Forgiveness has an image problem. Asked to forgive people say: ‘but I can’t forget what they did’ or ‘I can’t imagine ever being friends again’ or ‘but I want them punished.’ These responses show a confusion between forgiveness, reconciliation, forgetting and justice.
Forgive them for you
To forgive doesn’t mean forgetting, it doesn’t mean reconciling and it doesn’t mean letting people off e.g. ignoring, minimising, tolerating or excusing. Nor does it mean minimising an injustice, putting up with ill-treatment or allowing an offender to harm again. It is not about meekly turning the other cheek. It is a personal process that may or not be expressed directly to the offender. While knowing you have been forgiven is clearly likely to have an impact on the offender, I want to focus here on the benefits to us of learning to be more forgiving of others, whether we tell our offender about it or not.
Forgiveness is a gracious and courageous response that enables the forgiver to lessen the power of the transgression to define him or her. Forgiveness remembers the past in a way that opens up positive futures.
It tends to be a process that unfolds over time, slowly replacing the desire for revenge or avoidance and unforgiving emotions such as bitterness and fear.
Techniques that help foster forgiveness include
One thing that helps induce feelings of forgiveness is focussing on the offender’s humanity, and seeing the action as distinct, not defining. Thus we might say: ‘They lied’ rather than ‘they are a liar.’ Developing feeling of compassion or mercy also helps, reflected in sentiments such as ‘I can’t condone what they did but I can see how they were driven to it’, or perhaps, ‘I can see there was some muddled good intentions in there, but that doesn’t excuse what they did to me. ’ These are pro-social responses of empathy and compassion and a desire for genuine and ultimate good that act to edge out the hurt and bitter responses. Forgiveness responds to harm with grounded hope. Hope is a key positive emotion for moving forward in life.
What helps us to forgive?
Forgiveness begins (and this is unexpected to many) by accurately naming and blaming the offender for the harm done. A strong religious identity and commitment helps (but not just ‘being spiritual’), as does feeling empathy or compassion for the offender. Having a more agreeable personality and having a closer and more committed relationship before the offense (with the exception as outlined below) also aid forgiveness.
What makes it harder to forgive?
Having a hostile personality or narcissistic tendencies make it harder to forgive. Also depression adversely affects the ability to forgive in previously close relationships.
Why should we forgive?
Correlational research suggests that people with more forgiving personalities have less anxiety and lower blood pressure while those with unforgiving personalities have worse self-esteem, greater depression and anxiety, and often exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms such as nightmares. Those who have trouble forgiving themselves suffer the worst!
While experimental research demonstrates that as people learn to forgive, they show increased self-esteem, hope, positive attitudes towards their offender and a desire for reconciliation. They also generally experience reductions in grief, depression, anxiety and anger and increases in positive affective responses, that is, they are better able to experience positive emotions.
Interestingly those who focus first on forgiveness to restore their own happiness (rather than focussing on the offender) make faster progress. However, in the long run, those who seek to forgive out of altruistic compassion and concern for the offender ultimately experience greater self-benefits.
Other lines of research have shown that unforgiving reactions, such as the mental rehearsal of the painful event, arouse strong negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness, muscle tension around the eyebrows and eyes, higher levels of blood pressure, heart rate and sweating. While empathetic and forgiving reactions have significant positive and calming effects.
So what to do?
Attempting to understand the transgressive behaviour without minimizing or excusing it, focussing on compassion for the humanity of the offender (to err is human, and we are none of us perfect) and forgiveness e.g. replacing the hurt and bitter feelings with a genuine attempt to wish the offender well; these empathetic and forgiving responses prompt greater positive and relaxing emotion, joy, and a sense of having more control in the situation, with a calmer physiological profile.
Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet pp 403 -408 in the Lopez J. L. (ed) The Encylopedia of Positive Psychology. Wiley-Blackwell
Sarah Lewis is the owner and principal psychologist of Appreciating Change. She is author of ‘Positive Psychology at Work’ and ‘Positive Psychology for Change’ both published by Wiley. She is also the lead author of 'Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management'.
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