I was hurt in a 5-year relationship and now I am hesitant to get into any other relationship. Does this lack of courage on my part suggest that I have not forgiven the one who hurt me?

The issue here seems to be one of a lack of trust. You may or may not have forgiven the one with whom you were in a relationship for the 5 years. Even if you have completely forgiven, you still may lack trust and this is not a sign of unforgiveness. It is a sign that you know hurt is possible when you commit to others. Forgiveness can help with taking the risk and at the same time your using common sense in the new relationship, along with sincere acts of trustworthiness by the other, should help to slowly create a trust with the new person.

For additional information, see 8 Keys to Forgiveness.

5/14What happens when someone is repressing the memory of a grave injustice? For example, if a woman was molested as a child, and she cannot remember the incident. How can she ever forgive and be emotionally freed from this? The unconscious mind is a difficult aspect of human psychology and it is the quality of our unconscious mind, unaccessible as it is to us, that has prompted this question. There indeed are aspects of the self that some people do not remember, especially if there has been trauma. We can repress the memory. Repression is like shutting off the light so that you no longer can read a journal entry, forgetting its contents. Repression is a form of psychological defense against anxiety and is not necessarily a bad thing in the short-run if we need to re-group in order to move ahead in life. Yet, if there is unresolved trauma and we do not deal with it, this can be like the pebble in the shoe—a constant low-grade annoyance that will not let us rest. Sometimes it can cause great distress and we have no clue why we are feeling distress. My best advice on this fascinating question is this: Deal directly with the deep hurts that are accessible to you. Forgive as best you can. Then be vigilant in asking the question, when you are ready, “But what else is in my past that has hurt me?” As you gain both strength through forgiving and proficiency in the forgiveness process, this can engender in you a confidence that you will not be overcome by traumatic injustices. This further aids you in lowering—slowly and across time—the psychological defenses such as a rigid repression that block the memory. As a person, for example, forgives her father for Injustice A, B, and C, eventually she may be ready to tackle the issue of sexual abuse. Having confronted injustice that may have surrounded the sexual abuse and having grown in confidence that she will not be crushed by her own anger, that which is unconscious may become subconscious (just below the level of consciousness). It is here that fleeting aspects of that repressed memory may enter into consciousness, allowing the person to finally confront the abuse. One more point involves false memory. It can happen that a person thinks he or she was abused and this is not the case. This, then, becomes a horrendous injustice against the accused. The false memory is centered on unhealthy anger, now displaced inappropriately onto someone who does not deserve it. The practice of forgiveness for genuine injustices against those who truly have been unjust to us can reduce unhealthy anger, making the displacement of anger into a false memory less likely.

The unconscious mind is a difficult aspect of human psychology and it is the quality of our unconscious mind, inaccessible as it is to us, that has prompted this question. There indeed are aspects of the self that some people do not remember, especially if there has been trauma. We can repress the memory. Repression is like shutting off the light so that you no longer can read a journal entry, forgetting its contents. Repression is a form of psychological defense against anxiety and is not necessarily a bad thing in the short-run if we need to re-group in order to move ahead in life. Yet, if there is unresolved trauma and we do not deal with it, this can be like the pebble in the shoe—a constant low-grade annoyance that will not let us rest. Sometimes it can cause great distress and we have no clue why we are feeling distress.

My best advice on this fascinating question is this: Deal directly with the deep hurts that are accessible to you. Forgive as best you can. Then be vigilant in asking the question, when you are ready, “But what else is in my past that has hurt me?” As you gain both strength through forgiving and proficiency in the forgiveness process, this can engender in you a confidence that you will not be overcome by traumatic injustices. This further aids you in lowering—slowly and across time—the psychological defenses such as a rigid repression that block the memory.

As a person, for example, forgives her father for Injustice A, B, and C, eventually she may be ready to tackle the issue of sexual abuse. Having confronted injustice that may have surrounded the sexual abuse and having grown in confidence that she will not be crushed by her own anger, that which is unconscious may become subconscious (just below the level of consciousness). It is here that fleeting aspects of that repressed memory may enter into consciousness, allowing the person to finally confront the abuse.

One more point involves false memory. It can happen that a person thinks he or she was abused and this is not the case. This, then, becomes a horrendous injustice against the accused. The false memory is centered on unhealthy anger, now displaced inappropriately onto someone who does not deserve it. The practice of forgiveness for genuine injustices against those who truly have been unjust to us can reduce unhealthy anger, making the displacement of anger into a false memory less likely.

For additional information, see: Choose Love, Not Hate.

I have heard the term “false forgiveness,” but I am not sure what it is and how can I make a clear distinction between the false variety and the real thing?

False forgiveness in essence is not about a moral response to someone who has hurt you. It is more about power than leveling the moral playing field (seeing the other and the self as precious, unique, special, and irreplaceable). There are two kinds of power-plays that someone practicing false forgiveness might show: 1) dominating the other person by constantly reminding him or her that, indeed, you have forgiven….and plan to do so tomorrow…and the next day…and the day after that. You keep the other under your thumb by reminding them of how noble you are and how ignoble they are; 2) being dominated by the other person by giving in to unreasonable demands, hastily reconciling, letting the other have power over you. True forgiveness is gentle and kind, honoring the humanity of the other person and the self. It does not dominate or allow others to dominate in a relationship.

For additional information, see What is Forgiveness?

It seems to me that mercy and forgiveness are different. In mercy, one person is higher than another and has pity on the one who is hurting. In forgiveness, you level the moral playing field and each are equal in their humanity. Would you please clarify for me?

Actually, forgiveness is a moral virtue that flows from mercy and mercy flows from the moral virtue of love. Yes, you are correct that when a person is showing mercy toward another, the one who is merciful is helping someone in distress. This, however, does not at all make the one who extends mercy somehow higher in humanity than the one who is in pain. They are equal as **persons** even though their **circumstances** differ.

So, to summarize, love in the Greek sense of agape, is to serve others for the others’ sake. In the serving, one may have to endure pain and persevere and actually suffer in such serving. This, in other words, does not put the one who is serving in a higher position. Mercy is a particular form of love in which the one showing mercy tries to alleviate the pain of another, which can cause the mercy-worker to feel pain and experience humility in the serving, thus leveling the moral playing field in that this is one person helping another person. Forgiveness is a special case of mercy in that the forgiver tries to serve the offending person by alleviating his or her pain, misunderstanding, and even moral weakness by helping the one who caused pain and who may be in pain because of the unjust action. In each case of love, mercy, and forgiveness, the moral virtue is one **person** serving another **person or persons** and each is equal in their personhood.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

I see skepticism in people whenever I mention the healing power of forgiveness.  How can I make forgiveness an acceptable part of conversations?

It may help if people see that forgiveness is a moral virtue, as are justice, patience, courage, and love.  We exercise justice in families and groups all the time.  You can ask, “Why, then, can’t we make room for this other moral virtue, forgiveness?”  It would be helpful if you then are attuned to the others’ misconceptions about what, exactly, constitutes this moral virtue of forgiveness:  Do they see forgiving as excusing or ignoring justice?  Clearing up misconceptions usually makes forgiveness more acceptable.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

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.

Weaponizing Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be misunderstood and dismissed for the wrong reasons.

A colleague, Megan Feldman Bettencourt, has written an important article in Harper’s Bazaar entitled “How Forgiveness Has Been Weaponized Against Women.”  The gist of the article is that as people misunderstand the actual meaning of forgiveness, they can so discourage people from forgiving that emotional healing is blocked.  In the case of sexual abuse of women, as Ms. Feldman Bettencourt points out, the “forgiver” is supposed to refrain from reporting the abuse and is expected to go back into the unwanted relationship. 

This is far from the truth because forgiveness is not the same as legal pardon (letting the other out of deserved justice), nor is it the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is the commitment to get rid of resentment as well as the commitment, at the very least, of civility toward the offender and then acting on these commitments.  Reconciliation is the act of two or more people coming together again in mutual trust.  One can forgive and not trust or reconcile.  When these two issues (legal pardon and reconciliation) are confused with forgiveness, then women who have been sexually abused do not have a scientifically-supported pathway (forgiveness) for reducing or even eliminating deep resentment.  That kind of emotional disruption could be hers for the rest of her life.  In other words, not only is she left with the original injustice but also is left with a second wound of resentment with little hope of relief from it because there are few alternatives to forgiveness in eliminating this inner poison.
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In her article, Ms. Feldman Bettencourt gives stark examples of women who, in the name of forgiveness, think that they must keep the abuse against them secret, thus personally pardoning the offender.  One woman who did stand up for justice (not condoning or pardoning) was shunned by her support group because that group misunderstood what forgiveness is.  Forgiveness does not abandon the quest for justice.  The author’s call is for a clear and accurate definition of forgiveness so that it can exist side-by-side with justice-seeking and not block emotional healing.  True forgiveness can enhance the forgiver’s well-being.

Another Example of Weaponizing Forgiveness:

I once was asked to help an organization set up small groups focused on forgiveness in the workplace because there was high tension among the workers.  A Human Relations specialist in the company was convinced that adding a level of forgiveness into the workplace would be one strong way of diminishing the conflict and increasing productivity.  When we met with the owner of that company, it took him less than five minutes to dismiss the specialist’s idea.  “No. Forgiveness is  inappropriate here,” he said with cold confidence.  “Forgiveness asks too much of my workers,” was his reply. 

Source: KuanShu Designs

When we asked him how this is so, he quickly responded, “Look, when there is conflict in our workplace, this is an emotional pain.  Forgiveness adds another layer of pain to my workers and so why would I impose this second pain on them?  Forgiveness is quite a struggle and we don’t need that at this time.”  And that was the end of the specialist’s idea, which as of this writing has not been implemented… and the conflicts at that company continue with no end in sight.  What the owner did not understand is this: When there is physical injury, sometimes surgery is needed.  Yes, the surgery is an added burden, but it is temporary and restores what is broken.  It is the same with forgiveness: When the heart is broken, we sometimes need surgery of the heart to restore emotional health.
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Ms. Feldman Bettencourt sees how the weaponizing of forgiveness can actually hurt women who are trying to heal from sexual abuse.  I have seen firsthand how the weaponizing of forgiveness can keep workers from reducing acrimony and striving toward greater cooperation.

The moral of this essay is that to misunderstand forgiveness is to keep people from a scientifically-supported way of reducing resentment and getting on with life in a healthier way.  We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at our own peril.  We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at the expense of others.  It is time simply to define our terms — in this case forgiveness — and lay down the weaponizing against it.

Robert


This blog originally appeared in Psychology Today on October 08, 2018.