Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Gift of Forgiveness

We have all been hurt, or have hurt others, in relationships.  Whether intentional or purposeful, hurt happens.  Forgiveness occurs when we fully recognize and experience the emotions evoked by being hurt and are truly accountable to ourselves and others after conflict occurs.  Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring, psychologist and author, wrote a book “The Courage to Forgive. She suggests a radical model of "genuine forgiveness" that asks as much from the offender as from the hurt party.

Dr. Spring outlines four approaches to forgiveness:  CHEAP FORGIVENESS, REFUSING TO FORGIVE, ACCEPTANCE,AND GENUINE FORGIVENESS.  Both "cheap forgiveness" and "refusing to forgive" are, in her opinion, dysfunctional. Therefore, these approaches are viewed as less healthy and less healing for both the hurt party and the offender.
    Cheap forgiveness is premature, superficial, and undeserved--"a quick and easy pardon."

    Dr. Spring says that with cheap forgiveness, "forgiveness is offered before the hurt party fully processes the impact of the violation. [And] it asks nothing of the offender."  Cheap forgivers don't think through their actions or realize the consequences cheap forgiving has on the future of the relationship. Cheap forgiveness creates "an illusion of closeness" in the relationship. Everyone is happy and on good terms, but nothing has been resolved. More importantly, the hurt party doesn't fully acknowledge the extent to which they've been hurt nor come to terms with their injury.  In fact, often the hurt party simply "let's their anger go" or buries their hurt too quickly and automatically in an attempt to obtain peace and preserve the relationship at any cost. With cheap forgiveness, the offender has done nothing to earn forgiveness. In fact, sometimes the offender doesn't even know they have caused hurt because the hurt person never owns up to being hurt. The offender isn't (or can't be) accountable. The hurt party minimizes the harm done to them, which Dr Spring notes can cause harm to one's physical health (e.g. recent studies link cheap forgiveness and unacknowledged emotional injury to cancer!)


    - CONFLICT AVOIDERS who fear retaliation or rejection by the offender, or who fear the intensity of their own anger and rage.

    - PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE people who bury their true feelings and cover them up with a smile.  They give the false impression that everything is okay in the relationship when they really feel anger and bitterness. They create physical or emotional distance from the offender without explanation and may display outright sarcasm and defiance.

    - SELF-SACRIFICERS who believe putting others above themselves is a virtue. They devalue themselves! They treat themselves as second-class citizens by doing things they would never do, nor expect, of others.  They don't set healthy limits nor speak up for themselves.

    DISADVANTAGES OF CHEAP FORGIVENESS: Keeping the peace may be an advantage in the short-term.  But, cheap forgiveness keeps the two friends, coworkers, family members, and/or lovers at a distance from each other.  A false intimacy is perpetuated and dominates the relationship. Neither person gets to grow and therefore the relationship is stymied.  At worst, cheap forgiveness may convey that you are agreeing with the offenders' mistreatment of you.


    On the opposite end of the spectrum are the Non-Forgivers.  They maintain a grudge and never let the offender off the hook, even after sincere apologies are made.  Non-forgivers may respond with distance, detachment, aggression, and, at worst, are filled with vengeance and retaliatory rage. Like cheap forgiveness, non-forgiving may be an isolated event or a learned pattern of behaviour. If you have ever experienced "the silent treatment" then you have been at the receiving end of a non-forgiver's wrath. Sometimes non-forgivers were raised in non-forgiving, merciless households where there was no tolerance for imperfection or mistakes. If there was chronic or severe abuse, then non-forgivers can feel empowered when they cut off contact with others or feel contempt or hate. If you were humiliated as a child, then you may become punishing, humiliating, and unforgiving in turn.


    - NARCISSISTIC:  Narcissists are extremely self-involved, self-serving and self-centered. They have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and expect special favors and rights without recognizing others are entitled to the same. They frequently feel wounded and enraged when others don't do what they want as expect other people are here to serve and dote on them. Therefore, when people express individual opinions or needs contrary to the narcissist's, he or she blames the other person for the conflict.  If you apologize to a narcissist, your words are not accepted and have no impact.  The narcissist, dependent on total admiration from others, cannot tolerate humility nor criticism.  Nor can they accept their own part in the conflict.  Trying to make peace with someone who is forever unrepentant, unforgiving, and "always right" is futile.  And crazy-making!

    - TYPE "A" PERSONALITIES These people are power-oriented, over-reactive, hostile, condescending, and defensive.  They are impatient, self-centered, and demanding.  They have difficulties in most relationships.  Like Narcissists, they usually don't care about your feelings.  They act arrogant and enjoy confrontations because they like the feeling of powerfulness that comes from annihilating others.

    ADVANTAGES & DISADVANTAGES OF NOT FORGIVING: Dr. Spring notes that not forgiving makes non-forgivers feel invulnerable.  Humiliating others makes them feel powerful. Non-forgivers blame others for their own failures.  And defeating their enemy in a forceful way can replace the emptiness and powerlessness (that truly haunts the non-forgiver) with the thrill of victory and a surge of adrenalin. But not forgiving is an unproductive response to a violation.  It prevents any positive resolution to the conflict and cuts off any dialogue with the offender. It may restore "pride," but it prevents the non-forgiver from having any personal growth or understanding.  True intimacy and closeness are never achieved and always longed for. Refusing to forgive may bring temporary feelings of aliveness and ward off a recurrent sense of emptiness, but it poisons the non-forgiver physically and emotionally.  (Again, studies show elevated blood pressure, higher risk of cancer and infectious disease in Type A personalities).
Dr. Spring says that forgiveness requires the full experiencing of feelings by both the hurt party and the offender.  It requires clear communication between BOTH parties to deepen understanding and to repair the disconnection that occurred.  And it requires a commitment to quit the destructive behaviours. But what if the offender refuses to acknowledge their own actions as hurtful?  What if he or she refuses to acknowledge your feelings, or worse, dismisses and devalues you?  What if the offender makes no commitment or effort to change their ways?  If you don't want to give your forgiveness away cheaply and you don't want to become stuck in non-forgiveness, what can you do?   Dr, Spring offers two healthier forms of forgiveness: "Acceptance" and "Genuine Forgiveness."
Sometimes we want to forgive, but maintaining contact with the offender is dangerous or self-destructive.  Sometimes the offender will not acknowledge their role in hurting you or will not make the attempt to understand your pain.
Acceptance allows the hurt party to take control of their pain, make sense of their injury and create a relationship with the offender that makes sense and works for you. While you may not be responsible for the harm that was done to you, you are responsible for your own recovery from that harm! 

  1. HONOR THE FULL RANGE OF YOUR EMOTIONS: Anger, sadness, rage, grief, despair, whatever they are, identify them, experience them fully in your body, talk them out to someone.  Do not let go of your grievance until you can fully honour the full extent of your feelings.

  2. GIVE UP YOUR NEED FOR REVENGE, BUT CONTINUE TO SEEK A JUST RESOLUTION: Don't stay stuck in trying to make the other person "pay" for your hurt.  Often that results in an escalation of hurts and an endless cycle of victim and perpetrator roles. Real satisfaction comes from living a happy life. In other words, put your time and energy toward having your own hurt understood and validated rather than focusing on the offender.  You will not undo your pain by "getting even" with or inflicting pain on the person who hurt you. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't get the best resolution you can.  If your wife cheats on you with your neighbour, look for the best legal resources you can find to get the best financial and child custody agreement you can.  Become your best self.  Obey your own moral codes even if your offender didn't.  Keep your own dignity and self-respect. Find a resolution that honours your own principles.

  3. STOP OBSESSING ABOUT THE INJURY AND REENGAGE WITH LIFE:  Obsessing only hurts you...replaying the injury over and over again hurts YOUR body, YOUR mind, YOUR heart.  Your offender hurt your, but do not continue to hurt yourself by obsessing and re-exposing yourself to the suffering over and over and over again. Know that obsession can be your body's reaction to a trauma.  If you find you are having difficulty with obsessions, see a professional for help. Letting go of obsessive thoughts is not the same as letting go of the injury.  How you were hurt matters and you need to talk about that.

  4. PROTECT YOURSELF FROM FURTHER ABUSE: Accepting someone who is physically or emotionally abusive does not mean you have to continue to be abused.  Acceptance means taking precautions to ensure your safety, setting limits, and sometimes saying, "You hurt me very much.  I am angry and very hurt.  I loved you deeply.  Nonetheless, goodbye!"  Acceptance doesn't have to mean reconciliation. You can accept someone and still ban them from your life.

  5. FRAME THE OFFENDER'S BEHAVIOURS IN TERMS OF HIS/HER OWN PERSONAL STRUGGLES: Don't let others determine how you feel about yourself.  Remind yourself that while the person did something TO you, but that it wasn't necessarily ABOUT you.
    Trying to see things from the offender's point of view, knowing about his or her personal history may help you to dispel any mistaken assumptions that you caused or deserved your hurt.
  6. LOOK HONESTLY AT YOUR OWN CONTRIBUTION TO THE INJURY: Own up to your own issues.  Look honestly at yourself.  do you REPEATEDLY find yourself in the role of victim?  Are you FREQUENTLY told you are misperceiving things.  Are you overly-sensitive across a range of your relationships?  What non-constructive ideas and expectations about your self, others, the world to you have that influence your response in relationships? Own up to your share of the problem.

  7. CHALLENGE YOUR FALSE ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED: Identify the distortions in your thinking.  Are you looking at things objectively? Do you have "black-or-white" thinking, i.e., you're perfect or horrible, right or wrong, good or bad? Do you expect others to read your mind?  Do you assume that you can know what the other person is thinking? do you get caught in over-generalizing..."He ALWAYS does this?" Do you expect the worst?  Do you jump to conclusions?  Do you have "should" rules..."a woman who loves me should always hold me whenever I need her to." Examine your assumptions and see if they really are helpful.

  8. LOOK AT THE OFFENDER APART FROM THE OFFENSE; WEIGH THE GOOD WITH THE BAD: It's normal to have negative feelings about someone when they've hurt you.  With acceptance, you honour these feelings and also try to separate out the offender from the offense and view his behaviour in the context of your relationship. Try to see the offender objectively.  For example, your father may never have been able to give you affection.  And you have every right to be hurt by that.  Honor the feelings that go with that hurt.  Also look at other ways that your father behaved.  Did he demonstrate his support for you?  Show pride in your accomplishments?  Be there when you needed a hand?   See the person in a multi-dimensional light and don't fixate solely on their short-comings.

  9. CAREFULLY DECIDE THE TYPE OF RELATIONSHIP YOU WANT WITH THE OFFENDER:  If the offender is unwilling or unable to make amends, decide what kind of relationship you want to have with the offender.  If you reconcile, can you remain authentic (be yourself, acknowledge your pain) in the relationship?  You can have acceptance without a reconciliation when the offender is absent:  the offender has died and there can never be a reconciliation, but you can choose Acceptance.  Imagine what you would say to the deceased or absent person if you could be totally honest with them.  What did you never get to say to them?  Imagine how they would respond to your statements. You may not forgive the offender because s/he has not earned your forgiveness, but can you live with his or her shortcomings and make peace with yourself? You can have acceptance without reconciliation when the offender won't apologize:  the offender wants to maintain a relationship but refuses to earn forgiveness.  You can accept the offender and still break off contact with him until he makes amends.You can accept and reconcile when the offender won't apologize: For example you may choose to get along with your boss to protect your job even though you may not respect him.  Or remain civil to your ex-wife and her new partner for the sake of the children.  Some relationships are more important to preserve than others. You have the ability to choose to accept the situation and your feelings about it.
  10. FORGIVE YOURSELF FOR YOUR OWN FEELINGS:  How have you ALLOWED the offender to hurt you? And therefore, how have you hurt yourself?  Did you ignore your suspicions?  Did you trust too easily?  Did you minimize your suffering?  Did you tolerate abusive behaviour?  These are all self-inflicted wounds.  Will you forgive yourself?
Genuine forgiveness is a "shared venture" where two people, bound together by an interpersonal violation, exchange their care, compassion, understanding, and empathy with each other. Genuine forgiveness is conditional and must be earned. It comes with a price that the offender is willing to pay.  In exchange, the hurt party must allow him or her to settle this debt.  As the offender works to earn forgiveness, the hurt party works to let go of resentment and the need for punishment. With genuine forgiveness, the offender takes on the role of attending to the perceived or real danger.  The offender becomes vigilant--on guard and protectively watching--to any way in which their hurt partner maybe reactive to any number of signals that remind them of the traumatic event.  

Forgiveness is possible but it requires insight, emotional honesty and commitment...from both the hurt person and the offender. Like bones, where we break, we become stronger...if the right interventions, corrections, and rehabilitation occurs.  If you have hurt someone or been hurt, I encourage you to make the effort toward acceptance or genuine forgiveness.  It works!    If you want to read more about forgiveness, go to:  http://www.dianeandersoncounselling.com and read more about “The Gift of Forgiveness”.

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