Forgiving Your “Abusers”- (From a Christian Perspective)

I recently bought a book entitled: FAME: Forgiving All of Mine Enemies by Stephanie Lashley because I was curious about how she approached the subject of forgiveness. (I bought it used.)

The Author Bio on the back of the book notes (among a whole list of other accomplishments)  that “Pastor Steph has served in the Ministry since 1989 in various  positions and gifts….Pastor Steph holds the office of Prophet and has preached and ministered nationally.”

As she discusses in her book, Stephanie experienced numerous events in her life including the death of her son by a drug overdose, betrayal by her husband, negative interactions with members of her church family and other experiences which challenged and consumed her until she learned to forgive.

She discusses her own process of learning to forgive, discusses this process in the context of being a Christian, and offers numerous quotes from Scriptures which support and reinforce what she is saying about the importance of and value of forgiving from a largely (but not exclusively) Christian perspective.

I have written about the value and importance of forgiveness in this blog and noted, from the perspective of mastering your emotions, that forgiving those who have “abused” you allows you to move past emotions such as maladaptive anger, hate, and resentment so that you can get on with your life and experience a full range of other, more adaptive, emotions.

While I am not a Chistian, many of you, my readers, may be.  And many of you might be struggling with the issue of holding on to maladaptive feelings connected to your “abuse” which hold you back and burden you.

If you are that person, I am telling you IN THE STRONGEST WAY possible that you need to buy, read, and live Pastor Steph’s book! I have to tell you that the price of $20 for a 79 page book is high. But, if you can free yourself from your past, it will be money well spent.

My goal in writing this blog is to help people learn to master their emotions so that they can lead a more adaptive life. This post is consistent with that goal.

By the way, if you are not a Christian, the message of Pastor Steph will be just as relevant to you. But, you may have to work your way past the bibilical references, without judgment, to absorb that message.

2 Problematic Processes which Activate and Energize Emotional Threats and How To Neutralize Them.

In many of my posts, I have presented, discussed, addressed, and explained the Emotions Cycle.

At its core, the Emotions Cycle involves the following 4 steps…

  1. starting from the unconscious scanning  for threat,
  2. proceeding through the  unconscious perception of that threat (based on whatever “definition” you have currently “loaded” into your scanning process regarding the situation you are in),and,
  3. moving from the subconscious to the conscious by assessing the nature of the threat and
  4. choosing an adaptive response.

While steps 1 and 2 occur at the subconscious level and are outside of your awareness, your perception of threat stems from and is based on your inherent definition of what constitutes a threat (to you in the context of your current situation).

Your definition of “threat” is based on your past, your self-image, your skill sets, your tolerance for risk and many other factors. The objective situation (or what is actually taking place), of course, is a contributing factor but pales compared to other subjective factors.

Extraordinary (extra-ordinary) actions

As an example, there are numerous reports in the news where bystanders have rushed into burning buildings, run toward  burning cars,  or  just acted in extraordinary ways to rescue someone from what is, to any observer, a dangerous situation.

When told they are a hero, these otherwise normal people, deny their hero status saying they only did what anyone else would have done.

Clearly, they are extraordinary because they did what others did not.

Their actions stemmed from their definition of threat at the moment they moved to take extraordinary action.

Most of us might view the fire, the danger of being severely injured, or the possibility of dying as the critical survival threat we needed to avoid.

This is normal.

These individuals saw the same survival issues that others saw but viewed the threat of the victim’s possibly dying as the real issue confronting them and rushed into the situation.

The possible death of the victim constituted the critical threat they wanted to avoid.

While this is extra-ordinary, the emotional process is the same for both bystanders.  It is also why these individuals did not see themselves as “heroes”.  They were just acting “normally” or “doing what anyone else would do”.

Both the ordinary bystander and the extraordinary bystander are correct in their definitions of threat in their shared experience.  Their different actions stemmed from their divergent definitions of what constituted the primary threat facing them that they wanted to avoid.

Perception of threat is YOUR reality not necessarily THE reality.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the situation in which, when I was a new supervising psychologist, one of my staff psychologists got very angry regarding a memo I sent out to all of my staff.

As a review, one of my staff was acting in a way which came very close to insubordination.  I was a new supervisor and folks at the home office suggested I put out a general memo pointing out how important it was for everyone to follow policy.  The idea was that I should take the path of least resistance and not single anyone out.

As this was the first step in beginning to hold this one staff member accountable, I was instructed to send out a memo to all staff with the general caveat that “failure to follow policy could result in disciplinary action”.

One of my staff fumed into my office and indignantly proclaimed that she had been working over 20 years as a  Psychologist, had never violated policy, and was incensed that she was being threatened with disciplinary action.

You will recall that the message of anger is that you perceive a threat that will “kill” you and that you must go to war to eliminate.

With this staff member, the threat was to her self-image as an unrecognized, reliable, ethical and self-disciplined worker who followed all the rules. To be threatened with disciplinary action was viewed as unnecessary, inappropriate, and insulting. With her reputation (and self-image) at stake, she went on the offensive and lashed out.

She assumed the memo was directed at her, viewed the memo as unacceptable and acted as-if this were the only explanation for the memo.

More on this below…

Once I clarified that it was a general memo and was not directed at her specifically, that she was a valued and responsible team member and that no disciplinary action was pending, she calmed down.

Given her new “reality”, there was no threat.

The Emotional Cycle

What is often not discussed in the context of anger, or any other emotionally based threat, is that how one defines the current threat (and the resulting perception of threat based on that definition) often stems from two actions, both of which are often automatic, inappropriate and highly problematic.

While I have addressed anger as an emotion which alerts us to and prepares us to go to war to defend against a perceived threat, I’d like to dig a little deeper and explore two processes which activate, energize, and transform our perception of threat: assuming and acting as-if.

Together, these two processes constitute an extreme case of tunnel vision.


We make an assumption when we come to a conclusion (or make a judgement) about a situation based on “facts” which we believe fit, clarify and explain the situation we are facing.  Assumptions often fill in for information which is unavailable, ambiguous, or doesn’t fit our perception.

Our assumptions are often problematic because they are presumed to be correct but are not validated.

One example is assuming you know what another person is thinking or feeling.

Acting as-if:

The second problematic process occurs when you act as-if your perception of the situation is inclusive, accurate and descriptive of the situation.  Indeed, we act as-if our perception is the best and only way of perceiving what is going on.

To put it another way..

The actions you take in your own defense are based on your perception of the situation.  This is part of the emotional process.

The problematic issue is that you consider your perception to be both totally inclusive of all possible explanations and completely exclusive in that yours is the only way of perceiving what is going on.

This is problematic because it narrows your assessment of what is going on, blinds you to other explanations, accentuates the destructiveness of the threat, and energizes your efforts to eliminate the threat.

The Antidote

To neutralize the insidious impact of assuming and acting as-if, when (in step #3) you engage the conscious process of assessing your situation, you need to make a special effort to be as objective as possible (not easy to do but definitely doable with practice).  Taking a physical step back from the situation (creating physical distance) and a deep breath (creating psychological distance) can be a signal to you to focus your attention both on what appears to be happening and on other possible explanations for what is happening.

With this information available to you, you can choose your response.

How to effectively understand and deal with other people in their relationships with you.–A Quick Guide

Does this apply to you?

You are interacting with another person and their reaction to you leaves you “scratching your head” and wondering what is going on with them or elicits an emotional reaction in you such as anger which isn’t consistent with the situation or your history with this person.

In this post, I will address how to begin to understand others who direct their emotions at you.

There are several issues which you should take into account when you are dealing with an emotional  reaction of another person.

They are (in order of importance):

I. The specific emotion the other person is expressing and the message of that emotion as well as your emotional reaction (if relevant).

II. The situation including the nature of the relationship between you and the other person.

III. The BRR: Giving meaning to their behavior.

IV. How you want to respond or “intervene”

I. The specific emotion and the message of that emotion.

As soon as you become aware that someone is directing a specific emotion at you, your first actions should be to take a deep breath to calm yourself down and take a step back from the situation to initially create some physical space between you and the other person.

You can then become aware of and begin to assess the specific emotion the other person is expressing and the message of that emotion.

The emotion that you observe in the other person is a direct reflection of how they perceive their interaction with you.

The message of the emotion will inform you about how the other person is perceiving you and your situation and their interactions with you..

By attending to the message of the emotion, you gain important insight into how the other person perceives, conceptualizes and understands what is going on between the two of you.

Their perception may or may not conform to what you intend to happen between you.

This information will be critical when you decide how to interact with this person and address the emotion which stems from their perception.

Some examples:

Anger: they perceive a threat in the situation that they want to eliminate.  Anger prepares one for war.

Anxiety: a future based emotion the message of which is that there MAY be a future threat that might be “dangerous”. They are facing a possible threat in their relationship with you.

Shame: the message of shame is that the person believes they are inherently a bad or damaged person. There is something going on between you that is eliciting self-consuming thoughts in them.

Fear: this is a here and now emotion which communicates that they see you as an eminent threat which must be immediately avoided.

The message of your emotional reaction communicates to you how you are perceiving them.  You may need to pay attention to your initial reaction so that you do not overreact, escalate the interaction, and make it more difficult to master what is going on between you and the other person.

II. The situation including the nature of the relationship between you and the other person

Awareness of the emotion is the beginning of the process of responding to that emotion.

The next issue for you is to be aware of the situation as your options may be limited by elements of the situation in which your interactions with this person are occurring.

At least 3 situations come to mind…

1.Are you at risk?

If you need to escape or hide, what are your options.

2. Are you in a position to comfort, advise, or offer assistance to  this person?

If the person is opening up to you about an emotion such as anxiety or sadness, are you in a position to offer assistance?

3.Are there power differentials which impact how you can respond?

  •   Is the other person a superior or boss?
  •   Is the other person someone you want or need to respond to as opposed to “dismissing” them in an appropriate manner?
  • Does your “status” as a woman, a manager, an hourly employee, impact your response options?

III. BRR: What is motivating their behavior

You are aware of the emotion which informs you of how the other person perceives you and their interactions with you and of your situation which gives you additional information regarding your options.

You can now look at the individual and what how they are interacting with you. You do this using the Basic Relationship Rule (BRR).

The BRR tells you that every person in every situation does the best they can (not the best possible) given their Model of the World (how they perceive what is going on) and their Skill Sets (The behavioral tools they can call upon to help them deal with their interaction with you.)

Changing their Model

If you know how they are perceiving their current interaction with you (the message of the emotion) and you know that their perception is elicited by their Model or how they make sense of, understand, or interpret of what is happening, and you can change this Model by asking questions, offering some suggestions, then intervening to change the Model is a good choice.

Dealing with a skill set deficit (They don’t have the right tools for the situation.)

If their inappropriate actions are stemming from a skill set deficit, then they are in a situation in which they don’t really know how to interact with you and are struggling.  In this case, you may have to resort to reassuring them that it will work out, give them some space, avoid confrontations, or use distraction if possible and so forth.

IV. Choose an adaptive response.

Based on all of the above, choose how you want to respond and take action.

Anger as an example…

This is the scenario I used..

You are at _____ (work, home, walking the dog) and someone interacts with you in such a way that it seems clear to you that this person is angry with you.  He (or she) might be yelling at you, talking fast, accusing you of having done something and so forth.  It is not immediately clear why they are angry.

I discussed 7 general issues and 6 steps.

Here are the 7 general issues that I originally addressed in my book Beyond Anger Mastery: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

  1. What is the nature of the threat the other person perceives?
  2. Are they telling you that you have done something wrong? If so, what is it? Is is something you did recently, are currently doing, or something you did in the past?
  3. Are they just venting and you just happened to be in the way?
  4. Is the threat, or the implied threat, that they perceive in the present and something you may be able to resolve?
  5. Is the threat they perceive, or the implied threat, in the present but totally unrelated to you?
  6. Are they using their anger to “manipulate” you in some way or get you to do something specific like back-off (anger as a communicator) or give in (instrumental anger)?
  7. If there is no obvious threat, what else might be going on? Could they be using their anger to cover over some other feeling (secondary anger)? Or, if they are attacking you or demeaning your character, could they be attempting to divert attention away from issues you have raised and onto you as an individual?

Here are the 6 Steps…

Step 1:  Prepare to engage.

Sub-steps:  a. Calm yourself by taking a deep breath   b. Take a physical step back if your physical safety is an issue.

Step 2: Insure your safety.

Sub-steps: a. assess personal threat level   b.Assess need for immediate action.

Step 3: Validate their anger.

Sub-steps: a. Assume their anger is valid.  b. Calm them down.

Step 4: Forgiveness.  

Sub-steps: a. understand what forgiveness is. b. Don’t take their anger personally.

Step 5: Empathize with and attempt to understand the other person’s anger.    

Sub-steps: a. Seek first to understand.  b. Address 7 general issues.

Step 6: Decide how to respond.  

Sub-steps: a. If you did something.  b. The issue is in their head.

Here are the links to a series of 3 posts I published in Febuary and March of 2017 which address how to intervene when another person is angry with you. These three posts and the suggestions I made in them are as relevant and valid today as they were in 2017.

You are the target of someone’s anger: Part 1

You are the target of someone’s anger: Part 2

You are the target of someone’s anger: Part 3