Inherited Stress from Our Historical Past

Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?

In a 2015 article in Scientific Americanit was reported that Holocaust survivors from World War II have compromised levels of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, which helps a person emotionally regulate after trauma. Important to us in this essay is yet another finding reported in the same article: The children of Holocaust survivors have even more compromise in their stress-related hormones, making them particularly vulnerable to anxiety.

Originally posted July 26, 2018

These results made me wonder. Could such findings be even more general than people connected to the Holocaust? High stress during World Wars I and II likely visited many millions of people who either fought in these wars, or were at home awaiting the return of loved ones, or who received word of the death of loved ones. Might their bodies have been more primed for stress? If so, then might their children, such as the Baby Boomers, have been primed for greater stress?

Is each subsequent generation, as a whole and on the average, becoming more stressed than the previous one?

This made me wonder even further: What about those who were slaves during the time of the Civil War in the mid 19th century. Might they have had internal, hormonal challenges that were passed to their children and might the soldiers on either side of the Civil War conflict have produced compromised stress-related hormones that were passed to their children?

Might people of today be more stressed than they should be because of these historical events in their own families from generations past? After all, many millions of people were directly or indirectly involved in the major Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

Think about this pattern within only one family (which could extend back in time for centuries):

  1. Suppose Martha was 6-years-old in 1864 when an army, fighting in the Civil War, invaded her town. She became very stressed, as explained in the Scientific American article referenced above.
  2. At age 22, she gave birth to a son, James, in 1880. James not only inherited Martha’s compromised stress-related hormonal pattern but actually became even more compromised than Martha in his ability to recover from any trauma he may face.
  3. Now the compromised James, at age 24, becomes a father to Sarah, in 1904. Sarah is even more compromised than James and she, at age 13, experiences World War I with an absent father and the threat of war in her country. Her cortisol levels become even more compromised.
  4. At age 19, Sarah gives birth to Joseph in 1923. He is more compromised than his mother Sarah for the same reasons as above. At age 20, with his already compromised hormonal system, Joseph is drafted into the army and fights fiercely in Europe during World War II with the result of even lower levels of cortisol produced in his body.
  5. After the war, Joseph marries Louisa, whose father died in the war. She, like Joseph, has a compromised hormonal system and they have a daughter, Octavia, in 1950, a Baby Boomer.
  6. Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
  7. Octavia begets Samuel who begets Rachael who currently is 25 years old. She exhibits anxiety, occasional panic attacks, and is now showing signs of depression.

When Rachael visits her mental health professional the discussions center on her childhood upbringing and her stresses in raising her own family as well as problems at work. Notice that the perspective goes back only 25 years rather than to 1864 with Rachael’s own great-great-great-great grandmother, Martha, because no one has any information about Martha who has long been forgotten in the family.

My point is this: Stresses today could be caused, at least in part, by the stresses handed down to this particular person from one generation after another, two or more centuries before….and we are not aware of this. Even if cortisol and related hormonal levels are not reduced in each subsequent generation, psychological compromise still may be increasing as stress accumulates and is passed on.

Might the stresses on high school and college students today be greater than was the case for their grandparents? If so, this, in part, might be caused by this accumulation of unrelieved stresses passed through the generations. There are many articles written on current college students’ rather surprising inability to cope with the challenges of higher education study.

One example, in Psychology Today, is from 2015, in Dr. Peter Gray’s blog, with the title,Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges.” Are we witnessing accumulated generational stresses all the way back to Martha in 1858 (and even farther back as Martha may have been compromised by her great-great-great-great grandparents)?

Suicides and suicide attempts are increasing in the United States and some are referring to this as a crisis. The term “crisis” is being used as well to describe the recent opioid overuse.  Psychological depression is rising, especially among young teenagers. Anxiety, too, is rising, with some pointing to the economic recession which started in 2007 as a cause for the increases in suicides, depression, and anxiety. While the relatively recent economic downturn may be contributing to these mental health increases, perhaps some of the cause is the hidden accumulation of stress across centuries. This is not being addressed at all from what I can tell.

What if we, in our current global community, became aware of this possibility of passing stress through the generations? What if we started inoculating the current generation of children and adolescents with the stress-buffer of forgiveness through sound forgiveness education? They can begin by forgiving parents for their excessive anger, which might be historically-inherited, for example. Those who forgive now likely need not forgive all who came before them. Forgiving those now who are behaviorally-demonstrating the stress through unjust actions or maladaptive behavior (such as second-hand cigarette smoke or too much sugar in the diet to appease the stressed parent) may be sufficient for restoring psychological health to those in the current generation.

Might the compromised cortisol level (and other hormonal stress indicators) begin to self-correct, lowering stress reactions, and helping people adapt to stressful injustices, and particularly the stressful effects caused by those injustices? Might this then have a positive effect on the next generation, as the children and the children’s children are not overwhelmed by the effects of parental anguish, excessive anger, or other inappropriate behaviors?

.

Might forgiveness education in general, within regular classrooms or families, be one answer to reversing the accumulated stress–with its inherited psychological effects that might be increasing through the generations? Learning to forgive may be the untried way of reversing the negative psychological effects of injustices that have marched across the centuries. Research consistently shows that both Forgiveness Therapy and Forgiveness Education can statistically significantly reduce anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

A final point is this: Forgiveness education now may be a gift to subsequent generations of children who then may inherit far less stress than seems to be the case to date. This may occur if the children and adolescents of today can reduce stress through learning to forgive and thus prepare a way for greater thriving for their own children and grandchildren.

Unless we see the problem, we may be indifferent to the cure. Future generations’ mental health may depend, in part, on how we respond to these ideas.

Robert

Humility, Courage, and Forgiveness

Forgiveness is full of paradoxes.  Consider three examples of these paradoxes:

1) As one is kind to those who are not kind to the person, then the forgiver experiences emotional relief;

2) Rather than seeking justice as part of forgiveness, the person exercises the virtue of mercy and this can be part of the healing process between two people;

3) When emotionally hurting from the injustice the focus is not on the self, but on the other and this promotes healing in the forgiver.

Another paradox is that as forgiveness fosters humility, the lowliness of humility fosters the strength of courage.  As one forgives, one begins to practice humility which means lowering oneself from a potential power position to see the self and the other as at least somewhat similar in these: We are both imperfect; we both have hurt others; we are both human and therefore each of us possesses inherent worth.  The humility can help one stand firm in courage to persevere in the forgiveness process with all of its paradoxes.  After all, if the forgiver sees the inherent worth in both, then there is motivation to acknowledge this worth and see the process of forgiveness through to the end, which requires courage.  Courage is not the absence of fear, but moving forward even in fear.

Humility and courage each can be misunderstood.  There are two extremes to both humility and courage.  The first extreme for humility is to have a very lowly—too lowly—view of the self so that people think they deserve to be humiliated, even constantly humiliated.  The other extreme of humility is, in trying to see one’s own bounds or limitations, to distort these at too high a level.  The quest for humility, in this second case of extremes, leads to a distortion toward one’s own greatness, one’s own specialness above others.

The first extreme of courage is too much fear that leads to a lack of action.  The second extreme of courage is a reckless bravado, charging ahead without the ability to do so and therefore to endanger self and others.

Humility requires a middle-ground between self-deprecation and self-inflation to a more realistic view of one’s own (and others’) strengths and weaknesses.

Courage requires a middle-ground between being frozen in fear and being reckless.

As one forgives, the person needs to balance both humility and courage.  Genuine humility (without the extremes discussed above) helps the forgiver to see the shared humanity with the forgiven.  Genuine courage (without those extremes) helps the forgiver to persevere in the struggle to forgive and to bring justice as its own moral virtue into the process of reconciliation.

Humility, courage, and forgiveness are a team that, together, can lead to inner healing and the offer of reconciliation toward those who have behaved unjustly.

Robert

Our Theory of Forgiveness

Our Theory of Forgiveness: Excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Forgiving Life            (APA Books, 2012)

Our theory starts with the premise that all people need to both give and receive love to be healthy and to have psychologically healthy families and communities.  I am not alone in this view when we study the ancient literature, going back to the formation of the Hebrew nation, thousands of years ago, with the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  I am not alone when we turn to modern-day heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, or Mother Teresa.  Unconditionally loving others, despite their blemishes and faults, was at the heart of their message.

I am not alone in this view when we consult modern philosophy, in which Gene Outka has shown the centrality of love for morally good human interaction.  I am not alone in this view of the primacy of love when we examine the earliest roots of psychology, going back over a century to the pioneering work of the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, who made the famous statement that each person’s purpose is to work and to love if genuine mental health will result, a theme which continues to resonate with psychoanalysts in the 21st century.  Contemporary social scientists such as Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon make the compelling biological case that love is at the central core of who we are as humans.[1]  I continue not to be alone in this view when I ask people of good common sense about what is of the utmost importance to them.


All people require love, both the giving and the receiving of love; this is not an option.                                                                                                          Robert D. Enright


On this issue, people who use the method of religious faith to understand the world, some people who use the method of deductive logic and philosophical analysis, some people who use the method of psychoanalysis, and some people who use the method of modern biological and social science are in agreement—The essence of our humanity is to love and be loved.

Robert

Your Unfolding Love Story…..Continued

In my book, The Forgiving Life, I challenge the reader to start or continue telling his or her life’s story with an emphasis on putting more love in the world. The emphasis is not on romantic love, or what the ancient Greeks called eros.  Instead, the emphasis is on service love in which a person strives to support and uplift others.  This kind of giving-love, in Greek, is agape.
.
A major challenge is this: No matter how you have lived your life to this point, you can begin, by your motivations, decisions, and actions today, to put more love in the world.  This can give you much more meaning and purpose in your life than perhaps you ever thought possible.
.
Forgiving others can be part of your Unfolding Love Story.  In the name of goodness, is there someone at whom you have annoyance or perhaps deep anger?  Your forgiving that person can put more love into the world now by first putting that love in your heart.
.
It is never too late to alter your story. What can you do today to make a love-difference in this difficult world?
.

Robert

Is Forgiving for the Forgiver or for the One Who Offended?

So frequently I hear this: “Forgiveness is for you, the one who was injured.”

I think this actually can be a distortion of what forgiveness is.  We need to make a distinction between:

  • the end point or goal of forgiveness, and
  • a consequence of forgiving.

These are different.  The goal is that to which forgiveness actually points.  Given that forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is concerned about goodness toward others.  Justice as a moral virtue is not primarily for the self but for all with whom you come into contact directly or indirectly.  Patience is directed toward those who are moving slower than you would like.  Yes, one can be fair or just to the self and patient toward the self, but these are not the primary goals of either virtue.  They are outwardly directed to others.  It is the same with forgiveness because, like justice and patience, it too is a moral virtue.  The end point of forgiving is to reach out in goodness directly toward the one or ones who have been unfair to you.

Yes, there is such a thing as self-forgiveness, but notice that the wording is intended to expressly direct the attention toward the self.  In the case of forgiving as it typically is used, the word “self” is not included.

A consequence of forgiving, shown frequently by our research, is that as a person extends goodness toward offending others, then the one who forgives experiences considerable emotional relief.  Excessive anger, anxiety, and depression all can go down in the one who genuinely forgives.

These emotional-health consequences, while very positive and desirable, are not the ultimate goal of engaging in the moral virtue of forgiving.  If it were, then this would be the goal for all of the moral virtues and such practice likely would degenerate into self-serving activities and therefore not be virtuous at all.

Is forgiving for the forgiver?  No, this is not its goal.  Is a consequence of forgiving emotional relief for the forgiver?  Yes.  And this distinction between goal and consequence makes all the difference in understanding what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish within the self.

Robert

Why Forgiveness Is Not Only a Psychological Construct

The entrance of the idea of forgiveness into the social sciences is quite recent. The first publication within psychology that centered specifically on people forgiving other people was published in the late 20th century (Enright, Santos, and Al-Mabuk, 1989).  That article examined children’s, adolescents’, and adults’ thoughts about what forgiving is.  In other words, the study took one slice of forgiveness, in this case people’s thoughts, and examined those thoughts from a scientific perspective.  Such an investigation, of course, does not then imply that forgiving is all about thoughts and thoughts alone just because that was the focus of the scientific investigation.

People forgiving other people is an ancient idea, first explicated thousands of years ago in the story within the Jewish tradition of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers who sold him into slavery.  The portrait of forgiveness in that ancient report includes Joseph’s entire being, not just his thinking, as he shows anger, a sense at first of revenge, which slowly transforms into tenderness toward his half-brothers in the form of weeping, hugs, generosity, and an outpouring of love.  His entire being was involved in the forgiving.

Philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, have developed what is known as the virtue-ethics tradition to explain morality.  To be virtuous is, like Joseph, to produce a moral response with one’s entire being: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations toward goodness, and relationships that reflect that goodness.

Psychologists, in contrast, and especially if they do not rely on this wisdom-of-the-ages, tend to compartmentalize forgiveness.  For example, they may borrow from personality psychology and conclude that there is a trait of forgiving and a state of forgiving and these are somehow different.  A trait forgiver, it is assumed, already has a personality geared to forgiving.  In other words, expertise in forgiving is not forged by practice, practice, and more practice as we all have this opportunity toward developing expertise in forgiving.

Other psychologists, when they do not take the virtue-ethics position, tend to think of forgiving as mostly emotional as the forgiver substitutes more pleasant feelings for the existing resentment toward an offending person.  Substitution of feelings, as seen in the Joseph story, is only one part, and not even the most important part of forgiveness.  Offering love in a broad sense is the most important part.

The bottom line is this: Taking only a psychological perspective on the concept of forgiving tends toward reductionism, breaking up of forgiveness into smaller and more exclusive parts than should be the case.  This tends to distort the concept of forgiveness.  If a distorted view of forgiveness is presented to clients in therapy, are we helping those clients reach their highest potential as forgivers?

Robert

Reference:

Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989).  The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.

Forgiving Those Who Gaslight Your Character and Ghost You

“It is difficult to truly defend yourself when your character is assailed.”

The theme of gaslighting has become popular in the psychological literature.  It now is well known that the word “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, in which the female character is continually falsely accused of wrongdoing, which causes her considerable emotional distress.  Gaslighting is present when there are false denials by the other or false accusations toward you by the other.  At least 4 kinds of gaslighting are described in the current literature: 

KuanShu Designs
Source: KuanShu Designs
1) The other person does a nefarious act and denies it.  “I did not steal your money.  You must be mistaken.”

2) The other person has a character flaw, an ongoing pattern that is denied.  “You keep saying that I neglect the children.  Look.  I am playing with them now.  You do have a way of exaggerating.”
3) The other person accuses you of an act or a series of acts you did not commit. “You skimmed funds from our checking account.”4) The other person accuses you of a serious character flaw.  “You are so continuously angry that I can’t stand it any more.  I am out of here.”

Ghosting occurs when the other ignores you, abandons you, and shuts off all communication with you.

I have had people approach me for advice when they are the victims of the 2 G’s, both gaslighting and ghosting, a particularly difficult combination because the victims cannot defend themselves as the  other accuses and then leaves.  The victims are left alone to wonder and to doubt their own perceptions of themselves.

 

The 4th kind of gaslighting above, the assault on one’s character, is particularly difficult because there is no one concrete piece of evidence as occurs in points 1 and 3.  Either the accused person did or did not steal, for example, in point 3.  It is easier to verify a one-time behavior as having occurred or not than to defend an accusation of an ongoing character flaw.  After all, if one is accused of being overly angry, the victim probably can remember once or twice being too upset or having a bad day.  These occasional imperfections, of course, do not constitute a character flaw, but nonetheless might lead to some level of agreement with the accusation, even though it is false.
.

Martha sought help because her husband, Samuel, was constantly accusing her of being insensitive to his needs.  “You are always wrapped up in your own issues.  I try and try to make time for you and yet, when I do, you push me away,” he would say.  Martha was astonished by this because she truly tried to focus on him and his needs when he came home at night.  He used this accusation as an excuse to leave the home and stayed away for 8 months with no text, email, or phone contact.  Martha was left to wonder with no way of working this out with him.  “Was I insensitive?” she wondered.  “Might I have tried harder?”  Her self-doubt led to low self-esteem.  She started to lose weight and have depressive symptoms.

Josh approached me because his partner Abby was constantly accusing him of being overly angry.  She said that she cannot take all of the anger any more and so she is leaving, which she did. As in the above case, Abby shut off all communication with Josh.  Before she left, he asked her for instances in which he had been too angry to the point of fault.  She said this before leaving, “Do you remember two years ago when we were having an argument and you put your fist down on the car’s hood? That scared me and I just can’t take that sort of thing any more.” When Josh was about to rebut the accusation, Abby was gone.  He was left to think this through by himself.
.
As Josh realized that his resentment was getting too high, he asked me for advice on forgiving Abby.

The preliminaries when forgiving involve:
1) seeing that as you forgive, you are not excusing;
2) understanding that you may never reconcile with someone who accuses and distorts deeply and consistently;
3) further understanding that you can and should seek fairness.  This is especially important if the abuse is ongoing or even deepens. 

A beginning part of forgiveness is to concretely explore the other person’s injustice.  What, exactly, is the injustice?  When did it occur, how frequently did it occur, and how serious is it?  As we explored Abby’s accusations, Josh realized the following:

  • Abby’s final accusation was of an incident that occurred 2 years ago, not at all recently.
  • His “putting his fist down on the car’s hood” was not a pounding of the fist at all, but a gesture of emphasis over yet another accusation she was making at the time.
  • Abby could not come up with even one anger-incident in the past two years other than the false accusation about the fist and the hood.

When Josh more clearly saw all of this, he realized how seriously unjust were Abby’s accusations.

Josh then began to explore more deeply Abby’s own life and the challenges she faced.  For example, when growing up, her mother faced serious healthissues and so the mother had little time for Abby, who felt worthless.  Next, Josh examined Abby’s earlier relationship which ended in divorce.  Abby back then was accusing her first husband in a way that Josh now was experiencing.

This exploration set Josh free from his own self-doubts, from his own subtle self-accusations of “if only I had done more.”  He could see Abby’s pained life which opened him to forgiving her, not because of what she did, but in spite of this.  The process of forgiving uncovered Abby’s gaslighting.  The process of forgiving uncovered Abby’s ghosting which was not Josh’s fault.  He was able to see her confusions, her pain.  Thus, he forgave her from his heart and, of course, he could not discuss this forgiveness with her because she had abandoned him.  Yet, the gaslighting and ghosting did not destroy his integrity and his psychological health.  Forgiving helped him to identify the problems and to find a healthy solution to the effects of those problems, the primary effect of which was unhealthy anger and a developing low self-esteem.

Martha had a similar outcome.  As she freely decided to forgive and as she looked more closely into Samuel’s life, she discovered, through talking with some of his colleagues and friends, that his accusations and abandonment were hiding a serious drug habit which started a year before leaving.  Her examination of his unjust behavior not only uncovered that he was gaslighting and ghosting but also that he was living a lie and was using the gaslighting and ghosting as a coverup.  As his drug habit continued, he asked Martha to be his partner again, which she refused given his lack of insight into his own behaviors.  Seeing his pain helped her to forgive.  Forgiving, which took many months, set Martha free from anxiety and self-recrimination.  Not everyone would be ready to forgive in this situation, but it was Martha’s choice to do this.

In both cases, reconciliation did not occur.  A person can forgive without seeking to reconcile if such reuniting could be very harmful to the victimized person.

If you are the victim of the double injustices of gaslighting and ghosting, consider the process of forgiveness if you choose to do so. It may help you see more clearly that, in fact, you have been treated unjustly.  It may help you to label the other’s behavior as unjust, to see the pain in the other that has led to the 2 G’s of gaslighting and ghosting, and allow you to escape the harmful effects of these dangerous behaviors.

Posted in Psychology Today May 08, 2018