Forgiveness: Laying the Emotional Foundation

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Published: 07th July 2010
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UNFORGIVENESS IS A JUMBLE of emotions. Resentment, simmering anger, hostility, hatred, bitterness, and low-level fear interlace the tapestry of unforgiveness. Unforgiving emotions are not hot (i.e., immediate) reactions to a transgression. They are ignited by the spark of perceived hurt or offense, fanned by the hot emotions of anger and fear, damped to a slow burn by time, and scuffed into a stack of dangerous coals by rumination. Unforgiveness is emotion served cold (i.e., delayed). But like dry ice, which can burn the fingers, unforgiveness can still scorch the gut. Unforgiveness motivates people to get rid of those unpleasant emotions. Consider unforgiveness in the process of moving from the initial insult to resolution. First, a transgression is perceived as a hurt or an offense. This hurt stimulates fear (of being hurt again) and anger. Important: Fear and anger, immediate responses, are not unforgiveness. Unforgiveness ripens through rumination. Only after mentally replaying the transgression, the motives of the transgressor, or the consequences of the transgression do we become unforgiving. It takes time and reflection to arrive at this toxic place.

The Case of Rob

Rob was unforgiving. When I met him, he was wearing a shirt picturing a flaming city against a black background. The caption read Rage Against the Machine (the name of a rock band known for its angry protests against social injustices). Rob had recently been released from his drug rehabilitation program. Living on the street in the Northeast, he lived for his drug habit"borrowing until his friends ran out, begging until his patience ran out, and bartering until the stolen goods ran out. With the approach of winter, he scraped up enough money for a bus ticket B and headed south. Picked up for vagrancy and drug intoxication in Florida, he had served his time and then headed for a rehabilitation center. Rob was 20 years old. Rob blamed a lot of people for his troubles. He blamed his father, who had kicked him out after Rob struck his mother during an argument that broke out when Rob came home high on drugs. Rob blamed his high school love, who had introduced him to the party scene. He blamed his college philosophy professor, who preached hedonism. Mostly, Rob blamed his friends, who took him in after his father had rejected him, bled him of everything he owned, and then turned him out on the streets. Rob could name the transgressions against him with ease.

He perceived each transgression mostly as a personal offense by the bastards. His dominant emotion was anger, with a sub-theme of hurt and fear etching a whine into his complaints. Rob ruminated continually on his situation. He complained. He ranted. He mumbled about the bastards to himself and to anyone who would listen (and some who would not listen). Rob was a poster boy for unforgiveness. Definition: Unforgiveness is defined as delayed emotions involving resentment, bitterness, residual anger, residual fear, hatred, hostility, and stress, which motivate people to reduce to unforgiveness. There are two important parts to this definition: Unforgiveness is an emotion, and unforgiveness motivates people to get rid of, or avoid, negative emotion. Lets consider each.

Unforgiveness is a Blended Emotion

Rumination, the process of reflection on whats hurt us, changes the hot emotions of fear and anger into cold emotions of unforgiveness. The key to this model, and to my description of how you might forgive, is my understanding of emotion. Emotions are not feelings. Feelings are the ways we label emotions in a part of the brain called the working memory. We say, I feel angry, or I feel loving. That feeling is our conscious minds way of using a word to describe what is going on all over our body and is being communicated to the brain. Emotions are embodied experiences. University of Iowa neurologist, Dr. Antonio Damasio, perhaps the leading expert on emotion in the world, has studied them for years. When we experience an emotion, each part of our body tells the brain precisely what emotion we are experiencing by sending either chemical messengers through the blood or chemical and electrical messengers through the nervous system.

These messengers activate the memories of past emotions into the part of our brain called the association cortex, located in our prefrontal lobe. The pathways from these associations are fed into the working memory. As the messengers travel through our nervous system, electric currents rush along neurons through brain structures such as the amygdala and hippocampus saying, This path means ˜Im afraid, or This path means ˜I am happy. Neurochemicals squirt into some portions of the brain when we are sad and other portions when we are angry, afraid, or happy. The patterns of neurochemical release tell our working memory about our emotions. As the messengers travel through the bloodstream, they cause the release of hormones. One mixture tells the working memory we are angry. Another mixture tells the working memory we are afraid. Our muscles get into the act. When we are angry, we clench our fists, hunch our shoulders, and grind our teeth.

When we are afraid, we widen our eyes, draw backward, and inhale. When we are calm, our face relaxes or smiles. Those muscles also send messages to the working memory. Even our gut sends unconscious messages to the working memory. Damasio has found that the gut shouts an alarm over a risky decision long before the brain can figure out the message consciously. Our working memory is a supercomputer that listens to the body and decodes its many chemical and electrical messages, coming up with a feeling and the language to express it. I feel angry, we might say. Because emotions are whole-body experiences, they often blend if they are relatively similar. For instance, anger, fear, and sadness are all perceived negatively, especially if they are experienced intensely. Joy, happiness, and satisfaction are also relatively similar and are perceived positively.

Similar emotions can blend with each other, forming a secondary, more complex emotion. For instance, the negative emotions of resentment, bitterness, hatred, hostility, anger, fear, and stress blend into the feeling people label unforgiveness. However, when emotional states are very different, they dont blend. They compete. For instance, when our facial muscles are set in a grimace of anger, that grimace edges out a soft smile of happiness and peace or even a frown of distress. The patterns of hormones in the blood or neurochemicals in the brain also compete. Different emotions light up different pathways and structures in the brain.

Unforgiveness Motivates Action to Rid It

Unforgiveness is a hot potato. People try to pass it on as soon as they can. All negative emotions are unpleasant, especially when they are intense. We usually like to get rid of those feelings quickly. Sometimes our goal is simply to get rid of the unpleasant feelings, other times its to radically change from negative to positive emotions. Perhaps one of the strongest examples of this can been seen in the case of parents needing to forgive their children. Njeri, an educator who often spoke on parenting, was also the single parent of Rashid. Rashid was flunking sixth grade and often got in trouble with his teachers. One month earlier, he had been caught breaking windows at the school at night. Njeri knew that her reputation as an educator and trainer of parents was irreparably damaged by Rashids willfulness. She felt like a failure at parenting.

She had tried the hard line. She had taken away Rashids privileges, restricted television, and monitored his friends. Still he acted out. She knew he now would have to face the juvenile authorities, and it wasnt just he who was on trial. Her parenting was going to be judged as well, and her resentment was growing. She sometimes thought, I hate that boy. She was aware that her negativity was pushing him further into deviance. If things were going to turn around, she would have to do something. Njeri instinctively knew that she needed new emotions. She didnt want merely to reduce her anger toward Rashid. She wanted to feel more compassion and love for him, not just less rage. She needed to forgive him so that they could start afresh and rebuild their mutual love. Eventually, she was able to forgive Rashid and develop a more positive attitude. Rashid did not respond immediately, but he finally changed his group of friends and moved away from the troubled path he had been following.

People Reduce Unforgiveness in Many Ways

Most people think of forgiveness as the way you reduce unforgiveness. But there are many ways people reduce unforgiveness that have nothing to do with forgiveness. To take a trivial example, I could reduce my unforgiveness through successful revenge. Suppose I was walking out of my office holding my everpresent cup of coffee in my forever- coffee-cup-molded right hand. A mysterious stranger bumps into me, spilling coffee on my favorite 1970s pink-with-polka-dots power tie. After an initial burst of anger, I seethe with the lust for revenge. Donning my genuine Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator trench coat, complete with an arsenal of weaponry that would make any National Rifle Association member envious, I track down the mysterious stranger and blow him away. My unforgiveness would have been reduced, perhaps eliminated. Of course, I would never recommend revenge. Its like overeating. It might feel good while youre doing it, but it will give you a sour stomach in the morning and health problems if it becomes habitual. Another way to reduce unforgiveness is to see justice done. In the movie, Dead Man Walking, the murderer is about to be put to death by lethal injection. He faces the parents of the two youths he killed. To one father he says, I hope that seeing my death will give you peace.

He instinctively knew that seeing justice done would reduce the grieving fathers unforgiveness, but not necessarily lead to forgiveness. People can reduce unforgiveness by telling a different story about the transgression or transgressor. Saying, He was just under stress,might excuse the transgression. Or, I was rude to her, so I deserved what she said, might justify it. Excusing or justifying a wrong will reduce the storytellers unforgiveness. Others try to forbear or simply accept a transgression. Whats done is done, a person might say. Im just going to accept it and move on with my life. Some people reduce unforgiveness by seeking justice, and engage in a quest to bring the transgressor to court. Sometimes, though, we want to do more than simply reduce the negative emotions. We want to replace them with more positive emotions. That is where forgiveness enters the picture.

Forgiveness Involves Emotional Replacement

It is important to first understand what I mean by emotional replacement. Hurtful memories are never really wiped out" we almost never really forget serious hurts or offenses. We remember them differently after we forgive. Hate, bitterness, and resentment are replaced with positive thoughts and feelings. The memory of the hurt remains, but it is associated with different emotions. Amity is substituted for enmity. Forgiveness is defined, therefore, as the emotional replacement of (1) hot emotions of anger or fear that follow a perceived hurt or offense, or (2) unforgiveness that follows ruminating about the transgression by substituting positive emotions such as unselfish love, empathy, compassion, or even romantic love. Forgiveness replaces unforgivemess by competing emotionally with it. If these positive emotions are strong enough and last long enough, they contaminate the unforgiveness so that it can never be experienced in the same way again.

Emotional replacement has occurred. We experience forgiveness. Now there are two ways to eliminate unforgiveness. First, you could chip away at it by replacing a little unforgiveness with a little forgiveness over hundreds of experiences. Second, you could whack unforgiveness with a giant dose of empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love and simply overwhelm it. (One woman I know responds to perceived slights by sending the transgressor a love bomb, H which blows her bad feelings to bits"a vivid way of describing how positive emotion can disarm hurt feelings.) Note that forgiveness does not erase a transgression. It does not change the nature of the transgression to somehow turn a wrong into a right. When we forgive, we change the emotional attachments to the transgression. That reduces negative emotions and increases positive emotions. Finally, forgiving emotions motivate some people to attempt reconciliation with the transgressor. This should be encouraged if"and sometimes it is a big if"it is safe, prudent and possible to reconcile. Reconciliation is reestablishing trust in a relationship after trust has been violated.

How Emotional Replacement Works

Basically, we are quite simple-minded. When we think about a transgression, our body sends messages to the working memory. Our brain detects our hormones. Are those hormones the ones associated with resentment, bitterness, hostility, and hatred? Or are they compatible with empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love? Are our muscle contractions, facial expressions, and other physical indications more like unforgiveness or forgiveness? The working memory struggles for, and arrives at, a label for our feelings. If all the signs translate into negative emotions, we think, Ah, I must be unforgiving, even if we dont consciously use that term. Replacement occurs if we can think of, or picture, the transgression again, but this time while experiencing strong forgiving emotions, the positive overpowers the negative. The forgiving emotions attach to the memory. We conclude, I forgive the one who hurt me. The attached forgiveness wont let you experience unforgiveness in the same way again"unless you have another negative experience or allow yourself to ruminate about the old transgression.

Heres Looking at You, Kid

A good example comes from the classic move Casablanca. Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) were once lovers. Then Ilsa found out that her husband, Victor Laszlo, whom she thought was dead, was still alive. Ilsa loved Rick, not Victor, but she felt dutybound to return to Victor. So she left Rick at the airport"jilted, rejected. Rick nursed his grudge. Later Ilsa and Victor walked into Ricks club in Casablanca hoping to escape the Nazis. Rick held the only two letters of transit out of Casablanca. His unforgiveness was fierce. He lusted for revenge. However, his romantic love of Ilsa was rekindled.

It eventually subdued his unforgiveness, and in the end, he let Ilsa and Victor escape into the fog with the two letters while he stayed in Casablanca to fight the Nazis. We see step-by-step how Ricks emotional replacement evolves. And its the stuff of great cinema. Forgiveness is kicking down the Berlin Wall, chipping away at it hammer blow by hammer blow or blowing it suddenly apart. When the wall is breached, people can run through the holes into freedom. Forgiveness occurs by emotional replacement of the emotions of unforgiveness" either by chipping away at them or by replacing them all at once in a corrective emotional experience. That is the foundation on which the structure of how to forgive will be erected.

Forgiveness is Not Just¦

I have made the case that forgiveness is an emotional experience. Some people think of forgiveness as merely an act of the will. They think, I must grit my teeth and forgive because it is the right thing to do. If I can will myself to forgive, then forgiving thoughts and forgiving emotions and behaviors will follow naturally. I agree that sometimes forgiving involves effort and will. They empower us to forgive, but they are not forgiveness. Still other people believe that forgiveness is a mental activity. They think that changing ones view of the situation, thinking differently about the person, or coming to understand the meaning of the situation differently will result in different emotions and different behaviors. True, forgiveness often is instigated when we break out of old thought ruts. However, sometimes we forgive and only later does a new understanding occur.

Other people believe that forgiveness is an action"that if we act forgiving toward a person or change our behavior, it will result in changed thoughts and emotions. Sometimes changing my behavior can result in experiencing forgiveness. Sometimes my soft action can make it easier to forgive. I argue"I hope convincingly"that you cannot experience true forgiveness until you change your emotions. If people change their will, thought, or actions to be more forgiving, it will not bring about forgiveness until their emotions change.

The Pyramid Model to REACH Forgiveness

The Pyramid Model to REACH forgiveness is rooted in replacing negative emotions associated with anger, fear, and unforgiveness, with positive emotions associated with empathy (and perhaps sympathy, love, compassion, or even romantic love). It helps people REACH forgiveness in five steps. Recall the hurt (R). When we are hurt, we often try to protect ourselves by denying our hurt. To heal, we must recall the hurt as objectively as possible. Dont rail against the person who hurt you, expend fruitless effort in finger wagging, waste time wishing for an apology that will never be offered, or dwell on your victimization. Instead, simply admit that a wrong was done to you. Empathize (E). Empathy is seeing things from another persons point of view. To forgive, try to feel the transgressors feelings. Even though it is difficult, try to identify with the pressures that made the person hurt you.

Empathy puts a human face on suffering. How would he or she explain the harmful acts? Offer the Altruistic gift of forgiveness (A). Have you ever harmed or offended a friend, parent, or partner who later forgave you? Think about your guilt. Then consider the way you felt when you were forgiven. When you think long and hard about this, you might be willing to be selfless and give the gift of forgiveness to those who have hurt you. Commit publicly to forgive (C). If you make your forgiveness public, you are less likely to doubt it later. Tell a friend, partner, or counselor that you have forgiven the person who hurt you. Hold on to forgiveness (H). When you doubt whether you have forgiven, hold on to it fervently, as there are many ways to stop forgiveness from sliding back into anger, hurt, or thoughts of vengeance.

Putting the Pyramid Model into Practice

Knowing that you must take five steps to forgive is not the same as knowing how to take those steps. You will forgive best if you identify specific people whom you might wish to forgive. Then you must practice trying to forgive each one. Apply the five steps to one person at a time. Think through your life and identify some people you want to forgive. Transgressions can occur in almost any setting, but some settings seem to invite transgressions. See whether you can find people you need to forgive in these settings. Romantic relationships put our egos on the line. We leave ourselves open to betrayal when we invest our love in another fallible human. Failed dating relationships, terminated cohabitation, and divorces provide much fuel for the first of unforgiveness. Families of origin influence us.

Disappointments, hurts, misunderstandings, and simple cruelty may show up in both parents and children. Siblings often compete and quarrel. Children smolder over the long-ago hurts inflicted by parents. Families divide over contested wills. Are there incidents from your family history that still rankle? Write some notes. In the workplace, time is spent in ego-involving tasks. Promotions, wages, and salaries can be used to prove you worthy or unworthy. Interactions with bosses can value or devalue you. Scarce old_resources and power differentials set the stage for hurt feelings. Health care settings provide opportunities to forgive. The Institute of Medicine estimates that between 44,000 and 98,000 medical errors are made each year that lead to the death of a patient. Less fatal mishaps are even more common. Have you or a loved one been a victim of a medical error? Has an arrogant physician or nurse demeaned you? Perhaps you have run up against the justice system or been involved in drawn-out litigation. Litigants do not believe they received a fair deal, and arguments can be heated and hurtful. Have you experienced shortcomings of the justice system? At the end of life, people try to make sense of their lives. They hate to leave the world with grudges. Forgiveness is a way to bring peace to their spirit. Reconciliation can bring peace to their relationships. Are you nearing the end of life? Whom do you want to forgive? Unforgiveness can run wild in racial and ethnic conflict. As the world becomes globally connected, we recognize how much our own context affects our understanding of others.

Failed forgiveness can flow like blood. Have you been hurt, offended, or discriminated against for your ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, or gender? Who did it? Three Questions You have considered several areas in which you might harbor unforgiveness. Perhaps you have recalled several specific incidents that you want to try to forgive. For each incident, ask yourself these questions. How serious is the transgression? Small transgressions annoy us. Large ones can turn our world upside down. Put off trying to forgive the ones that upset the world until you have gained confidence with smaller hurts. How raw is the wound? Dont choose to heal a wound while the blood is still wet or the wound is still raw and festering. Is the person you want to forgive absent from,or present in,your life? In an ongoing relationship, the offending person will react to what you do. He or she can deliberately or accidentally hurt you again, which can compound the unforgiveness. You will have the most success if you think of a specific incident in each case in which the person offended you. Write a short summary of each event now. Remember, you cannot forgive in the abstract. Forgiveness occurs when you work through specific events with specific people.

Web counselor plays a vital role for the welfare of society.

Invite God to Walk With You

Christians, of course, understand forgiveness as central to our faith. Through Christ, God forgives us and enables us to be in relationship with Him. In Christ, we are enabled to forgive others whom we otherwise, if left to our own fears and vengeful impulses, might never let go. And some of us, who due to abject fear or perverse enjoyment, hang onto the unforgiveness and harbor it, need Christ and His example on the Cross to motivate us to forgiveness when negative emotions will not. Forgiveness, and being touched deeply by the redemptive forgiveness of God, teaches us that God is not only great, but that He is good. Forgiveness teaches that in Christ there is not only life, but there abides a deep and everlasting love. When the task is too big or too frightening, invite God to walk with you"ask Him to empower your forgiveness challenge. Then thank Him with joy when you become aware at how He has been walking right beside you, guiding and empowering every step of the way.

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