“Forgiveness is a lovely idea until you have someone to forgive.” C.S. Lewis
I’ve thought a lot about forgiveness lately. Often when we face life’s major passages, a flood of old thoughts and feelings suddenly reappear. But I must admit that I am not at the place where I started when I began to think about the concept of forgiveness for this post. My longer than usual research took me to deeper places than I had imagined. I realized how complex, fragile and essential the role of forgiveness is to every human being and every culture.
While most of us engage in small acts of simple forgiveness every day – for many there are chasms of wounds that lay untouched, waiting for the resolution and reconciliation that may never be. For thousands of years, the concept of forgiveness has mainly been the province of religious and philosophical teachings. The legacies of those theological and moral influences formed imperatives to forgive and repent. Not until the post-WWII era of collective psychology did the idea flourish that forgiveness had value and purpose in everyday life.
The motivation to forgive was no longer simply atonement in preparation for eternal life, but greater freedom to living a fuller life in the present. The why and how of forgiveness has since occupied therapeutic relationships, 12 step programs, popular fiction and self-help books and most recently – entire countries and cultures as they seek to resolve their pasts and begin anew. In the past two decades, neuroscience has contributed to our understanding of the impact of forgiveness in interpersonal relations and personal well-being. Scientists are now able to find areas of neural activity and link those to experiences of forgiveness. This advance is providing major insights into the nature of forgiveness and a range of other related emotions.
What is It?
Forgiveness is a deeply personal and emotional experience that is impossible to define. Dr. Katherine Piderman from the Mayo Clinic says that “forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.” Forgiveness is intertwined with many emotions – resentment, grief, rage, sadness, hurt, betrayal, vulnerability, anger and fear are often part of the experience. But is forgiveness a decision?
When I started this piece I found myself mostly on that side of the discussion. At some level, forgiveness is a choice, a decision we make or don’t. We must consciously decide, at some point, within our experience of the process of forgiving, to let go. But forgiveness is not simply a rational decision. Woven within the cognitive process of forgiveness are unresolved emotionsand deeply rooted beliefs that often impede or block the ability to forgive.
Your Beliefs are a Key to Forgiveness
Underneath the struggle and the questions to forgive or not, are beliefs that reflect the core of our human values. Many of those beliefs originate from our earliest cultural conditioning. Forgiveness is closely connected to our sense of “justice,” so we can trace our tendencies and willingness to forgive directly to those beliefs we hold. Do you see forgiveness as strength or a weakness? Do you believe that some acts are simply unforgivable? How are your beliefs about forgiveness connected to the beliefs you hold about character and the ability to change?
It is often the case that only when we believe that justice (regardless of the issue) has been served, in some acceptable way, that true forgiveness can be accomplished. Because the way we trust is so connected with our ability to forgive, the beliefs we hold about trust are also very important. This is not to say that we must trust someone to forgive them, but withholding trust is often synonymous with an unwillingness to forgive.
A study in the journal Psychological Science reported that believing in the possibility that people can change shapes their ability to forgive. The research shows that although a person’s trust could be easily eroded, it could be restored if they believed in moral improvement. Those who believed in a fixed moral character, incapable of change were much less likely to regain trust after it was lost. These major questions can shape our lives and determine the actions we take and the feelings we carry with us, sometimes, for a lifetime. That’s why it is important to understand the roots of our inability to forgive.
Patterns of Forgiveness in the Workplace
Workplaces can be repositories for many offenses that we find difficult to forgive. Gossip, lies, unfair treatment and insensitive communication can become magnified and trigger old traumas. Often to just get along, we must overlook pettiness, management and organizational practices that offend, hurt and challenge our sensibilities. While it is important for us to remember that often these actions, while insensitive, can be unconscious and not designed to hurt us, it is equally important that we not suppress what we feel when they happen. Rationalization has limited impact when our values are being challenged, or violated. Too often unforgiving attitudes accumulate when we attempt to bury our truths. This can trigger old wounds and resurface unresolved grievances.
Workplaces can also present countless opportunities to “practice” forgiving and letting go. In the pressure and pace of most workplaces, it’s easy to overlook the human consequences of our sloppy communication and lack of consideration towards others. If we stay present and aware of what we are feeling as these events occur, we can respond out of choice and not reaction. Sometimes these situations can remind us of old, untended hurts that need attention. A comment or behavior by a co-worker can trigger a disproportionate reaction that has more to do with old emotional baggage than the situation at hand.
Can We Learn to Forgive?
Most of us are not “schooled” in the practice of forgiveness. Dr Fred Luskin, Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project points out that many people spend far more time complaining and blaming others, rather than finding what is good and positive in them. His work has focused not only on researching the nature of forgiveness but on developing cognitive strategies that can be learned as a skill.
Dr. Luskin’s 9-Step Program is abbreviated here:
Dr. Luskin points out that only by changing the narrative of your story and how you tell it, can you find a new way through forgiveness. Forgiveness Begins With Your Ability for Self-Forgiveness “The first part of any conflict we must resolve is not between “me” and my “neighbor,” but between “me and me.” Thom Rutledge, Author The Self-Forgiveness Handbook Some say that the deepest act of forgiveness begins with self-forgiveness. While forgiving others can be liberating – self-forgiveness can bring an even deeper peace. Our lack of self-forgiveness can be relentless. It can haunt us for minutes or for years. Whether we have hurt someone else and cannot let the pain of that self-realization go, or we are harsh on ourselves for our “failures” and “imperfections.”
According to Buddhist monk and author, Thich Nhat Hahn, “Every time we tune into the inner dialogue that says are we are not (smart, thin, rich, successful, good, etc) enough or liberate ourselves for what we did or did not do, we are choosing to live in blame and resentment – only it’s toward ourselves and not others. To practice forgiveness we must first forgive ourselves for not being perfect.”
For most of us, forgiveness is not easy. We need the motivation to forgive. We need to apply our most skillful emotional intelligence to “hold” us safely as we go through the process of forgiving. We must allow ourselves time and space as we release and let go. For some this is a spiritual process – for others, a way out of a self-imposed emotional, mental and physical prison. Many of the things we will forgive, we may never forget. And that is understandable, and perhaps for some, desirable. But there is no question that there is great healing power in the act of forgiveness. It is ultimately, transformative – for us, for others and for our cultures.
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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You have raised an important point about our beliefs influencing our ability and decision to forgive Louise. Clarifying that forgiveness does not condone the act seems to make it easier for people to forgive.
You may remember my poem on this subject: http://serenereflection.wordpress.com/2012/02/18/poem-forgiveness/
I was surprised to see how closely the 9 step program resonates with the poem 🙂
So nice to hear from you. I do think that we often miss the cognitive role in forgiving. Beliefs are often the barrier. The study I mentioned pointed out that when we believe that someone is capable of changing or they perceive someone is sorry, it is easier to allow forgiveness.
And thanks for sharing your wonderful poem – speaks deeply to the points of the article.