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How Do I Know When I Have Actually Forgiven?


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.

Forgiveness: The Great Anger Validator

by Grace Schuler Spencer, M.A., LPC, NCC in Active, emotional health, forgiveness, Grief, Trauma Comments: 0 tags: anger, Forgiveness, hurt

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.[1] 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.”[2]

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.

[1] Chida & Steptoe, 2009; Miller, Smith, Turner, Guijarro, & Hallet, 1996; Williams, 2010

[2] Enright, R. D., 2004

Forgiveness: What It Is and What Its Not


“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.

Strategies to Reduce Depression During the Holiday


For your physical health:

Be deliberate about what activities you choose to attend. Decide ahead of time what would benefit you the most and what is in line with your needs.

Ask for help from others. We tend to think we have to do everything, when a team effort can be more fun.

Make time to rest and rejuvenate even amidst the pressure of getting things done. This will give you more energy.

Pay attention to your eating and drinking.

 

For your emotional health:

Express your feelings in an assertive and respectful way. Say “yes” because you want to, not out of obligation or to please others.

Surrender to those things that we cannot change. Surrendering is accepting things that we cannot control which allow us not to struggle and feel more at ease.

Don’t isolate. Reach out to others if you feel lonely. If you don’t have someone to be with, volunteer to help those in need. It can be very uplifting and gratifying. Spend time with supportive people.

Spend time to reflect and grieve, if necessary. Let yourself feel. Then do something nice for yourself and socialize.

Practice mindfulness. Try to observe your internal experience, just as it is, without judgment.

 

For your spiritual health: 

Don’t compare yourself to others. You are perfect just as you are today.

Extend forgiveness.

Let go of the past. Life brings changes and each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way. Look forward.

Each week, call or email a family member or friend that you have not connected with in some time.

Make a new friend and invite them for coffee.

Find time to be with God. Pray!

Deceived – Hope for Healing after an Affair


In the wake of the Ashley Madison scandal, the topic of how to recover from an affair has been heard frequently on media sites. At the core of discovering an affair are the feelings of deceit and betrayal. If you have been affected by a partner’s sexual infidelity, you might be feeling devastated, overwhelmed, hurt, sad, alone, and confused. You may have attempted to make sense of the impact and you might wonder how did you miss the signs. You might also blame yourself. Please know that it is not your fault, and you deserve the time to sort through your feelings and take care of yourself (and your children, if you have any). There are many types of affairs, including one-night stands to electronic affairs, which include cybersex relationships, email and texting intimate relationships, as well as visiting escort services. Regardless of the type of affair you might have discovered, you feel betrayed and deceived.

The discovery of an affair presents like a traumatic event. You might feel disoriented and confused. This is similar to what we see in victims of tremendous loss. You might experience flashbacks of the details of the discovery, paralyzing memories and dreams. You might also experience emotional triggers, which could be anything from hearing a phrase, seeing a color or walking past a place that triggers the memory of the affair. You might also feel despair, anger and rage.

For those who are looking for the answer to “why did this happen”? Many factors can contribute to a spouse being unfaithful, and many of those factors have nothing to do with sex. Affairs are symptoms of a larger intrapersonal problem that presents in a painful interpersonal experience. Some of the issues behind affairs are sexual addiction, low self-esteem, alcoholism, selfishness, and personality challenges. Also, problems in the marriage that have been building for years can leave the door open for an affair. Please keep in mind regardless of the reason behind the affair the unfaithful partner bears the responsibility of being honest about the affair and telling the truth. It takes great humility on the part of the unfaithful party to face what they have done to the relationship and their partner and to deal with their character flaws and to move forward and earn forgiveness and hopefully regain trust.

Mending the Relationship

If you are deciding to stay in the relationship after the betrayal has been discovered, the process of rebuilding trust after an affair is beyond difficult. Keep in mind that you can only be ready to rebuild trust after going through denial, shock, anger, rage, and then acceptance and walking through forgiveness. This can take anywhere from 18 months to 3 years, as long as there are no other reoccurring, inappropriate incidences. By engaging in an affair, the foundation of the relationship has been impacted, which means that trust, honor, and commitment are damaged and will need to be repaired. Also, your perception of the marriage with your partner is now tainted. Additionally, making the decision to stay in the marriage can be difficult. You might be ambivalent, feeling as if you want the marriage to work one day and the next day you might be ready to call an attorney and walk out. Rebuilding trust can vary depending on the lived experiences of the person who has been betrayed. The person who had the affair will have to demonstrate that they can be trusted again. This will require consistency, honesty and transparency. If you are deciding to leave the relationship, you will still need to do work to heal from the betrayal so that the pain is not carried over into another relationship. Please contact a licensed mental health clinician to help you walk through the pain and healing.

Recovery comes in phases. There are several steps to recovery from an affair, but before those steps are taken, you must first attend to your immediate needs. Try to get your regular amount of sleep and rest, eat balanced meals, find someone who you trust and who is trustworthy to talk to, preferably a therapist, and get exercise.

  1. Acknowledge what you are feeling – you (the betrayed partner) might be flooded with intense feelings. Take time to acknowledge the loss and violation that you are feeling. The unfaithful partner might have overwhelming guilt and shame, but no matter what the unfaithful partner is feeling, it cannot compare to what the betrayed partner is experiencing.
  2. Thinking about a strategy – there are really only four options you have: (i) to leave the relationships; (ii) to remain in the marriage, acknowledged the betrayal happened and not revisit this painful event again; (iii) to stay in the relationship and put blinders on, which would allow for the affair to continue or happen again; and (iv) to remain in the marriage and commit to working through this difficult time with the goal of identifying why it happened, forgiveness and rebuilding trust.
  3. Be realistic about the outcome of your decision and your expectations.
  4. Whether you go or stay, you will need communication skills. If you go, you will need to know how to communicate through the breakup; and if you stay, you will need to know how to communicate through the healing. So, make learning communication skills a priority.

The stages for recovery for the person who was unfaithful:

  1. End the affair.
  2. Discuss the affair and what happened with your spouse.
  3. Do not lie, be honest.
  4. Be accountable to a group, your pastor or a good friend.
  5. Apologize.
  6. Get into marriage therapy, or individual therapy.
  7. Work through the root cause of the affair.

The stages for recovery for the person who was betrayed:

  1. Take care of yourself.
  2. Do not make any major decisions, if that is possible.
  3. Make a list of your needs and be honest.
  4. Engage in conversations with your spouse with the intent of getting information that will help you, but keep in mind you will be exposed to additional pain. These conversations should last no longer than 30 minutes at a time. Based on the information that you receive, you might need to consider other options in the relationship.
  5. Set boundaries and expectations.
  6. Get into marriage therapy, or individual therapy.
  7. Work through the feelings of betrayal and deception.

Discovering an affair does not mean that your life is over. It can mean that you are starting to build on a stronger, transparent foundation. It can also mean that you learn to state your needs and feelings and that you get to know a part of yourself that wasn’t clear to you prior to the affair. It can also mean that the both of you can make a new commitment to a deeper level of trust, transparency and intimacy. This is indeed a process that requires many steps, patience and prayer.

Dr. Peonita Harris is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has a doctorate in clinical psychology, certified sexual addiction therapist candidate, and is an ordained minister. Dr. Harris has been practicing for over 15 years as a pastoral counselor and a marriage and family therapist. Her primary area of care is relationships, intimacy and sexual concerns.

Booklist

  • Intimate Treason: Healing the trauma for Partners Confronting Sex Addiction by Claudia Black
  • Shadows of the Cross by Craig Cashwell, Pennie Johnson, and Patrick Carnes
  • Facing Heartbreak – Steps to Recovery for Partners of Sex Addicts by Stefanie Carnes
  • Out of the Shadows by Patrick Carnes
  • Torn Asunder by Dave Carder
  • Back from Betrayal: Recovering from his Affairs by Jennifer Schneider
  • A Couple’s Guide to Sex Addiction: A Step-By-Step Plan to Rebuild Trust and Restore Intimacy by Paldrom and George Collins
  • Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age by Robert Weiss and Jennifer Schneider
  • Cruise Control, Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men by Robert Weiss
  • When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts and Minds of People in Two Relationships by Mira Kirshenbaum
  • Surviving an Affair by Willard F. Harley and Jennifer Harley Chalmers
  • Someone Right for You by Edward A. Dreyfus
  • After the Affair by Janis Abrahms Spring

 

Cornerstone Counseling Center of Chicago