Motivation and emotion/Book/2011/Forgiveness

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Forgiveness: What it is and why we need it

Epiphany-bookmarks.svg This page is part of the Motivation and emotion book. See also: Guidelines.
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To err is human, to forgive is divine.
~ William Shakespeare
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
~ Lewis B. Smedes
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
~ Nelson Mandala
You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.
~ Lewis Smedes

Introduction[edit]

Forgiveness is an internal emotion

Forgiveness is easier said than done! When someone has wronged us how do we forgive them? Is it possible to conjure up feelings of forgiveness to replace the terrible feelings? Should I even bother forgiving them?

Forgiveness is a complex emotion that does not always come naturally. Once we learn to forgive and do it often we will find ourselves feeling free of heavy burdens and more at ease. Feeling forgiveness does not just happen because we tell someone we forgive them, it involves an internal change of heart. If we ruminate on our offenders' faults, they may be blissfully enjoying life... so forgiving is in our best interest.

While forgiveness is not our first reaction it is a process that occurs from our interpretation of a situation and a restructuring of our defences. This leads to feeling forgiveness.

So sit back, have a cup of tea, and enjoy reading about what forgiveness is and how we can learn to forgive.

Defining forgiveness[edit]

What forgiveness is[edit]

Forgiveness is a mix of behaviour, cognition, and affect but before forgiveness can be expressed outwardly in a sincere way it is an internal process (Webb, Robinson & Brower, 2011). Forgiveness involves a decrease in negative feelings towards someone who caused hurt or towards self and to no longer desire revenge (Pronk, Karremans, Overbeek, Vermulst & Wigboldus, 2010). The opposite of forgiveness can be a combination of Anger|anger, rage, injustice, resentment, bitterness, and fear. The wrong that is perceived can be real or imagined. For example, you can be angry at thinking someone has ignored you when they may not have known your presence. Forgiveness involves more than just reducing aggressive feelings, it also involves feelings of acceptance towards a person despite his/her error.

Is it an emotion? Forgiveness theory explores forgiveness as a behaviour, an emotion and a decision. Although forgiveness can be expressed by all of these aspects it heavily relies on emotion particularly for a feeling of inner peace and rest to occur. The feeling of forgiveness includes a dissipation of negative emotions towards something and a gained presence of positive feelings. Forgiveness can be felt towards someone without needing to outwardly inform them, it is often needed to be felt first before a person can outreach and express this feeling of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not based on what is deserved. When someone has done wrong they do not always deserve to be forgiven. When someone forgives they know the wrong done was unjust but despite this they let go of their anger and overlook the wrong.

What forgiveness is not[edit]

There are many misconceptions about what forgiveness entitles. By coming to an internal state of feeling forgiveness a person does not support the wrong that has been committed. Forgiveness is not allowing wrong to be considered as right. Justice is not ignored when forgiveness occurs. For example, a women abused in a relationship may forgive her partner but this does not mean she need return to him.

In the case of murder, forgiveness may be expressed towards the murderer but it does not release the murderer from serving their sentence. The father of one of Garry Ridgeway's victims, an American serial killer, expressed forgiveness to Garry at the trial. While others verbally expressed their hatred, this father expressed pain yet forgiveness. His forgiveness did not excuse the murders but it did signify a letting go of wishes for revenge and an expression of compassion. What is interesting to note is the act of forgiving provoked a strong emotional release from Garry Ridgeway, who was emotionless to the hateful words but had tears at the forgiving words. You can watch a short video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjkM2YKqYMU.

Another thing forgiveness does not include is reconciliation. Forgiveness is definitely a step within this and helps to provide a solid foundation to reconcile with someone but it does not mean reconciliation must occur with forgiveness. Forgiveness is coming to peace within about wrong committed and may also then produce an outward display of this forgiveness.

Forgiveness does not mean trust is restored. A person may forgive another but they do not need to trust them. A parent may forgive their child for stealing money from their purse but this does not mean they will assume the child will never commit the crime again! Instead the parent may keep a close watch on their purse.

Who said what - some theory[edit]

Forgiveness is a relatively new research topic to psychology. Only recently has it become a topic to talk about and mostly within the positive psychology field. Originally forgiveness has been seen as a religious of philosophical topic but psychologists have discovered that forgiveness can play a powerful role in therapy and has psychological benefits. So how does forgiveness work? As forgiveness is a complex emotion the biological theories have less application in this area. Forgiveness has been found to be a product of cognition and unconscious motives.

Cognitive Theory[edit]

The cognitive perspective of emotions best describes forgiveness and how it occurs. Forgiveness can be classified as a complex emotion in that it is a mix of other more basic emotions. The emotion of forgiveness is preceded by cognitive appraisal of a person's own current emotions and the offender. When forgiveness occurs it can be assessed as beneficial to a person as they no longer will be consumed with heavy negative emotions. On the other hand, forgiveness does not occur when a person assesses their negative emotions as just and better than letting go. The interpretation of what is best in the situation helps elicit forgiveness (Orathinkal, 2008). Best may not mean easiest as it can be hard to let go of anger towards someone but this interpretation helps produce a forgiving emotion.

Appraisal process for forgiveness according to Richard Lazarus's theory.

Richard Lazarus’s model of emotions best describes the emotion of forgiveness. In this model, first comes the interpretation or appraisal of an event. The emotion then follows depending on the interpretation (Reisenzein, 2006). A situation is assessed by weighing up the personal benefit and the potential harm. Lazarus’ theory also includes self goals as part of assessing a situation (Lazarus, 2006). So if someone recognises themselves as a good person then s/he may assess anger with belief s/he should forgive so s/he will continue to view him/herself in a positive way.

Primary appraisal is the personal well-being that must be assessed and secondary appraisal is assessment of how they will handle the situation. Questions that may be asked when assessing forgiveness are:

  • Will I be worse off if I forgive them?
  • Will people think any less of me?
  • Will they continue to do wrong?
  • Do they deserve forgiveness?
  • Is it worth letting go of my anger that I feel they deserve?
  • Will any more harm come to me if I forgive them?

Before forgiveness is felt, usually forms of negative emotions such as anger or sadness are felt which arise from appraisal of harm from a situation. Forgiveness appraisal recognises this harm was present but assesses that ruminating on this will be of more harm or achieve no good purpose and so letting go is beneficial. Other cognitive theorists build on this theory adding more complex appraisal processes to reach an emotion. Ellsworth and Smith build on this add to this by adding an explanation that any emotion is a product of a complex process of interpretations from a situation (Keltner, Elssworth & Edwars, 1993).

Defense mechanisms and forgiveness[edit]

Forgiveness bridges the gap between anger and peace.

‎ Un-forgiveness is often the first initial reaction to internal feelings of hurt. Worthington and Scherer (2004) describe un-forgiving emotions as an initial stress reaction to a situation. Evoking feelings of forgiveness can help reduce these negative feelings and the stress reaction. This theory explains un-forgiveness as an injustice gap. This is the difference between the current feelings and the ideal resolved feelings towards an offence. The bigger the gap, the harder it is to feel forgiveness. So if a person has extremely hurt feelings and this is far away from the feelings of peace then they will find it harder to close the gap because they feel there is a bigger injustice.

Worthington and Scherer also said forgiveness is one of many ways that may be used to cope with situations of feeling hurt. Other more negative coping strategies were revenge or defence mechanisms such as denial and avoidance. By avoiding dealing with anger the person is trying to protect him/herself from further negative emotions that might be caused by further exploring their hurt. Forgiveness therefore plays of the role of bridging the injustice gap and reducing negative emotions back to normal.

Freud’s Id, Ego, and Superego have been used to describe the process of forgiveness (Gartner, 1998). The ego must learn to replace initial negative emotions with more balanced ones. This occurs as a person puts into perspective their own wrong doing and accepts that people are not perfect. By doing this the ego balances negative and positive emotions and can forgive the wrong doer.

Is forgiveness necessary?[edit]

Research continuously shows that forgiving has more benefits than negatives. Although it can be hard to let go of emotions such as anger, it has been found to make people feel much better. Those that forgive are even found to have better physical health (Kaplan, 1992). A group of people were asked to imagine seeking forgiveness (van Oyen Wityliet, 2002). The group who imagined seeking forgiveness and a positive response were found to have improved their levels of sadness and anger even though it was only an imagined situation. Forgiveness has a powerful ability to provide release from internal disarray.

Forgiveness in close relationships[edit]

Random fact: Marriage and forgiveness

Forgiveness is a key part of steady relationships (Kachadourian, 2004).

In close relationships, such as family and friends, forgiveness provides an initial path to reconciling. Married couples report more satisfaction in their relationship when they forgive their spouse (Pronk, Karremans, Overbeek, Vermulst & Wigboldus, 2010).

Ingroup identification increases forgiveness. Hockey players were more likely to forgive a hockey player who had aggressively injured their team mate if the aggressor had an affiliation with their club (Schimel, 2006). This is thought to be due to common ground shared by both hockey players of the same club affiliation. Schimel did find hockey players more readily forgave outgroup members with no common affiliation when they were reminded of their own aggressive acts. Grudges did not occur when the other player had been forgiven.

Those who avoid a person who has offended them generally do not do so out of fear of further getting emotionally hurt. It was found that those who avoided facing their offender do so out of anger, hostility and a way of getting revenge (Barnes, Brown & Osterman, 2009). This method of avoidance led to exaggerated ruminating of the original offense and caused even more negative feelings. So when a friend or family member hurts us, ignoring them out of spite will only make us feel worse.

It was found that those in secure marriage or dating relationships forgive more readily and more often (Kachadourian, 2004). This helps to reduce tension and continue to foster loving feelings. Those that were less secure in their relationship were also less likely to forgive often.

Forgiveness for strangers[edit]

The court system deals with punishing those who commit crimes and this is where victims often face their offender. While un-forgiveness is often understandable in certain situations it has been found that forgiving leads to better psychological health (Karremans, Lange & Ouwerkerk, 2003). This is supported by the theory that defence mechanisms are a stress reaction so by letting go of anger and revenge emotions more positive emotions can experienced.

A group of people who were the primary victims from a crime had better mental health and coping abilities when they forgave their offender (Cooney, 2011). The reason for forgiving in most cases was it was more helpful to forgive than harbour negative emotions. None of the victims felt their forgiveness was a representation that the punishment should be lessened in court. Here, forgiveness is purely an internal change from negative to positive affect. A key characteristic was no more desire for revenge or hate towards the offender.

Alice

Imagine you were a victim of genocide in Rwanda. You had your hand cut off, were badly beaten until thought dead, and all your family killed. Years later your attacker approaches confessing and begging for forgiveness. What would you do and how would you feel? Would you forgive?

This is the real experience of Alice (Moore, 2009). It may surprise you to know Alice did forgive her attacker and even became a friendly acquaintance of his. This process of internal forgiveness was not an easy task. Although Alice had decided she would forgive her attacker if she even met them again, her first reaction was to run away from the meeting. A week later she confronted him and forgave him.

Understanding played a large role in feeling forgiveness for Emmanuel, her attacker. She understood the context of the genocide. There was a corrupt government in place and many people deeply regretted their actions - Emmanuel was one of them. She also felt the forgiveness that Emmanuel asked was a way for her move forward from the devastating events. This forgiveness helped Alice to thing about the horrible events less. While not everyone in Rwanda forgives their attackers, those that do tend to find peace.

Process of forgiveness[edit]

Secrets to Forgiving

  1. Empathy - understand the other person’s perspective
  2. Time - take time to deal with negative emotions
  3. Ruminating - try not to ruminate on the negatives
  4. Denial - do not pretend nothing happened
  5. Positives - focus on some positives in the situation

Forgiveness involves a reduction of negative emotions and can also include replacing these with positive emotions. The more severe the offense, the more cognitive control is involved in the process of forgiving (Pronk, Karremans, Overbeek, Vermulst & Wigboldus, 2010). Knowing forgiveness is important helps to undergo a change of emotion and experience the freedom of forgiveness.

Role of empathy[edit]

Empathy plays a large role in the capacity to forgive. A school intervention program in teaching children about forgiveness found those who forgave used empathy as the first step in the process (Hui & Chau, 2009). In understanding another person’s perspective, children were more likely to decide to forgive. From this decision, the feelings of forgiveness followed next. Without seeing things from another person’s perspective forgiveness is very hard. Empathy allows wrong actions to be seen as external to the person and reduces belief the other person is intrinsically bad. Context of wrong doing also helps the forgiveness process. Understanding the background of a person, or the stress they were under, allows the forgiver to experience empathy and then forgiveness.

Time[edit]

Experiencing genuine emotion is a process that takes time. Feelings of anger or sadness do not immediately disappear. Time is needed to sort through all the negative thoughts and process how to deal with the situation (Kiefer, 2010).

Role of ruminating[edit]

When we have received injustice we talk about, we tell others the story of what happened and continue mulling on the bad event. This may feel good at first but it does not do any good in the long run.

Denial[edit]

Forgiveness cannot be fully experienced if the situation is forgotten and not processed. Forgiveness involves understanding the wrong that was done and coming to terms with it. When denial or avoidance is used to deal with negative feelings, forgiveness cannot be experienced (Gartner, 1998). This process may involve feeling angry, then sad, then regret and so on before these emotions can be let go of and replaced with forgiveness.

Understanding these defence mechanisms are barriers to forgiveness and knowing they may need to be worked through significantly helps to forgive.

Staying positive[edit]

Forgiving someone isn't much use if there is nothing good that comes from it. By understanding what forgiveness is and the purpose it achieves helps a person to feel forgiveness (Wade, 2010). By cognitively addressing circulating negative thoughts and countering them with positive will help the process of letting go.

Summary[edit]

Forgiveness is a complex emotion that does not just get rid of negative emotions towards unjust treatment, but replaces them with positive ones. Coming to a place where forgiveness is felt is more relieving than holding onto the negative emotions. Forgiveness is not our natural reaction to feeling hurt and so must be worked on to feel. By doing so, many benefits are gained, including psychological health and well-being. Forgiveness does not have to include physical reconciliation with the person; it is an internal process and emotion. Forgiveness can be felt when empathy is used as part of the process.

Forgiveness is worth the effort.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Barnes, C., Brown, R. and Osterman, L., (2009). Protection, payback, or both? Emotional and motivational mechanisms underlying avoidance by victims of transgressions. Motivation & Emotion, 33(4), 400-411.

Cooney, A. G. (2011). The forgiveness process in primary and secondary victims of violent and sexual offences. Australian Journal Of Psychology, 63(2), 107-118.

DeShea, L. (2003). A Scenario-Based Scale of Willingness to Forgive. Individual Differences Research, 1(3), 201-217.

Gartner, J. (1988). The capacity to forgive: An object relations perspective. Journal of Religion and Health, 27, 313–320.

Hui, E. and Chau, T., (2009). The impact of a forgiveness intervention with Hong Kong Chinese children hurt in interpersonal relationships. British Journal Of Guidance & Counselling, 37(2), 141-156.

Kachadourian, L. (2004). The tendency to forgive in dating and married couples: The role of attachment and relationship satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 11(3), 373-393.

Kaplan, B. (1992). Social health and forgiving heart: The Type B story. Journal of Behavioural Medicine, 15(1), 3–14. doi: 10.1007/BF00848374 van Oyen Witvliet, C. J. (2002). Please Forgive Me: Transgressors Emotions and Physiology During Imagery of Seeking Forgiveness and Victim Responses. Journal Of Psychology & Christianity, 21(3), 219.

Karremans, J. C., Lange, P. & Ouwerkerk, J. W. (2003). When forgiving enhances psychological well-being: The role of interpersonal commitment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(5), 1011–1026. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.84.5.1011.

Keltner, D., Ellsworth, P. C., & Edwards, K. (1993). Beyond Simple Pessimism: Effects of Sadness and Anger on Social Perception. Journal Of Personality & Social Psychology, 64(5), 740-752.

Kiefer, R. L. (2010). Training Parents in Forgiving and Reconciling. American Journal Of Family Therapy, 38(1), 32-49. doi:10.1080/01926180902945723

Lazarus, R. S. (2006). Emotions and Interpersonal Relationships: Toward a Person-Centered Conceptualization of Emotions and Coping. Journal Of Personality, 74(1), 9-46. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00368.x.

Moore, J. (2009). Forgive and Forget. Current, 512, 31-34. doi:10.3200/SRCH.20.2.31-35

Orathinkal, J. (2008). Forgiveness: A perception and motivation study among married adults. Scandinavian Journal Of Psychology, 49(2), 155-160.

Pronk, T. M., Karremans, J. C., Overbeek, G., Vermulst, A. A., & Wigboldus, D. J. (2010). What it takes to forgive: When and why executive functioning facilitates forgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98(1), 119-131. doi:10.1037/a0017875

Reisenzein, R. (2006). Arnold's theory of emotion in historical perspective. Cognition & Emotion, 20(7), 920-951. doi:10.1080/02699930600616445.

Schimel, J. (2006). Terror Management and Trait Empathy: Evidence that Mortality Salience Promotes Reactions of Forgiveness among People with High (vs. low) Trait Empathy. Motivation & Emotion, 30(3), 214-224.

Wade, N. G. (2010). Introduction to the Special Issue on Forgiveness in Therapy. Journal Of Mental Health Counseling, 32(1), 1-4.

Webb, J. R., Robinson, E. R., & Brower, K. J. (2011). Mental health, not social support, mediates the forgiveness-alcohol outcome relationship. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 25(3), 462-473. doi:10.1037/a0022502

Worthington, E. r., & Scherer, M. (2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: theory, review, and hypotheses. Psychology & Health, 19(3), 385-405.

External links[edit]