Rage Reduction Through Forgiveness Education

By Dr. Robert Enright and Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons 

After massacres in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, in which 29 people died, President Donald Trump made a  number of sensible recommendations to address violence and mass murders in the United States. He has been criticized for not calling for stricter gun controls but his words went to the heart of this crisis of hatred and violence:

“We must recognize that the Internet has provided a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts. We must shine light on the dark recesses of the Internet, and stop mass murders before they start. . . We cannot allow ourselves to feel powerless. We can and will stop this evil contagion. In that task, we must honor the sacred memory of those we have lost by acting as one people.” (Read the Full Text Here.)

Below are our proposals for aspects of a comprehensive federal plan consistent with the President’s ideas. They are based on our combined 70 years of experience in research, education, and clinical work in uncovering and initiating treatment protocols in schools and in mental health treatment for excessive anger (or what psychiatrists call “irritability”).

Anger-reduction programs. The mental health field needs to develop protocols to identify individuals at risk for severe irritability and violent impulses. Next, empirically-verified treatment plans should be initiated for reducing intense anger and rage. Programs like this are rare in the mental health field.

A Secret Service report published last month, Mass Attacks in Public Spaces,” found that 67 percent of the suspects displayed symptoms of mental illness or emotional disturbance. In 93 percent, the suspects had a history of threats or other troubling communications.

The mental health field needs to recognize that the training and ongoing education of health professionals has not been strong regarding the identification and treatment of irritability and violent impulses. So it is no surprise that the mass murderers of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Lakeland, and Columbine had not been treated for their anger. We need training programs. They could be part of required Continuing Education credits for state licensure for psychiatrists, psychologists, and the other physicians who prescribe roughly 80 percent of psychiatric medications.

Our book, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, published by the American Psychological Association, can be one such training tool for mental health professionals. Forgiveness has been empirically verified to reduce unhealthy anger.

A Newtown, CT, memorial following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on Dec. 14, 2012.

Education in schools. Education programs in schools could uncover and teach youth how to resolve intense anger and desires for revenge that lead to a sense of pleasure in expressing violent acts against others. Dr. Enright has worked to establish scientifically-supported  programs for reducing anger in youth through forgiveness education curricula (from pre-kindergarten through grade 12). These educational guides have been sought by educators in over 30 countries. Dr Enright’s books, Forgiveness Is a Choice, The Forgiving Life, and 8 Keys to Forgiveness, can be used as anger-reduction tools with older high school students, college students, and adults.

Teach respect for persons. A key development for forgiveness education is a new perspective on humanity: all have inherent worth, even those who act unfairly. In other words, these programs not only reduce anger, and thus eliminate a major motivation to hurt others, but also engender a sense of respect for persons.

This combination of reduced irritability and a new perception of the worth of all could go a long way in reducing rage and thus in reducing mass shootings.

Regulate violent video games. Violent video-gaming and media violence have played a role in the behavior of mass murders. A continual exposure to gaming that denigrates others in a virtual environment is a sure way of damaging respect for persons. Such “games” have courageously been identified by the President as factors in the epidemic of violence. Rather than teaching the importance of mastering anger without hurting others (character education), some games support the expression of rage and violence.

We need Federal laws. Youth are not allowed into movie theaters for X-rated fare. This should be the case with video games, which should be lawfully kept from youth when judged to have content that demonstrates and even encourages excessive anger. Parents should teach their children how to resolve their anger without harming others and should prohibit violent games in their homes. Violent games must have a warning that they could promote uncontrollable anger.

What about the guns? The President has identified essential issues that need to be addressed on the federal level to end the epidemic of massacres by individuals with severe, largely unrecognized and untreated, psychological problems.

While it is essential to try to keep guns out of the hands of those prone to act on their hatred, more important is the establishment of new anger control programs which will make for a safer America.


Robert Enright, Ph.D., is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Board Member of the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc.
Rick Fitzgibbons, MD, is a psychiatrist in Conshohocken, PA. They are joint recipients of the 2019 Expanded Reason Award, presented by the University Francisco de Vitoria (Madrid) in collaboration with the Vatican Foundation Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.


This blog originally appeared on the MercatorNet.com website on August 14, 2019.

Make a Bold Statement About Your Life — Sign the Forgiveness Pledge

The International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) is a world-wide, not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping people gain knowledge about forgiveness and to use that knowledge for personal, group, and societal renewal.

We believe that forgiveness is a choice. If you have been deeply hurt by another, you can choose to forgive rather than hold on to debilitating anger and resentment. In doing so, an amazing transformation begins. The black clouds of anxiety and depression give way to enhanced self-esteem and genuine feelings of hopefulness. When you forgive, you may benefit the person you forgive. By liberating yourself from the pain and sorrow, you can reclaim your life and find the peace that your anger had stolen.

We are convinced that anyone–individuals, families, communities, even governments–can experience the extraordinary benefits of forgiveness. By learning to forgive and committing to live the forgiving life, we can all help restore healthy emotions, rebuild relationships and establish more peaceful communities around the world.

Join the world-wide team committed to forgiveness. Become a “Peace Builder” now; sign the Forgiveness Pledge.

By signing this Forgiveness Pledge, I affirm that:

  1. Forgiveness is an important part of my life.
  2. I will do my best to forgive people from my family of origin.
  3. I will be a conduit of forgiveness in my family.
  4. I will forgive in the workplace and do my best to create a forgiving atmosphere.
  5. I will encourage forgiveness in my place of worship so that it is a forgiving community.
  6. I will do my best to plant and promote forgiveness in my wider community.
  7. I commit to living the forgiving life. 

Robert

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?

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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

How Does Forgiveness Differ from Ghandi’s Nonviolent Resistance?

I heard a talk recently in which– it was stated that Mahatma Ghandi’s nonviolent resistance to injustice is equivalent to forgiving.  The point is that forgiveness is not passive but stands up to evil in a merciful way.  While there are some convergences between nonviolent resistance and forgiveness, I think that they are in essence different.  Here are at least three ways in which they are not the same:

First, Ghandi’s approach, as well the approach of others who followed, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., is centered on a quest for justice.  They want an unfair situation changed.  Thus, nonviolent resistance in its essence is a justice strategy, as is the call for negotiation, dialogue, arms limitation, and other approaches of seeking fairness.

In contrast, forgiveness in its essence is a moral virtue centered in mercy and love.  The primary goal of forgiveness is not the seeking of fairness, but instead to unconditionally love another or others, not because of what they have done, but in spite of this.  To be fair to forgiveness, it is not the case that forgiveness abandons the quest for justice.  Instead, people can and should bring justice alongside forgiving.  When they do so, we must be clear that the offer of forgiving is different from the request for a fair solution.

Second, when a person or group practices nonviolent resistance, forgiveness likely would aid this strategy because it quells resentment which could spill over to hatred and actions of hatred which would destroy the nonviolent strategy.  Forgiveness in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one.  Justice-seeking is the primary issue.  In contrast, justice-seeking is an aid to forgiving so that the forgiver does not become weak or even abused by others’ continual injustices. Justice in this case is a secondary issue, not the primary one.  Unconditional love toward an offending person is the primary issue.

Third, while the virtue of love may be at the center of non-violent resistance, and certainly was the case for Martin Luther King, Jr. as seen in his soaring volume, Strength to Love, it need not be at the center for all who practice the nonviolence.  Perseverance might be the center for some, justice-seeking no matter what the consequence may be at the center for others, while loving one’s enemy may take center-stage for others.  The action itself (nonviolence) and keeping one’s eye on the goal (social change) can lead to different virtues dominating a given person’s thinking and acting.  In contrast, the virtue of love is always at the center of forgiving even if the forgiver never reaches this depth of understanding and practicing forgiving.

Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share the following in common:

First, each is unconditional in that, no matter what the other does to thwart the practice, the forgiver and the nonviolent resister stand firm in their decision to either forgive or resist.  The others’ blows to the head did not deter Gandhi.  The other’s refusal to apologize or make restitution does not deter the forgiver, who may or may not reconcile depending on the degree of unfairness and the extent of any abuse.  The forgiver stands unconditionally in the offer of goodness toward those who are not being good to the forgiver.

Second, both have moral virtue at their center.

Third, each can effect social change as the one forgiven, for example, now sees the injustice, feels remorse, repents, and changes.  Nonviolent resistance historically has been shown to effect such change as the consciences of the powerful can be deeply affected as they continue their unjust ways in the face of the others’ peace.

Nonviolent resistance and forgiveness share commonalities, but they are not the same.  We need clarity when engaging in each so that they move forward well and with a deep understanding about what the forgiver or resister actually is doing.

Robert

On Persistence for Well-Being

To grow in any virtue is similar to building muscle in the gym through persistent hard work. We surely do not want to overdo anything, including the pursuit of fitness.

Yet, we must avoid underdoing it, too, if we are to continue to grow. It is the same with forgiveness. We need to be persistently developing our forgiveness muscles as we become forgivingly fit. This opportunity is now laid out before you. What will you choose? Will you choose a life of diversion, comfort, and pleasure, or the more exciting life of risking love, challenging yourself to forgive, and helping others in their forgiveness fitness?

Enright, Robert D. (2012-07-05). The Forgiving Life (APA Lifetools) (Kindle Locations 5359-5360). American Psychological Association. Kindle Edition.

Love Never Dies

Think about the love that one person has given to you some time in your life. That love is eternal. Love never dies.

If your mother gave you love 20 years ago, that love is still here and you can appropriate it, experience it, feel it.  If you think about it, the love that your deceased family members gave to you years ago is still right here with you.  Even though they passed on in a physical sense, they have left something of the eternal with you, to draw upon whenever you wish.

Now think about the love you have given to others. That love is eternal. Your love never dies. Your actions have consequences for love that will be on this earth long after you are gone.  If you hug a child today, that love, expressed in that hug, can be with that child 50 years from now. Something of you remains here on earth, something good.

Children should be prepared for this kind of thinking through forgiveness education, where they learn that all people have built-in or inherent worth.  One expression of forgiveness, one of its highest expressions, is to love those who have not loved us.  If we educate children in this way, then they may take the idea more seriously that the love given and received can continue……and continue.  It may help them to take more seriously such giving and receiving of love.

We need forgiveness education……now.

Robert

Can the Essence of Forgiveness Ever Be Altered?

Suppose that over time, a culture began to see forgiveness as simply moving on with a sense of tolerance. Have the people in that culture then changed what forgiveness is? After all, the current thinking in psychology and philosophy is that forgiveness is a moral virtue of goodness toward those who have been unjust.

I think it is impossible to alter the essence of forgiveness, no matter what happens in a particular culture or in a particular historical moment. We could, I suppose, see forgiveness as a relative concept, flexible in its meaning depending on the consensus of a group at a certain point in time, but that would be to invite error.

Here is what I mean: To label forgiveness as “moving on with a sense of tolerance” will mean that forgiveness is now equated with other terms, such as acquiescence and, as part of this definition, tolerance. Yet, forgiveness never gives in or acquiesces to wrong doing, but instead labels the wrong as wrong. Forgiveness never tolerates injustice but instead labels the injustice as unjust.

When it appears that a given group is defining forgiveness in an odd way, ask yourself this question: What else might this definition represent other than forgiveness? If you come up with a sound answer, then I urge you to stand firm in the truth of what forgiveness is, despite protests and even ad hominem attacks on you as a person.

Forgiveness is what it has been, what it is currently, and what it will be long after each one of us reading this post is gone from this world.

Robert