In a recent series of 3 posts, I discussed a six step process for mastering anger that is directed at you by another person. Step 4 in that process involves forgiving the other person. As the concept of forgiveness is often misunderstood, I’d like to elaborate on it in this post.
Generally speaking, there are two perspectives you can take to assess and give meaning to the actions of another that:
- hurt you (or has hurt you in the past)
- you believe are not right for them to do
- you view as inconsiderate and unnecessary
- you believe call for retaliation.
Perhaps, you have a history of physical or sexual abuse that you can’t stop thinking about. Or, someone has done something to you that continues to upset you and ruin your relationship with that person eventhough they may have apologized.
Why is perspective important?
The perspective you adopt regarding what the other person has done will act as a filter through which you assess both the nature of their behavior and the options you choose regarding what you will do about that behavior.
One perspective involves subjectively viewing and assessing the interaction from a personal point of view. When you are being subjective, you look at what is going on through the lens of your own emotions, prior beliefs and experiences, and prejudices. The subjective perspective tends to distort how you view your situation.
In other words: They did something wrong and you continue to be righteously pissed off about it.
It is important to note that emotions by their nature, are highly subjective.
As I discuss in both of my most recent Amazon best seller books Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool, the message of anger is that you perceive a current threat that you believe you can eliminate if you throw enough force at it. You perceive a threat, the threat, in your mind, truly exists, and your anger is valid.
The problem is that the behavior is in the past and can’t be changed and your anger, in the present, can have negative impacts on your body and your relationships.
The second perspective involves objectively assessing what is going on. You are being objective when you, to the degree that you can, attempt to assess what is going on with you from the point of view of an unbiased observer. You temporarily put your emotions aside and try to understand how this observer is viewing the situation, how you might be overreacting or misunderstanding what is happening, and how your initial subjective emotional reaction might be inaccurate.
In other words: What is going on with me that I am still pissed off with them?
The Anger Mastery Cycle, a copy of which is available above, calls for us to move into anger management after the initial emotional reaction. Anger management involves reducing our emotional arousal.
Anger Mastery is the next step after anger management and entails assessing the nature of the threat. It is in this step that forgiveness becomes relevant.
Here is the reasoning connecting forgiveness, objectivity and mastering the anger that someone directs at you:
In order to be able to effectively interact with another person you need to keep your own arousal level down and accurately assess what is going on. This is an important part of anger mastery and involves taking a deep breath and taking a step back from the situation.
Forgiveness moves the process of mastering the anger at another person one step forward.
Regarding forgiveness, most therapists and people in general do not understand what forgiveness is. You and most other people
believe that forgiving someone involves absolving them of any bame or responsibility for their actions. This is what happens when your past debts are “forgiven”. They are erased. Or, when in the Bible (Disclaimer: I am not a biblical expert.) when Christ forgave someone’s sins and that person was “born again”..
When I suggested to the young women I worked with in the California Department of Corrections-Juvenile Division that they forgive the men who abused them (often their fathers) or the women who abandoned them (or worse), they often refused stating that these men (women) did not deserve to be forgiven for what they did.
Psychologically, people do not want to forgive others because it doesn’t feel right that the other person should be “let off the hook” for what they did. It just doesn’t feel like justice has been served.
And, maybe it hasn’t. But, psychologically, this is not the point.
There is an old joke about a guy who comes home very late from a round of golf. His wife questions him and he says. “It’s all Harry’s fault.” After additional questioning, the guy explains that Harry died on the second hole and they had to carry him for the rest of the 16 holes of golf.
When someone holds on to feelings about what someone has done in the past, they carry that person (Harry) with them everywhere they go. One’s feelings about the past can color the perception of threat in such a way that one may see a current threat where none exists and remain angry.
As I am using the word, forgiveness means (psychologically) “letting go”. When you forgive another person for what they have done to you, you are choosing to disengage emotionally from that person and their actions. This letting go frees you up to decide the best way for you to deal with this individual and their behavior in your current context.
There is no absolution of guilt or responsibility. Rather, you decide that you can’t change the past and you will move on with your life. Psychological forgiveness is for (and exclusively about) you and has
nothing to do with the person (or people) you are forgiving. In fact, they may never know you’ve forgiven them.
Forgiveness allows you to be more objective about the interaction between you and the other person. In being objective, you have the opportunity to use the energy of your feelings about the situation to both choose and implement your best option to resolve the issues you are facing. Two options you have include resolving issues with this person (if the person is available and willing), or seeing your situation as an I.W.B.N.I (We will talk about this in a future post.) and doing nothing more.
So, forgive them for you so that you can let go of the emotional baggage (your Harry) and get on with your life.
I welcome your comments.