True Forgiveness Is an Act of the Heart

Editor’s Note: Eileen Barker is an internationally recognized mediator, facilitator, and forgiveness teacher. She is also a pioneer in the movement to integrate emotional healing and forgiveness in conflict resolution. She wrote this essay for our website:

I’ve met plenty of people who told me they ‘thought’ they had forgiven. What they mean is they formed the mental intention to forgive, only to later discover that the judgment and resentment were still there.  Does this sound familiar? I call this “forgiving from the neck up” or “emotional bypass.” It may provide temporary relief but it is not lasting. I also frequently encounter people  intent on analyzing their experience. They seem to believe if they fully understand the situation, it will enable them to forgive, but this is not the case. True forgiveness cannot be intellectualized.
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You can say the words “I forgive” and have the thought “I forgive” until the cows come home, and still not have actually forgiven. The mind can only take us so far. At some point we must enter the arena of feelings in order to release the anger, blame, resentment, and so on. They must be addressed. Of course feelings are vulnerable and possibly unfamiliar, which is why we might want to avoid them, but the only way to heal is to walk through them. Feelings are the true pathway home.

So, how do you enter the emotional realm?  How do you forgive from the neck down?

One of the keys for me is guided meditation.  I start with the breath and then bring awareness to the body step by step. This creates the foundation for all the other work. For some, it might feel uncomfortable and even unsafe at first to bring awareness  into the body, so we go as slowly as necessary to create safety. When we can feel our body and not push our feelings away, we discover that the body has vitally important information for us, information  far more reliable than that acquired from the mind alone.

Here is a powerful passage on the topic of embracing our emotions and forgiving, written by Eckhart Tolle in his book
The Power of Now:

Forgiveness is to relinquish your grievance and so to let go of grief. It happens naturally once you realize that your grievance serves no purpose except to strengthen a false sense of self. Forgiveness is to offer no resistance to life — to allow life to live through you. The alternatives are pain and suffering, a greatly restricted flow of life energy, and in many cases physical disease.

The moment you truly forgive, you have reclaimed your power from the mind. Non-forgiveness is the very nature of the mind, just as the mind-made false self, the ego, cannot survive without strife and conflict. The mind cannot forgive. Only you can. You become present, you enter your body, you feel the vibrant peace and stillness that emanate from Being.

A potent reminder that we are so much more than our minds, thoughts, beliefs and words.


Eileen Barker is a San Francisco Bay Area (CA) litigation lawyer who rejected the traditional adversarial role. Instead, she has focused her practice on mediation and conflict resolution for the past twenty years, helping thousands of people resolve disputes outside of court. This work led her into a deep exploration of forgiveness as it relates to resolving conflict and making peace, both with others and oneself.  She is the author of the Forgiveness Workbook and Forgiveness Meditation CD.  In 2016, Eileen received the Champion of Forgiveness Award from the Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance (along with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu). Visit her website: The Path of Forgiveness.

“THE ANTI-BULLYING FORGIVENESS PROGRAM” — FREE FOR A LIMITED TIME

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Initiated in 2006 by the PACER Center, it is the designated 31-day period each year when schools, organizations, and communities across the country–and in more and more countries around the world–join together in their battle to confront and stop bullying and cyberbullying. 

As its contribution to that initiative, the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) is making its groundbreaking guide, The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program, available free of charge for a limited time. Developed by Dr. Robert Enright, this program is an invaluable tool for school counselors, social workers, teachers, and homeschooling parents.

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bulling may be verbal, social (hurting someone’s reputation or relationships), or physical. Cyberbullying is that which takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets–often called “online bullying.”

Bullying is a problem that can derail a child’s schooling, social life, and emotional well-being. According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, about 1 of every 5 students ages 12-18 reported being bullied at school during the 2017 school year. While some adults have a tendency to ignore bullying and to write it off as a normal part of life that all kids go through, bullying is a real problem with serious consequences.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s website Stopbullying.gov, being bullied can lead to negative health and emotional issues, including:

  • Depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities the person used to enjoy. These issues may, and often do,  persist into adulthood.
  • Health complaints and mental health issues.
  • Decreased academic achievement (both GPA and standardized test scores) and school participation. The bullied are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.
  • Negative behavioral changes including substance abuse and, in extreme cases, suicide. 

Countless anti-bullying techniques and programs have been developed over the past several years with administrators and teachers reporting varying levels of effectiveness. The IFI program is significantly different than most of those because it is not based on confrontation and/or disciplinary action. Instead, Dr. Enright’s approach focuses on the behavior of the one doing the bullying because “hurt people hurt people.”

That pithy observation is more than a clever phrase; it’s a sad truth. Dr. Enright’s scientifically-conducted research projects have repeatedly confirmed his contention that “hurt people hurt others because they themselves have been hurt. We’ve all been hurt in one way or another and those hurts cause us to become defensive and self-protective. We instinctively may lash out at others so that hurting becomes a vicious cycle full of pent-up anger.”

"Unless we eliminate the anger in the hearts of those who bully, we will not eliminate bullying."
                                              Dr. Robert Enright

Forgiveness can be a powerful way of reducing pent-up anger, Dr. Enright says about his strategy of incorporating forgiveness education into his anti-bullying approach.

“It is our contention that bullying starts from within, as anger, and comes out as displaced anger onto the victim,” according to Dr. Enright. “Forgiveness targets this anger and then reduces it, thus reducing or eliminating the displaced anger which comes out as bullying.”

The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program is for children in grades 4 (age 9) through grade 9 (age 14). It includes 8 lessons, each taking from 30 to 60 minutes. All of the material needed to teach these lessons is self-contained in this guide; there are no other textbooks or materials to purchase. The manual is now being offered free for a limited time and is available only in the electronic version. To order, email your request to the IFI Director at director@internationalforgiveness.com. Indicate whether you would like the Standard or Christian version. ⊗


Additional Information:

In Chapter 5 of your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you talk about overcoming anger. I am wondering: Do I overcome the anger **before** I forgive, or is the anger diminished as I go through the process of forgiveness?

Your anger diminishes as you go through the process of forgiveness. If you think about it, how would you overcome the anger **before** forgiving? There are no known psychological approaches to reduce the anger and keep it away for a very long time other than forgiveness, in my opinion. As an example, relaxation training can reduce anger, but once you are no longer in the relaxed state, and you think about the injustice, the anger can return. Relaxation focuses on anger as a symptom and covers over that symptom in a temporary way. Forgiveness has you confront that anger and heal from it so that when you recall the unjust event and the person, the anger is diminished. This does not mean that all anger vanishes, but it does mean that the anger no longer is in control.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness.

I am someone who is part of what they call the “minority” in my country. Quite frankly, I am unhappy with it, with the subtle “put-downs” and the like. People in my country have the expression of, “Fight for justice.” So, then, what place is left for forgiving?

We need to realize that forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. Some people believe that to forgive is to take too soft an approach in striving for justice. In other words, they think that to forgive is to lose what they deserve. Yet, this definitely need not be the case. As people forgive, they can see more clearly through the fog of anger. They can see what is truly fair and then ask for that fairness in a way that is civil. They just might have a better chance of getting fairness than if they let anger dictate how they respond and for what they ask.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

I have been carrying hurt feelings now for years. I might even say that they are a part of me now. I am kind of skeptical that I will be able to shed these. What advice do you have for me on this?

When deeply hurt by others, the resentments can last for years. You are not alone in this. For example, Mary Hansen and I have a publication in which we worked with elderly women in hospice. Some of the women had carried their hurt for 40 years. Yet, as they willingly chose to forgive and to work on forgiving those who were unfair to them, their anger faded and their hope for the future increased. This can happen for you as well when you are ready. Forgiveness, I hope you see, can aid you in getting rid of those negative emotions no matter how long you have carried them.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness. 

Are there acts so terrible that you should not, as you say, “give a gift to the other?”

Some people will not forgive certain people for certain acts. Yet, other people will forgive others for the exact same kind of act. Thus, it seems to me that it is not the act itself that is out of bounds to forgiveness. Instead, the one who was injured is not ready to offer forgiveness. We have to be gentle with people under these circumstances. We are not all ready to forgive others at the same point of the injury. We have to be careful not to condemn those who need more time or who are ambivalent about forgiveness in a particular circumstance.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

The Visit to a Maximum Security Prison

We have begun introducing Forgiveness Therapy in prisons because our research shows this: People in prison who fill out our survey tend to show that they have been treated badly by others prior to their arrest and imprisonment. In fact, about 90% of those filling out our surveys report that they have been treated moderately to severely unjustly in childhood or adolescence. We control for what is called social desirability or “faking good.”

Traditional rehabilitation for those in prison does not focus deeply and extensively on the wounds the person suffered early in life. One man was thrown out of his home when he was 8 years old. His dining room table for years was garbage cans. His bed at night was under cars for protection. He grew up angry and took this out on others.

I visited those who had voluntarily gone through Forgiveness Therapy with my book,       8 Keys to Forgiveness. It gave them the chance to confront and overcome their anger, even rage, toward those who abused them as they were growing up.

Here are two testimonies of those who experienced this program of anger reduction through forgiveness:

Person 1: “I have been imprisoned now 6 different times.  I am convinced that on my first arrest, had I read your book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, I never would have experienced the other 5.”

Person 2: “My first imprisonment occurred when I was 12 years old.  If you can find a way to give 12-year-olds Forgiveness Therapy, they will not end up as I have in maximum security prison.”

It is time to add Forgiveness Therapy to prison rehabilitation so that the anger, held for many years by some, can diminish. This then should decrease motivation to displace this unhealthy anger onto others.

Robert