and women.

One cannot help but see a particular assumption in the argument that targeting women for forgiveness is a gender bias. The argument seems to imply that forgiving is a way for the offender to keep a sinister control over the forgiver. If forgiving led automatically to reconciliation, then the argument would have weight. We already saw, however, that forgiving an offense and reconciling with an offender are two separate issues. The argument has a false first premise, that forgiveness and reconciliation are synonymous.

If, on the other hand, forgiving is a choice freely made and, once made, releases one from a host of psychological problems, then a predominant focus on women would actually be a bias against men. In actuality, however, forgiveness therapy and research target both genders. 

Robert

Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P.. Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5182-5198). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.