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Struggling to Forgive: An Inability to Grieve
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

" ...we are only confronted with the issue of forgiveness because someone has hurt us...to regain our equilibrium, to be at peace again, we must process the emotions and resolve the situation."

Many people struggle with forgiveness. Often, they either are unable to forgive or they forgive too quickly without fully processing their emotions or resolving the situation. In which case, they haven't truly forgiven. Both of these situations involve an inability to navigate the grief process.

You may ask, "What's grief got to do with it?" To understand this question, we must examine the nature of forgiveness and the process of grief. Briefly, we are only confronted with the issue of forgiveness because someone has hurt us. Typically, when we are hurt some sort of loss is involved such as loss of trust or loss of our self-image. When we experience any type of loss, to regain our equilibrium, to be at peace again, we must process the emotions and resolve the situation. To further understand this, let's look at these concepts in depth.

Why is it important to forgive?

To forgive is the ability to pardon an offense without holding resentment. The emphasis in this definition for the purpose of understanding why we need to forgive is on the idea of "holding resentment." Resentment is a chronic state. In other words, we feel it continuously. An emotion such as anger is meant to be felt for short periods to help us process and resolve a situation. However, when we experience anger over prolonged periods of time, our body goes through harmful physiological changes. In particular, high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, will be released in an attempt to cope with the stress. However, when cortisol is released continuously over time it will contribute to health problems including heart disease. Therefore, forgiveness is important because it takes a toll on our bodies to hold resentment.

In addition, the state of holding onto resentment prevents us from being happy. We become bitter and focused on the negative aspects of life. So being unable to forgive doesn't harm the transgressor as much as it harms ourselves.

Why do we experience loss when we are hurt?

When we are struggling with the issue of forgiveness, it means that we have been hurt. Someone has done us wrong. Someone has betrayed us. Someone we trusted mistreated us.

Frequently, people only think of loss and grief when someone dies. But we experience loss in many ways throughout our lives, both major and minor loss. When someone hurts us, we experience loss. This may be obvious in a situation such as divorce. However, other situations may be more difficult to see the loss. For instance, what if someone doesn't invite you to a party? The loss in this situation may be the loss of self-esteem due to the rejection. Or, what if your teenager steals from you? The loss you experience may be the loss of trust. Thus, whenever we are dealing with an issue of forgiveness we are dealing with a loss. Which means we are also dealing with the emotions involved with grief: pain, anger, sadness.

How is grief involved in forgiveness?

As stated previously, when we have been hurt, we experience loss and need to grieve. For instance, a child may experience loss when they can't have something they want. What do you see when that happens? They get mad and then they get sad. But then they move on (although often it's to the next thing they want). This demonstrates the full, natural grief process even though it might occur in a matter of minutes.

By the time we are adults, however, we have learned to suppress this natural grief reaction. We have been punished for getting angry or told that we shouldn't cry. As a result, we often become stuck with grief because we can't release our emotions as we did when we were children. Depending on what we learned when growing up, there are different ways people become stuck in grief. For instance, some people may have learned to "fight back" so they are likely to become stuck in the anger and focused on retaliation. Others may be afraid of their anger so they become stuck in denial and believe that they have resolved the situation: "I've forgiven her. Really!"

What are the paths to forgiveness?

I make the distinction between different paths to forgiveness because each situation varies and we don't have the same opportunities in every situation. Therefore, we may have to pursue different means to achieve forgiveness.

1) True forgiveness. We are able to pursue true forgiveness if there is true remorse on the part of the transgressor. This is often the easiest path to forgiveness because the other person admits fault, takes responsibility for their actions, and asks for forgiveness. In this situation, we may need to determine the sincerity of their apology, but otherwise we are able to allow ourselves to focus on resolving the emotions.

One reason I say this may be the easiest path is because when someone is truly sorry for their behavior, they may be able to accept the emotions we experience. For instance, they might say, "You have every right to be angry with me. I was being thoughtless." Or, "I know you are sad. What I did really hurt you." However, how often do you hear this type of response?

When this type of situation does occur, we are able to feel our emotions and arrive at an understanding. Such as recognizing that the other person didn't hurt us intentionally or that they are truly trying to make amends and changing the behavior that caused the problem.

Notice that I said "feel our emotions" before we are able to come to a resolution. Even if the other person is remorseful, we can't just move to forgiveness without a release of our emotions. We need to feel the anger. And the sadness. Have you noticed that sometimes when you have been hurt and the other person apologizes you continue to focus on what they did to you? "But you hurt me! You..." Or, maybe you've experienced this when you've apologized to someone else. The reason for this is that you are still trying to process the hurt and release the emotions.

Too often, unfortunately, the transgressor wants you to bypass the emotions quickly because they don't want to continue to feel bad or guilty. "I told you I'm sorry. Why are you still focused on this?" Ideally, if the other person could allow you to express your pain and anger, you are likely to come to a resolution more quickly.

2) Acceptance forgiveness. Although the true forgiveness path may be the easiest of the three I'm discussing, it is by no means easy. But in situations where the transgressor does not feel remorse it is even more difficult to achieve forgiveness. How do you pardon an offense when the person does not show remorse and is not trying to remedy the situation?

Many reasons exist why someone may not have remorse. For instance, they may lack awareness that they hurt you. This is often the case when the other person may not be hurt by the same behavior. Let's say your best friend dates your ex-boyfriend. If it's a situation where she wouldn't be bothered if you did the same thing, then she really isn't aware that she did something hurtful.

Or a person may have hurt you due to some personal limitation such as mental illness or ignorance. I heard an interview with Michael Vick, the pro quarterback who went to prison because of his involvement with dogfighting. He stated that he grew up in a culture where he didn't learn to value animal life. So he didn't know dogfighting was wrong. What impressed me about his sincerity was that he was trying to teach youth what he had learned even though he was not court ordered to do so. This was a situation where ignorance was involved. Once he was educated about how his behavior was wrong he tried to make amends.

However, many times the transgressor doesn't ever recognize their mistakes. In which case, we need to deal with forgiveness without an apology or change in behavior. The reason I call this "acceptance forgiveness" is because we need to be able to let go of the resentment even if we can't pardon the offense.

We still need to release the anger, the pain, and the sadness. However, we may need to do this through indirect means such as writing about our feelings, or talking to a trusted friend, or punching a bag.

Resolution means coming to an acceptance that although you've been wronged, you can move on in your life and not dwell on what was done to you. Usually, by the time you have released your emotions, you are ready to do this. Therefore, the key is to fully experience and release the emotions.

3) Principled forgiveness. This last path to forgiveness is the most difficult. Sometimes we are faced with transgressions which are deliberate and are meant to hurt us. Or sometimes people hurt us repeatedly or even derive pleasure from hurting us. How do we let go of resentment in these situations?

I think of these situations as requiring the path of principled forgiveness which means we need to find a higher level of understanding in order to forgive. I call this "principled" based upon Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning in which we decide upon our moral actions not because we will be punished or rewarded and not because of the impact upon other people, but because we believe in a higher ethical standard of how to behave. In the case of forgiveness, we are not saying "I forgive" because it solves a problem or because we feel better. We say "I forgive" because we hold to the priniciple of forgiving as a higher ethical standard in which we believe.

When Jesus was dying on the cross he said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." I think he exhibited principled forgiveness in this request. However, Jesus also asked,"Why have you forsaken me?" This demonstrates the grief process in which he released his emotions. The emotion of despair is combined anger and sadness. Too often, people want to emulate Jesus in his ability to forgive without realizing that he engaged in the full grief process of releasing his emotions as well. They try to forgive without the release of emotions which only keeps them stuck in the process. I believe Jesus truly demonstrated the full grief process.

Buddha's concept of compassion is another example of principled forgiveness. Compassion isn't feeling pity or feeling sorry for someone. That would be included under acceptance forgiveness because it is recognizing and accepting someone's ignorance or limitations. True compassion is the ability to love and cherish all living beings, even those--especially those--who hurt us. Compassion means having empathy for the pain our tormentors must experience or have experienced to treat others as they do. It also means having sorrow that they are not able to experience true joy and contentment in life.

The irony of this concept is that the more we are able to feel compassion for others, the more that we let go of our own resentments and develop true happiness in life. Therefore, in the same way, prinicipled forgiveness leads us to contentment. Ultimately, forgiveness is not for the other, but for ourselves.


Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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