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.
I never expected that one day I would be asked to give talks about forgiveness. Forgiveness was the farthest thing from my mind. How could I ever forgive someone who hurt me so much, someone who was supposed to love and adore me? After all, I was her child. By the time I was twelve, I made a pack with myself that I would never let anyone hurt me the way she did. I lived a life protecting my heart, keeping connections at a distance and sabotaging intimate relationships if they got too close. And where did I end up? Middle aged and single.
On the outside, I looked good. Had a successful career in a glamorous field and was acknowledged with prestigious awards along the way. My face, my projects, my stories were featured on the front pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and others. As I aged, I managed to keep my weight down, my figure looking not too far from college days and my face less wrinkled than many of my contemporaries.
I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “Why are you not married?” or said “The man that gets you is a lucky person.”
Underneath this glossy package, I was seething with anger towards my mother. My accomplishments didn’t matter. From head to toe there wasn’t anything right about me. My hair was too frizzy, my butt too fat and my nose too big.
Growing up and well into adulthood in my mother’s eyes, I just couldn’t do anything right. And my brothers couldn’t do anything wrong.
Little did I know, the obstacles I faced in my childhood would end up being the biggest opportunity of my life. By facing those challenges, I figured out the secret to finding forgiveness and the power and freedom that gives you.
Growing up in my house was like growing up in enemy territory and you’re the only one who was captured. From the moment I was born, mom took ownership. She was at the helm controlling how I looked, spoke and behaved. Not always successfully as she wrote in a letter to me in college, “You are my product and you are destroying it.”
When my nose started growing so did her relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job. No, I never had a nose job.
My brothers were mom’s bouncers. The one closest to my age did not want me around as you can imagine he had been the youngest. And he let me know it on a regular basis – destroying my dolls and then trying to do the same with me. And my eldest brother did as he was told.
When mom wanted me out of her way, she had my brothers put me on top of the refrigerator where I could not get down.
There is one evening mom refers to today proudly as the night she pulled a Mommie Dearest on me. Remember the movie about how Joan Crawford was so abusive to her daughter Christina?
I was a teenager and out with my friends. I came home a bit later than she expected. When we pulled up to my house, my mother was standing on the street with a glass of water in one hand and the dog’s leash in the other hand. With my friends watching from the car and the head lights shining on us my mother threw the water in my face, and told me to walk the dog, she didn’t care if I got raped if I wasn’t already. That was just the beginning.
Never knowing what I would do that would trigger her rage on me, I lived in fear of my mother, in fear of her punishments, often humiliation.
The fear led me to being sick and I had headaches and dizzy spells. As soon I left home I never had headaches again.
When I hit middle age, I finally gave in to mom and agreed to visit plastic surgeons for consultations about my nose as long as I could have a camera crew with me. What resulted was a funny short film about mom’s relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job.
After the Q&A, people stood on line to compliment my nose, and then tell me their story. It wasn’t always about their nose. It was about criticisms they endured from their mother.
I saw how many people were hurting and knew I was not alone.
It didn’t matter if I was attaining success in my career, traveling the world, making friends internationally – underneath it all I was fuming and holding onto victimhood.
I had given my power away. I was still reacting to mom’s insults and criticism. And often would give it right back to her, having learned how to have a sharp tongue and knowing how to leave a lasting scar. I was not proud of my behavior and it was not making me happy.
I was emotionally and mentally trapped hanging onto the anger.
I knew I would have to change how I thought about my mother in order to heal myself.
I knew if I was going to find peace and happiness I would have to forgive her. I just didn’t know how.
Mom was now well into her 80s. I asked her if she would be willing to go on a journey with me to resolve our relationship in front of the cameras and she agreed. I knew I had a golden opportunity. In her mature years without the responsibility of taking care of children, my mom’s humor came out and she was not only willing but also happy to show herself to the world.
The result was my award winning feature documentary LOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! It’s been released widely. Unforeseen, this deeply personal film has been transforming lives all over. Due to the humbling response, I have launched workshops and talks teaching forgiveness called NO MORE DRAMA WITH MAMA.
So how did I do it? How did I forgive my mother? There are three main steps.
The first step is toUNDERSTAND.
I knew I had to first understand my mother and to do so I would have to dig into her past. With cameras rolling, I started my investigation and learned about her pain, her father’s suicide attempts, the untimely death of her baby sister, and the financial hardships. And the childhood she never really had.
A big light bulb moment came when I played a psychological board game. I threw the dice and it landed. The facilitator asked to me to imagine my mother as a little girl. At that point, I knew about her childhood and saw a wounded little girl. Then she said imagine yourself as a little girl. I knew my pain and that I was a wounded little girl. Then she said now you both come together. Wow! She was no longer my mother. We were both wounded little girls.
The second step isREFRAME.
By learning about my mother’s pain, I was able to understand her and instead of seeing her as an abusive mother, I now reframed how I looked at her and saw her as a wounded child. And by doing that I changed my expectations of her.
The third step isFORGIVE.
When she said something critical, it bounced off of me, as I knew she was a little girl in pain herself. By reframing how I looked at my mother, I was able to actually feel compassion for her and forgive her. I rendered her abuse powerless over me. And as a result her insults were less often until they faded away. Why? Because they had no effect on me. I laughed them off or ignored them and at times gave her love in return.
What makes us so upset is when we have unfulfilled expectations. When your three year-old daughter looks up at you and says, Mommy or Daddy, I don’t love you anymore. What do you do? You bend down and pick her up and give her love because you know that is really what she is asking for. So when you mother tells you that you are fat, you will amount to nothing, imagine she is a child crying for love and respond accordingly.
I forgave my mother. I didn’t say I forgot. You never forget.
“If you don’t forgive and you hang on to the anger and resentment, it hurts you and affects all aspects of your life – your relationships and health.” – Gayle Kirschenbaum
While I was makingLOOK AT US NOW, MOTHER! I reread my childhood diaries and relived the trauma. I ended up getting an autoimmune disease. It came out through my skin, and I developed a bad case of psoriasis on my hands that they were bleeding and I needed to wear vinyl gloves it was so painful. After trying various medical treatments and not getting lasting results I turned inside and realized I got myself sick due to the emotional stress and I will heal myself. I did so by changing my thoughts and getting rid of the anger and forgiving my mother and feeling love.
The biggest gift you can give yourself is the ability to forgive.
Forgiveness is emotional freedom. It unleashes the perpetrator from holding the noose around our neck, which we have allowed.
Once I learned the secret to forgiveness I was able to apply these steps to other people and used this method to also forgive my brothers. I know now when I am faced with a difficult person and situation how I can turn it around.
As I look at others who are acting unkindly, I reflect on myself and know when I am unkind to others, it is coming from fear, insecurity and anger. When we are feeling loved we are not reacting nasty to others.
With that said, by showing kindness, compassion and love to someone you can actually transform them.
Our BRAIN is the most powerful organ in our body. It is our thoughts that control our emotions and actions.
By changing my thoughts I was able to reframe how I saw my mother and forgive her.
Mom has become my closet friend. Today she is in her 90s. We have been traveling the world together for the last 10 years. We speak to each other daily by choice because we love to share and communicate.
To recap the three simple steps: 1. UNDERSTAND 2. REFRAME 3. FORGIVE
Think about your own life. Who hurt you so badly that you have not been able to forgive them? Remember you have the power to make the choice whether to forgive or not. We all have a story. Be the hero of your story not the victim.
Recently, I have been hearing people say that forgiveness is transcendence. By this they seem to mean that as people forgive, then the past injustices do not affect them any more. They have risenabove the pain, the anguish, the sadness, and the anger. They have moved on.
If this is all that forgiveness is, then forgiveness is not a moral virtue. A moral virtue, such as justice or patience, is for people. It reaches out to people. It aids and supports people by putting the particular virtue into action and that action points toward people. When I exercise justice, for example, I honor the agreement that is part of a contract into which we both have entered. I am patient by restraining from harsh words when in a long line or when those who are my teammates at work are slowing things down.
Moral virtues are concerned with goodness expressed toward other people.
If forgiveness is part of love—a moral virtue—then it cannot be only about transcending the past because one can transcend that past by being neutral toward those who have been unfair, who were responsible for the hurt. The forgiver need not enter into a direct relationship with the injuring person if he or she continues to cause harm.
Yet, the forgiver wishes the other well, as Lewis Smedes in his 1984 book, Forgive and Forget has said. The forgiver is willing to do good toward the other, if the other changes abusive behavior. Being neutral might be part of the pathway toward forgiving, but it is not its end point.
The end point of forgiving is to express love, as best one can, toward those who have not loved the forgiver. Even if a person cannot develop that love for whatever reason, loving the other nonetheless is the endpoint of true forgiveness. – Robert Enright
Transcending the past might be a consequence of forgiving, but it is not forgiving itself…..if forgiveness is a moral virtue.
Have the world wars of the past led to such stress that we now feel the effects?
In a 2015 article in Scientific American, it 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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Octavia is even more compromised than Martha (born in 1858), James (born in 1880), Sarah (born in 1904), or Joseph (born in 1923).
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)?
Are we becoming psychologically more compromised with each subsequent generation?
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?
So that I am not misunderstood, I am not talking only about current adolescents and those in emerging adulthood who are showing mental health disorders. I am talking about entire generations as a whole that may not be as psychologically whole in general as they could be. If this analysis has merit, then it is all the more imperative that we take very seriously the idea of forgiveness education in general, not just for those with diagnosed mental disorders.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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?