Dr. Harris Summer 2019 Reads Suggestions
In my work with clients, it is not unusual for me to bear witness to confusion about forgiveness. One specific area of confusion arises in a client’s uncertainty about whether or not forgiveness has actually taken place. Examples of some of the comments I hear include, “I thought I forgave her for the betrayal years ago, so why does it still hurt?” “I told him I forgave him for mismanaging our finances and I thought I really meant it, but now I’m questioning whether I forgave him at all.” “If I forgive him, why do still feel triggered?” These statements are touching on the delicate, sensitive process that we go through when we bravely enter into the forgiveness process.
One image I find that is helpful is imagining forgiveness as a mountain with a path circling it like a spiral from top to bottom. The closer and closer you get to the summit, the tighter the spirals. As you move up the mountain, you grow, develop insight, integrate old experiences with new ones, and generally tend to make meaning out of your life as time moves along. Somewhere along the way, someone hurt you. Let’s call that “Spot A” on your mountain. You continue on up your mountain and at some point later decide to forgive that person. Let’s call that “Spot B” on your mountain. Life continues and you move up your mountain along your forgiveness path and are surprised a while later on when you find yourself standing directly above Spot A, and find yourself confused by an onslaught of troubling emotions that might make you question what happened down there at both Spot A and Spot B. These emotions might sound like, “Wait, didn’t I forgive him?” “I thought I took care of this back at Spot B!” “Why does this hurt so much all over again?”
What you are experiencing may be the difference between decisional and emotional forgiveness. According to forgiveness researcher Everett Worthington, these two things are crucial, but separate processes within the larger experience of offering forgiveness to an offender. Deciding to forgive means choosing to offer forgiveness to someone who has wronged you. Emotional forgiveness means replacing the negative feelings you had toward that person or event with positive feelings such as compassion or empathy. Each type of forgiveness has different functions in our lives. Worthington’s research has found that emotional forgiveness is what helps us most to release those negative or painful emotions, while decisional forgiveness may promote repair in relationships[i]. As you progress through your own life experience on your forgiveness journey, let me encourage you to consider both the decision to forgive and the process of replacing the negative emotions with positive ones as parts of your own unique forgiveness process. Each are worthy of your attention and energy as you continue forward. Perhaps as you circle closer and closer to the summit of your own mountain, you will release more and more negative emotions and replace them with neutral or even positive emotions. Regardless of where you stand decisionally or emotionally in your forgiveness journey, perhaps instead of asking, “how do I know I’ve forgiven,” consider asking yourself, “Where am I in my forgiveness process?”
[i]Worthington, E. (2004). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Taylor and Francis Group.
The feeling of anger is one that is common to everyone. Perhaps we clench our fists, grit our teeth and imagine the worst for an offender. Maybe we stuff our anger inside into densely compacted packages that are eventually set off like explosives when we just cannot take it anymore. In many instances, anger functions like a deflective buffer, protecting us temporarily from the deeper pain we may be experiencing in association with a grievance that has occurred. When this happens, it can be helpful to recognize that in such instances, anger is functioning in a protective manner, shielding us from being overwhelmed by a greater hurt, especially if it is during circumstances where our safety is at risk. In other instances, our anger is a just response to an infraction committed against us that never should have taken place. Teasing out our experience of anger and the bigger function behind it is an important part of developing our own emotional awareness and attuning to its role in the story of our lives.
Considering the function of anger in our lives is a worthwhile pursuit. According to researchers, anger is among those emotions that can result in mental and physical health risks. These can include things like heart disease, earlier mortality, depression, anxiety, and troubled relationships. This is especially true for those of us who tend to harbor anger. When we hold onto it and continue to use it as that protective shield, we put ourselves at risk for developing larger difficulties that we likely never bargained for.
Forgiveness is among those potentially helpful methods for attending to and resolving anger and its related emotions, like hostility, bitterness and resentment. It can be especially effective in our interpersonal relationships. According to Robert Enright, one of the thought leaders and researchers of forgiveness, “forgiveness helps a wronged person examine the injustice, consider forgiveness as an option, make a decision to forgive or not and learn the skills to forgive.”
Forgiveness has the unique quality of fully validating an injury and recognizing our legitimate anger response. The beauty of forgiveness is that not only does it offer this validation, but it goes the next step. Once anger has done its job, forgiveness takes us into a deeper phase of healing. When invited in, forgiveness reminds us of what our boundaries are, that they are worth protecting and that we have the power to release ourselves from the hooks of offense, injury and abuse. One forgiver put it this way, “I’ve learned to like forgiveness because of its strength, freedom and assertiveness. Now, I think I have a better sense of myself and my boundaries. I grew up with my physical, emotional and spiritual boundaries being invaded. Forgiveness tells me it matters that I have boundaries; it is an infraction if they get crossed, and I can unattach from you to restore more a sense of myself.”
Next up in this forgiveness mini-series I will share more about the decisional and emotional nuances of forgiveness. Until then, take a moment to consider where the anger in your life could stand a possible upgrade into the next level of healing. If so, maybe forgiveness has a part to play.
 Chida & Steptoe, 2009; Miller, Smith, Turner, Guijarro, & Hallet, 1996; Williams, 2010
 Enright, R. D., 2004
“Doesn’t forgiving him mean that I have forgotten about what he did and I am not letting the pain get to me anymore?” As, the Group Facilitator, I listened to the question of the young woman in front of me, knowing that her story involved a significant amount of abuse of every kind. Every group member present felt the dense weight of her pain. I looked around the room of young women with similar backgrounds. Each of them seemed to have the same question burning in their hearts. I asked the group, “What do you think forgiveness is? What does it mean to you?” Responses varied, but a general theme emerged among the group members: forgiving means forgetting.
Forgiveness can be a sensitive subject. It has moral and religious ties, both of which may influence our view of what forgiveness means. From a psychological perspective, forgiveness is a merciful act. When we are unjustly hurt by another, we overcome resentment toward the offender not by denying our right to resentment, but by instead offering the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence, and love; and as we give these, we realize that the offender does not have a right to such gifts (North, 1987). Such a definition of forgiveness reminds us that an objective wrong has taken place and a just response to such an event will likely involve experiencing legitimate anger and pain.
According to forgiveness researcher Robert Enright, it is helpful understanding what forgiveness is and is not before we begin applying it (or not) in our healing processes. First, forgiveness is not condoning or putting up with the wrongdoing. Condoning enables, which maintains the wrongdoer’s behavior and possibly breeds resentment between the parties involved. Second, forgiveness is not justifying the wrongdoer’s actions or explaining them away. This might be more common in those instances where we perceive the ends justify the means. Third, forgiveness is not forgetting. As much as we might like to, we cannot undo the past. Though it makes sense that we would want to forget painful events from haunting our memories, trying to forget them may actually prolong our pain by hindering us from compassionately turning towards it. Lastly, forgiveness is not reconciliation. While forgiveness only takes one person’s decision-making, reconciliation requires both parties involved. Reconciliation may be the optimal outcome we aspire to in healthy and reciprocal relationships, but there may also be times when it is actually unsafe from a person to consider reconciliation. This is especially true when one’s safety is at risk.
As I shared this definition of what forgiveness is and listed what it is sometimes mistaken for, the young women began to open up. “You mean, I’m not supposed to forget about what happened? And it is okay if I am angry about it?” “Yes,” I responded, “You cannot change what happened so you cannot simply forget that this offense took place, but you can open yourself up to the legitimate pain you feel and from there begin considering what forgiveness might look like in your unfolding story.”
Next time, I will share more about the anger we feel following an offense and its important role in the larger forgiveness process. Until then, consider whether one of forgiveness’s imposters has gotten the best of you. If so, consider whether or not North’s definition of forgiveness is one that makes sense to you.