In my book, The Forgiving Life, I recommend an exercise that I call the Forgiveness Landscape in which you begin to think about all of the people who have ever been unjust to you. You rate what the injustice is and how deeply that injustice hurt you. You then order these people from the least-severe hurt to the most-severe hurt. You start with the least-severe hurt and begin the forgiveness process with that person. Once you finish the forgiveness process with that one person, you move up to the next person, and then the next until you are experienced enough with forgiveness to start forgiving those who have been the most hurtful to you. This exercise may prove worthwhile for your wife. In other words, she does not start with the parents. As she forgives others, who are less hurtful to her, then her psychological defenses toward her parents, in which she may have been denying the degree of hurt, may change so that she sees the deeper hurt that she has. At that point, she may have the strength, the resolve, and the expertise to forgive the parents. At that point, the nightmares may end. I wish both of you the best on this forgiveness journey.
We have forgiveness education curriculum guides here at the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. for children age 4 all the way up to adolescents ages 17 to 18. We help children and adolescents first understand forgiveness through stories, which are part of these curricula. You might consider once a week having a “Forgiveness Hour” in which you use the lessons from our curriculum guides. You also might consider even a 15 minute Family Forgiveness Forum once a week in which you discuss your own themes of forgiveness that week: How you are working on forgiving, what you are doing concretely to forgive, and how this is going for you.
For additional information, see: Forgiveness Makes Kids Happier.
You might want to gently share one of your own stories of forgiveness when the group is in a quieter state. Showing forgiveness through your own story could be the beginning of teaching your friends about what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish. With this approach, you are not demanding forgiveness from them, but instead are giving them a chance to see it in action as you describe what you did and the effects of forgiveness on you. With this approach, you might be establishing a new norm, one of forgiveness, into the group.
For additional information, see: Choose Love, Not Hate.
Let us start with an analogy. Suppose you have a torn ligament in your knee and your physician recommends surgery. Suppose further that you are afraid of the surgery because it and the subsequent rehabilitation work will be painful. Would you just live with the knee pain, which could get worse and interfere with your quality of life, or would you go ahead with the surgery? Please notice that you will have pain either way—because of the torn ligament in the knee or because of the surgery and rehabilitation. The latter pain will end. The knee pain from the neglected medical treatment will continue and possibly get worse. Which do you choose?
It is the same with the process of forgiveness. You already have the “old wounds” because of the injustice against you. Forgiveness does not create more “old wounds” but instead introduces new and **temporary pain** because of the surgery-of-the-heart and the forgiveness rehabilitation, which could lead to permanent healing. Thus, I would not let the “old wounds” stand in the way of genuine healing.
For additional information, see: Holding Grudges? Forgiveness Key to Healthy Body.
Many people who have been deeply hurt by others start the forgiveness process with skepticism. They try forgiveness because they have tried so many other supposed remedies to emotional pain that have not worked for them. Even with this kind of skepticism, if a person understands forgiveness and takes the time to practice it, that commitment can grow in the person so that it strengthens as does one’s enthusiasm for persevering in the process.
For additional information, see: What is Forgiveness?
Yes, and I see this especially when the injustice is very grave, such as the murder of one’s family member. The anger can be so intense that the person refuses to forgive for this particular issue. This does not mean that the person is closed to forgiving all other people for other kinds of injustices. At the same time, a refusal to forgive today is not necessarily a person’s final word on the matter. In time, this person may decide to try forgiveness.
For additional information, see: Forgiveness Defined.
I emphasize willingness over willfulness because we are not always in complete control of our emotions. For example, you cannot at this precise moment will yourself not to feel anger. You can distract yourself or engage in “self-talk” to reduce the anger, but you still are not in complete control of your emotions at a given time. Thus, I advocate being open to change, but not to grow discouraged if you still need to work on those emotions that need your attention, such as unhealthy anger or even hatred. Being willing to change is not the same as “willfulness.” The latter suggests that you can will a deliberate alteration now in your emotions. Willingness, on the other hand, while still focused on your free will to be rid of unhealthy emotions, does not expect instant change in these emotions.
For additional information, see: Learning to Forgive Others.