What Forgiveness Is, What it Isn’t, and How to Do It Effectively
In our fast-paced world, it’s easy to get swept up in the currents that surround us. But we are authors of our own life stories. And we are infinitely capable of creating the change we want to see within us and beyond.
Creating change often includes the moral virtue of forgiveness. Forgiveness is such an important topic–and yet so underrated in a culture that holds on to anger as some kind of weapon or tool. But here’s the thing: If you don’t forgive, that person is not your enemy. That person is your master because they have has changed you on the inside.
The Science of Forgiveness
Recently, I sat down to have a chat with Dr. Robert Enright, a pioneering force in the scientific study of forgiveness.
Over the last 40 years, he and his colleagues have developed a pathway to forgiveness that has helped people who have endured severe personal and societal trauma. His recent work has been focused on bringing forgiveness programs to children, so that they can apply these principles more easily as adults.
Dr. Enright is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He helped found a nonprofit organization called the International Forgiveness Institute.
The University of Wisconsin actually hired him in 1978, in the Human Development area, with a specialty in moral development. In the late 1970s, the key theme was justice–not mercy or forgiveness–and how children and adolescents come to think about fairness with one another.
At the time, Dr. Enright studied what everybody else studied. He did what was expected of him. But then he woke one morning with a thought that shook him at the core: Who am I helping with my research?
Long story short, this question led Dr. Enright to abandon his research in 1985 and start over. It was a bold move that started with him asking: What in the area of morals or moral development might actually be helpful that people might actually transform lives? And he thought about the opposite of justice–injustice.
Then he asked himself: How do people climb out of the pit of injustice when they’ve been thrown down there by others treated very unjustly? How do they climb out of that? The idea of forgiveness kept coming up.
He walked to the library and asked the librarian (you know, that primitive, human version of Google) to pull up all the published work in the social sciences on the topic of forgiveness.
There was nothing. Nothing but opportunity.
So, in 1985, Dr. Enright started what the Friday Forgiveness Seminar, made up of students and some faculty., It’s still running to this day, 37 years later. He and his team have conducted volumes of research on forgiveness and, more important, have helped to transform the lives of others through the power of forgiveness.
Moving Beyond Injustices
Here’s one study that illustrates just how powerful forgiveness can be.
Dr. Enright’s team interviewed over 100 men in a maximum security prison. 90%reported experiencing profoundly deep abuse as children or adolescents. Furthermore, 40% of them never told anyone about the abuse.
The team conducted a 6-week study in which one group completed a “forgiveness intervention” and went from being clinically depressed to non-depressed. The control group, which did not receive the forgiveness intervention remained clinically depressed.
Then the control group received the forgiveness intervention. That group also achieved non-depressed status. Incredibly, six months later, the first group had maintained their non-depressed status.
This proves that there is something to forgiveness that goes beyond traditional therapy.
Every day people also are regularly subjected to injustices. Everyday injustices are not right;. that’s why we call them injustices. All of us react to injustices with some internal discontent. That’s good. It shows that we are people who have morals, that we know right from wrong, and that we have self-respect.
But we’re still left with the vestiges of that mistreatment, albeit mild, which results in an internal discontent. Would you really want to live with that discontent for days or weeks? And so the practice of forgiveness does the following: it helps cleanse the effects of even mild injustice. It makes a person more open to the other person, and reconciliation more likely.
Forgiveness allows a second chance to the one who was behaving badly that day, to be welcomed back into the relationship, person-to-person.
Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation
Now let’s discuss what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation. Setting yourself up for further abuse is not a requirement of forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is a conscious deliberate choice to be good to those who are not good to you.“
As human beings, we tend to get stuck, emotionally trapped in our unforgiveness.
Choosing to forgive is a moral virtue. This is not excusing what the other did, even though we use the term “forgive and forget.” We never forget, we simply remember in new ways.
When we take a hard look at the injustice and make sure it really is an injustice rather than just a misunderstanding, we are often surprised to see things differently.
The Process Model of Forgiveness
Robert Enright teaches a model of forgiveness called the Process Model of Forgiveness. It’s not the only way to forgive, of course. It’s simply one pathway. But it’s a scientifically demonstrated pathway.
This doesn’t mean you are required to excuse, forget, or necessarily reconcile with those who hurt you. You’re not asked to abandon justice. Rather, let’s perceive justice differently.
Ask yourself “do I want to go on this pathway of forgiveness?”
If your answer is “yes,” then we enter the work phase.
Start with thinking exercises toward the one who hurt you. Consider the personal, global, and cosmic perspectives on the other person.
First with the personal perspective, what’s going on in the person’s life that’s impeding true justice? Is it possible this person is terribly fatigued or overburdened at work? Or do they have latent habits and beliefs from childhood?
Then shift to a global perspective, which is a higher level of abstraction. Who is this person in humanity in their personhood? Does this person have worth as a person?
“You both share worth built in worth that cannot be earned because you’re both special, unique and irreplaceable.”
Finally, if you have a spiritual or religious perspective, we enter what we call the cosmic perspective. (Otherwise, stick with the personal and global perspectives.)
Ask yourself, for example, is it true that the person with whom you’re having difficulty is made in the image and likeness of God?
The answer is, well, yes.
The one who hurt you is made in the image and likeness of God. Does this shift your mindset?
Because you’re not used to seeing the offending person that way, this change in perception may create a difficult personal struggle, and take some time to put into practice.
Then we put all 3 perspectives together: this person is made in the image and likeness of God; shares humanity and worth; has struggles and some learning that needs to be unlearned; and is imperfect, just like… me.
Ask yourself, is this person more than simply someone who hurt me? Yes.
When this compassion starts to open our hearts, and we begin seeing transcendent growth, we must ask ourselves, “Can I stand in the pain and bear it, rather than toss the pain back and forth, perpetuating the cycle?”
This is where the idea of the moral virtue of forgiveness comes in. Once you’re strong enough to stand in that pain, and then you see you’re not crushed by it, ask yourself, “are you ready to give a gift of kindness to the one who hurt you?“
The habit of anger is very difficult to break and damaging to ourselves. And the extension of kindness doesn’t have to be drastic, but something to acknowledge the other’s humanity.
If you are at the beginning stages of possibly considering this path and escaping the blockage of unforgiveness, and ready to begin releasing baggage and cleansing anger, where is a good place to begin?
The Forgiving Life book and blog site on Psychology Today are a great way to get an overview of the concepts of forgiveness and maintain the practice of forgiving.
“Forgiveness is (an) exercise for the heart, for the broken heart.”
After the initial euphoria has started to wear off, the enthusiasm can begin to fade. So like any exercise, we need regular practice to improve our forgiveness skills, even if it’s incremental and slow.
With that knowledge, check back here for future discussions on forgiveness, self-development, and improving your relationships with yourself and others.