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Page Contents: Introduction / Reconciliation / Penance: Confession, Repentance, and Penalty / The Psychology of Forgiveness / The Problem of Failed Reconciliation / Premature Forgiveness / Repairing the Damage / Suggestions / A Personal Explanation

Anger and Forgiveness 
available as a book 

Forgiveness
 
and
 
Healing

ANYONE who has ever been victimized—and that includes survivors of crime, accidents, childhood abuse, political imprisonment, warfare, and so on—must decide whether or not to forgive the perpetrator. There can be no middle ground to this decision: either you decide to forgive the person who hurt you, or you hold on to bitterness and anger.

Holding on to bitterness and anger can cause problems of their own, so if you have ever been victimized, being able to forgive your victimizer is a crucial part of your healing. 

  

I’ve seen individuals, for example, who have lost a family member because of a crime. The survivors’ anger and desire for revenge poison their entire beings. They so focus on what they’ve lost, and what they wanted the dead person to be, and do, for them, that they completely miss the opportunity they’ve been given to learn about real love.
 
Instead, they seem to believe that hatred, even to the point of capital punishment, will satisfy their thirst for vengeance and will somehow bring them healing.
 
So, with hardened hearts and stiff lips, they say, “I’ll never forgive.”
 
And the sad thing is that in wishing to send someone to hell they end up sending themselves there as well.
[1]

  

Forgiveness, however, can be a problem for many people simply because they are not clear about what forgiveness really is. All too often forgiveness gets confused with reconciliation, a larger process of which forgiveness is but one part.

 


 

Reconciliation

If one person is injured by another, we could say that the two persons are “pushed apart” by the injury, and so, if they are to become friendly again, this gap between them must be repaired—they must be reconciled. Reconciliation comes from the Latin words re-, meaning “again,” and conciliare, which means “to bring together,” so reconciliation means “to bring together—or to make friendly—again.”

The act of reconciliation involves two parts: forgiveness and penance. Since the present discussion is about understanding forgiveness, let’s go on then to define penance.

 


 

Penance:
 
Confession,
 
Repentance,
 
and
 
Penalty

Suppose some children are playing a game when someone hits a ball all the way across the street, and it smashes through Mrs. Smith’s living room window.

  

It seemed like a small explosion, followed by the shrill clinking of bit upon bit of broken glass. Then silence. Her immediate response was a dull shock, void of emotion. Then her conscious mind began to function again. “What was that?” She felt her heart racing. Fear began to grow. She looked into the living room, and her heart sank at the overwhelming mess on the carpet. Feelings of sadness and astonishment mixed with fear and threat in her mind. A primal concern for her life welled up in her. “Is this the end of the world?” Things remained quiet. Her eyes moved to the fragmented window. “Is someone trying to kill me?” She stared at the mess. A feeling of rage spoke from deep within her wounded heart: “Who could have done this to me?”

  

The children do not run away. They go over to Mrs. Smith’s house and knock on the door.

  

She hears a knock on the door. Adrenaline surges again; her mind struggles to determine the nature of the threat. She hears the whispering voices of children. Suspicious and afraid, she opens the door cautiously.

  

The children say, “We’re sorry, Mrs. Smith. We were playing and we broke your window.”

  

“So that’s it,” she sighs. She feels relief as the explanation comes clear. Then her heart sinks again at the damage, the mess, and the loss. For an instant, she wonders what might have happened to her if she had been in the room at the time the window shattered. She feels the indignation, and with it she feels the dull urge to throw the hurt back in their faces. She makes a hard decision.

  

Mrs. Smith looks at them and says, “I understand, children. I know you didn't mean to hurt me. But you gave me a scare for my life. And the window is still broken—you will have to pay for it.” (Let’s set aside the concept of homeowner’s insurance for a moment because this is a story about penance.)

The children say, “OK.” They pool together their money, and they give the money to Mrs. Smith so she can repair the window. (Let’s set aside the question about whether the children can gather together that much money in the first place. Maybe they have to borrow the money from their parents and agree to pay it back. In any event, they pay Mrs. Smith.)

Now, in this story, there are actually three elements that compose the act of penance.

First is the act of confession: admitting the act (“We broke your window”). The act has to be admitted, aloud, to the person offended, or the entire process stops and no one gets anywhere.

Second is the act of repentance: asking for forgiveness (“We’re sorry”). Remember, if the children had run away, they would have avoided their responsibility to repair the damage they caused, and so they would have prevented the process of penance from getting started.

And third is the act of penalty: accepting the punishment (“OK”). After all, a broken window is a broken window, and it has to be fixed. If the children do not pay to fix it, their confession and repentance are really worthless. (For those of you still thinking about the issue of homeowner’s insurance, let’s say that Mrs. Smith’s insurance pays the damages and the children help Mrs. Smith clean up the mess in her living room. In this case their work would serve to fulfill the function of the penalty.)

  

This concept of penalty opens up many complicated issues about the legal responsibility of the victimizer to the victim.
 
For example, if a crime was committed, then criminal law should see to it that the victimizer receives a fair trial and just punishment. As for restitution, either the victimizer personally, or the victimizer’s insurance should pay, willingly and fairly, for damages to the victim’s property or health.
 
Now, these aspects of criminal law should be unambiguous and without any psychological implications.
 
But it’s in the area of civil law that psychological ambiguity arises. If you sue because of a tort—that is, a wrongful act or injury—then vengeance can be quickly confused with justice. If you are injured to such an extent or in such a way that is not compensated freely by the victimizer, then a tort case may be justified. But if, for example, you trip over a crack in a sidewalk and sue the city for millions of dollars, then you have crossed over from being victimized into “victim anger,” and you have entered the dark psychology of greed and revenge.
 
All of this points to two facts about the psychology of forgiveness: if you cannot let go of your desire for vengeance, you will never find true healing, and you can never be truly healed if you try to force someone else to pay for the cost of your healing.

  

 


 

The
 
Psychology
 
of
 
Forgiveness

In the story above, forgiveness comes when Mrs. Smith says, “I understand.” In saying this she indicates that she does not intend to carry a grudge against the children.

  

This understanding also leads us to a simple psychological definition of forgiveness: Forgiveness is the refusal to hurt the one who hurt you.

The “refusal to hurt” can take on many meanings according to circumstances, and it encompasses everything from the refusal to “get even with” others, to the refusal to “get back at” others, to the refusal to prove to others—with arguments, protest, violence, or even self-sabotage—how wrong they are.

  

So that’s the process. The act happens, the children make penance, Mrs. Smith forgives them, and they and Mrs. Smith are reconciled. It’s a nice story. But what does this mean psychologically? And what would have happened to Mrs. Smith if the children had run away?

Well, first of all, now that you know how forgiveness and penance work together to make for reconciliation, you can understand that forgiveness is possible even without penance. So even though someone hurts you and refuses to apologize, and even if this means that the relationship cannot be repaired, you can still offer forgiveness—for the sake of your own mental health.

That’s because forgiveness by itself is still psychologically preferable to holding a grudge. Why? Because the bitterness of a grudge works like a mental poison that doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself. Seeking revenge or wishing harm to another will, at the minimum, deplete your strength and prevent your wounds from healing. In the worst case, the cold hunger for revenge will make you into a victimizer yourself. Lacking forgiveness, you and your victimizer will be locked together in the hell of eternal revenge.

  

In Canto XXXIII of the Inferno, the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante tells the story of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca and the Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. The two men had been allied by political scheming in 13th century Pisa, but ultimately the Archbishop betrayed Ugolino. The Archbishop arrested Ugolino and sealed the Count and his sons and grandsons into a tower to be starved to death. During his poetic pilgrimage through hell, Dante finds Ugolino and Ruggieri frozen together in one hole, with the Count, who died consumed with hatred, gnawing upon the Archbishop’s skull in his eternal hunger for vengeance.

  

 


 

The
 
Problem
 
of
 
Failed
 
Reconciliation

Forgiveness can be difficult for many people simply because they are not clear about what forgiveness really is. All too often forgiveness gets confused with reconciliation, a larger process of which forgiveness is but one part, as I said above. And all too often, reconciliation fails. So what does that do to your ability to forgive?

In this world you will likely come across many persons who refuse to make penance for their injurious acts. Hypocritically posing as pillars of their community, they might refuse to confess, to repent, and to accept penalty (like some parents who abuse their children), or they might refuse to repent even though they are forced to pay a penalty (like a sociopathic murderer sent to prison).

You, as the victim, can still forgive anyone, even though, from what you have read so far, you will know that forgiveness does not involve letting the person “off the hook” legally. Nor does your forgiving someone mean that you must be reconciled with that person. Reconciliation is made possible by the free choice of the victimizer to repent and to repair the damage of the injury, but forgiveness is always your choice—yours alone.

 

REMEMBER:
Reconciliation is not possible unless you are willing to forgive
and
the other person apologizes and “makes it up” to you.

 

In our story, if the children had run away—precluding any reconciliation—Mrs. Smith would still have had the choice of forgiving the children or not. She may have been kind and reflected on times when, as a child, she herself got into trouble accidentally. The children’s cowardice would have been a wound between them and her, but it wouldn’t have been her doing. Or, refusing to forgive, she may have become bitter, beginning a neighborhood feud that went on for generations. Unfortunately, that would have been her doing.

 


 

A
 
Caution
 
About
 
“Premature”
 
Forgiveness

There can, however, be one major psychological complication in regard to forgiveness.

You cannot forgive someone until you have fully felt the pain he or she has caused you.

Imagine the person who says, “I’m at peace with what happened. I’m OK with it. Actually, it doesn’t even bother me. But my life is still miserable. What do I do now?”

If you find yourself in this position, in effect saying, “No, it doesn’t bother me . . . but I’m still miserable,” it is a good psychological clue that there is still something missing. Usually, this means that you’re still denying your unconscious anger and resentment, so even though you think you’ve come to terms with what happened, there are still emotions about the event which you have pushed out of awareness. In fact, many persons can get caught up in this premature forgiveness as a way to avoid coping with all the unpleasant emotions they would rather not examine.

This can be extremely frustrating because unconscious resentments are essentially invisible to logic and reason. Because they represent things you would rather not see, they can be discovered only indirectly—such as when they continue to cause discomfort even though it seems that everything should be OK.

  

You might, for example, resist admitting that you are angry with a person you love. So you unconsciously hide that anger from yourself in a desperate attempt to “protect” your love for that person. Yet in your deception you do nothing but keep your resentments alive, and you effectively defile the very love you want to protect.

This is a common problem with persons caught up in unconscious anger at their parents; they will try to deny their unpleasant feelings by saying, “But my parents tried their best to be good parents. I have no right to be angry with them.”

The truth, however, is that even parents who do their best always cause some emotional hurt to their children, even if it’s unintentional. Well, even if your best friend steps on your foot, it still hurts, right? The therapeutic task is to admit all of your childhood hurt, not to blame your parents, but to allow the light of honesty to heal the wounds.

Ironically, then, in finally admitting all that anyone has done to hurt you, in recognizing what you are really feeling, and in then being able to forgive that person—of everything—you discover real love.

  

All of this shows that the popular advice to “forgive and forget” completely misses the point. Forgetting, in psychological language, is called repression. When something is repressed, it just lingers in the dark shadows of the unconscious, along with all the emotions associated with it. And as long as those emotions, such as anger, are brewing secretly in the unconscious, genuine forgiveness remains impossible.

Therefore, in a case involving unconscious emotions, you might want to consider getting professional psychological help.

 


 

Repairing
 
the
 
Damage

The story about Mrs. Smith and the children is, in many ways, overly simplified so as to illustrate the basic meaning of confession, penance, and reconciliation as they relate to forgiveness.

Still, the story is not that much different from what would happen if, for example, someone backs into your parked car and then drives away without leaving his or her name and insurance information in a note. When you discover the damage, you’re left feeling violated and helpless. But no amount of swearing will fix anything. Even if your insurance covers the entire cost, you still have to spend your time and energy repairing the damage. And if you go about the work with bitterness in your heart, the task becomes even more painful and irritating. Holding a grudge against human inconsiderateness hurts only you and makes repairing the damage even more difficult.

Consider also the case of a natural disaster. No one is personally responsible, yet your home is damaged or destroyed. Your possessions are swept away—or maybe they are looted. You feel vulnerable, helpless, and frightened. In such difficult times, many persons will point angry fingers of blame at the government. But will anger repair the damage? Wouldn’t a personal attitude of forgiveness for all shortsighted mistakes contribute to an overall social atmosphere of calmness, cooperation, and generosity? Wouldn’t a personal attitude of forgiveness help, rather than hinder, the overall task of repairing the damage?

And what if the huge mansion near you was left unscathed? What if the millionaire who lives there decides to throw a party, while you are left out in the dark, hungry and cold? What if your rich neighbor does nothing to help you? Would cursing him and wishing for his destruction help to repair the damage to your house? You might hope for freely offered generosity from others, but the frustration of trying to force someone to pay for your damage will only dig you deeper into your own pain.

Now let’s go even more psychologically deep.

What would have happened if Mrs. Smith had not been at home when the accident occurred? What if the children had used the broken window as an opportunity to enter into her house and ransack it? What if Mrs. Smith suspected the children but could not prove their guilt, and all the while they continue to live in the neighborhood as if nothing had happened?

This leads us to consider cases in which the damage is relational, not just material. Maybe someone accuses you of untrue things behind your back. Maybe your business partner steals from you. Maybe a manager fails to uphold a promise. Maybe your husband or your wife commits adultery.

In these cases involving a personal betrayal, keep in mind one important fact:

Forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting.

To forgive is simply to stop wishing for revenge or to stop wanting to see the other person suffer in some way. But forgiveness is not blind. Because trust has been violated you cannot just forget what happened or else the same thing might happen again. There’s a saying that unless we remember history we will be condemned to repeat it. So let’s face it—even though you might forgive a person who has betrayed your trust, your trust in that person has been crushed.

Trust can be repaired only by time through a gradual process of rebuilding. You have to get to “know” the person all over again. The sad thing is that through what you learn you may have to accept the fact that the other person can never be trusted again. On the other hand, if the other person is truly repentant and wants to make a full confession and do penance, the desire to do so will be all that is necessary to nourish a new growth of trust between the two of you.

 


 

Suggestions

Truly, it can be hard to forgive if you dwell only on your own desire for satisfaction. So try thinking about

how the energy to keep a grudge alive will ultimately drain away your strength; 

how a desire for revenge will defile you and may even unconsciously make you into a person as hurtful and vicious as the one who hurt you;

 

The Wolf of Gubbio (altered detail). Used with permission.

 
St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio

the unfortunate life circumstances and traumas that may have motivated your victimizer;

the fact that “evil comes to evil” in the end.

 
Read the story of Saint Francis of Assisi
and the Wolf of Gubbio

 

No matter what anyone does to you, no one can take away from you your capacity to do good. You lose it only by willingly giving it up yourself.

 
So remember that if anyone has ever hurt you, you don’t find forgiveness, you give it.

If you have ever hurt others, all you can do is feel sorrow for your behavior; in sorrow, you can apologize, and you can make amends, but whether or not others forgive you is their choice.

And if you have hurt yourself? Well, it’s a self-deception to believe that you can forgive yourself. Even though self-destructive and self-sabotaging behavior may seem to be anger at the self, at its core it is an expression of anger at someone else, because of what that person did to you or failed to do for you. It’s as if you amplify the effects of the original injury and throw your dysfunction back into the face of the one who hurt you, in an attempt to force him to see how much he hurt you. It may be unpleasant to admit it, but, in all truth, you use your disability unconsciously as a subtle form of revenge, which is itself a form of hate. For the original wound to heal, you must set aside your personal desire for satisfaction, and forgive, not yourself, but the person who hurt you in the first place.

 


 

A
 
Personal
 
Explanation

“I have read all your pages. I am having trouble forgiving because my mother is denying that she abused all of us children and in fact some of my siblings are choosing to pretend it did not happen and sadly are repeating the emotional abuse with their own children. That is where I am at.”

Forgiveness is a gift you give to someone else; it’s an act of your own will. And as such your willingness to forgive your mother does not depend on whether or not your mother ever acknowledges the harm she caused you.

But even grasping this point intellectually leaves many persons stymied. “Then what am I supposed to do with my pain if I can’t get any satisfaction from the one who hurt me?” they ask.

The answer is purely emotional. Forgiveness comes from sorrow. Not sorrow for anything you have done, but sorrow for the very fact that everyone, including yourself, has the same ugly capacity to inflict harm on others, wittingly or unwittingly. Notice the words I just said: including yourself. This is where everyone gets stuck, even your siblings, because it’s easy enough to see that your mother was hurtful, but to admit that you have the same human capacity for hurt is just too distasteful. In fact, anyone who has been victimized has a human urge to receive compensation, and for you to admit that you and the victimizer are no different from each other—at the human level—is quite terrifying, for it jeopardizes some of that claim to compensation.

But still it’s true that on the basic human level you are no different than your mother. She abused you as an unconscious way to get revenge for all the pain inflicted on her as a child, and you refuse to forgive her as a way to get revenge for all the pain inflicted on you as a child. And the fact that your siblings are repeating the abuse only proves the point that they themselves are no different from your mother.

The truth of this, however, does not mean that your pain is not real; nor does it mean that your mother is not responsible for what she did.

But if you can realize that everything she did, although her personal responsibility, was ultimately caused by her own childhood wounds, then you can see yourself in her, and in your sorrow you can feel mercy for her. In forgiving her you ultimately feel mercy for yourself, and you free yourself of your greatest burden: hatred. And with that weight lifted, you have the satisfaction of discovering in yourself what you always wanted from your mother anyway: real love.

 


 

The
 
Book
 

Anger and Forgiveness
(3rd edition)

Shows how to turn the emotional wounds of daily life into psychological growth. Available as a paperback book or as an e-book.

More information

 


 

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Notes:

1. Hamama-Raz, Y., Solomon, Z., Cohen, A., & Laufer, A. (2008). PTSD symptoms, forgiveness, and revenge among Israeli Palestinian and Jewish Adolescents. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 21, 521–529. See p. 527:
    “Thus, when inability to forgive and the need to take vengeance are entrenched within the social texture, their malignant influence over these youths’ mental health may be intensified. Forgiveness, on the other hand, was found to mediate the relationship between PTSD and hostility and to be associated with decreased depression and anxiety.”
 

Additional Resources
 
The Forgiveness Web — “The Internet’s Most Comprehensive Forgiveness Resources.”
Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation — “After a murder, victims’ families face two things: a death and a crime. At these times, families need help to cope with their grief and loss, and support to heal their hearts and rebuild their lives. From experience, we know that revenge is not the answer.”
 
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Anger
Depression and Suicide
Family Therapy
Fear
Honesty
Identity and Loneliness
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Sexuality and Love
Spiritual Healing
The Psychology of Terrorism
Trauma and PTSD
The Unconscious
 
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