The Choice to Experience Anger – Step 1 of the Forgiveness Process

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If you’ve decided you want to be more forgiving you need to be patient with yourself.  forgiveness is a process and one that requires several steps, stages, and tasks to complete.  It’s important to remember forgiveness does not come naturally, it’s something we grow into.  We struggle to be forgiving because of that deep sense of justice I described in my previous post.  However, like other virtues, you can practice numerous behaviors and thought processes that help you become more forgiving.  Forgiveness is like love, it’s not just a feeling we have, it’s a decision we make.  Love is a choice and sometimes we choose to love difficult people.  Forgiveness is a choice and sometimes we choose to forgive someone who seems unforgivable for treating us in an unforgivable way.

If you look at the numerous studies and theories published on forgiveness in psychology journals you find most identify three primary components as part of the process.  These components are 1) changing your perspective of the offending party to be more balanced and realistic, 2) decreasing the negative feelings toward the offending party and attempting to increase some level of empathy/compassion for them, and 3) letting go of the idea the person who hurt you should pay you back for what was done or receive the justice they deserve.  I’m going to address all three of these components at some point, but in this post, I want to start with the fact you need to decide if you’re ready to exercise forgiveness in the first place.  I’ve said forgiveness is a choice, and you need to really ask yourself if you’re ready to make that choice.  One way to come to that conclusion is by assessing how not being a forgiving person is impacting your life.  Simply put, how is your unwillingness to forgive a particular hurt and pain you experienced keeping you from being the loving person you could be?

The basic consequence of not forgiving someone who hurt you is living with anger.  Anger is a natural response to being treated unjustly and when someone hurts you anger emerges as a response to that unjust act.  Maybe you were treated as if you didn’t matter, you were never listened to in your family, or you were treated as the family servant and everyone walked all over you.  These actions are unjust and when you realize how you’ve been treated, you get angry.  However, recognizing anger in ourselves is often a very painful experience.  So, instead of acknowledging we’re angry because we’re hurt (Some people don’t like to do this because they believe it makes them weak or a “bad” person) we find other ways to express that anger.  No one likes pain.  Emotional pain, like physical pain, is something we will do almost anything to avoid.  Robert Enright writes in his book, “Forgiveness is a Choice” the following regarding acknowledging anger:

“Realizing that you are angry can be very painful, but forgiveness is not about pretending that nothing happened or hiding from the pain.  You have suffered and need to be honest with yourself about that suffering.”

So, before you go through any of those three previously mentioned components in the forgiving process, ask yourself if you’re ready to acknowledge your anger and experience the pain it has produced in its most raw form.  Instead of shoving it deep down inside, ignoring it, transferring it to other people, and letting it destroy your relationships, ask yourself if you’re brave enough to acknowledge how avoiding anger has negatively impacted your life?  If you are ready, ask yourself these questions to assess how much anger has spread into the physical, emotional, mental, relational, and transcendent aspects of your life.  Enright lists these questions as tools to explore your anger:

  • How have you avoided dealing with anger?
  • Have you faced your anger?
  • Are you afraid to expose your shame or guilt about a situation?
  • Has your anger affected your health?
  • Have you been obsessed about the injury or with thoughts about the person who hurt you?
  • Do you compare your situation with that of the offender?
  • Has the injury caused a permanent change in your life?
  • Has the injury changed how you view the world?

This is where I want you to start.  Take a week or so and think about these questions, journal about them, meditate on them, and ponder them.  Do whatever works for you but assess as best as you can how anger, caused by your unwillingness to forgive a past hurt in your life, has spread through your world like cancer and negatively impacted your potential to live well.  Once you do that, you may feel more motivated to start the forgiveness process.

Freedom Through Forgiveness – You Can Find Peace

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Psychologists have done significant research on forgiveness, and while there are some peripheral studies cautioning against forgiveness in specific situations, overall it is believed to be a very good and helpful practice allowing you to live a better life.  In fact, hanging on to anger, hatred, and intense emotions associated with unforgiveness can significantly impact your wellbeing. According to Dr. Karen Swartz director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, the practice of forgiveness is quite helpful for living a healthy happy life.  Everything from lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, lower levels of bad cholesterol, decreases in depression, anxiety, and numerous other health factors are experienced when practicing the exercise of forgiveness. Much of this is because when we are unforgiving we experience a chronic sense of anger which puts us into “fight or flight” mode thus constantly pumping us full of the hormones and physical factors necessary for survival.  This constant “stress state”, even if experienced as normal because of its permanent part of our life, is not good for our physical health. You were not designed to have a constant experience of stress delivered to your body. Forgiveness is one way in which we can counteract this stress state in order to experience peace on all levels of our being. Forgiveness doesn’t just positively impact our emotional wellbeing, it impacts our physical, mental, and relational life as well.

An important point to keep in mind when considering how to exercise forgiveness is that it’s something very different from reconciliation.  Too often people think if they forgive someone for what they’ve done then they have to reenter a relationship with them. Somehow we have linked forgiveness with the reestablishment of a relationship which is absolutely not the same thing.  Forgiveness is a way to give yourself peace with a situation not a way to reestablish an abusive or dysfunctional relationship.

Another factor stopping people from exercising forgiveness is their sense of justice.  When someone hurts us we want justice for what they’ve done. We believe if we’ve been hurt, then it’s only right for the other person to hurt as badly as we do.  Our sense of justice emerging from the virtue of justice is important for living in a civilized world. Without justice, the world would be a free for all in which the strong take what they want and the weak have no recourse to get what is rightly theirs.  I’m not advocating for the elimination of justice. I am however merely stating that if your desire for justice is so strong that it traps you in a world of anger and emotional turmoil, you may want to reconsider your options. In fact, for someone to be a forgiving person they have to be willing to give up what is rightly theirs (recompense for what was done to them or taken from them) in order to gain something better, personal peace.

I want to walk with you over the next few posts and help you consider whether or not being a more forgiving person is something you’re ready to embrace.  It’s not easy, and it takes real work, but I believe all of us can have a more fulfilling life if we can learn to be forgiving and embrace the peace it brings.  Just to encourage you to consider exploring this difficult topic, I want you to read what happened one warm Wednesday night in June in Charleston South Carolina and the response one person gave to the man who took something very special away from her.  

Dylann Roof entered Mother Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal Church with one thing in mind.  He was intent on killing people he disliked because of the color of their skin. After spending time listening to the bible study he drew his gun and slaughtered nine unarmed people.  One of his victims was Ethel Lance, a wonderful 70-year-old woman who raised five children and had seven grandchildren, as well as four great-grandchildren. She was a pillar of that faith community and was gunned down like her life meant nothing.  At the trial of Dylann Roof Nadine Collier, Ethel’s daughter said this:

“I forgive you.  You took something very precious away from me.  I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul… You hurt me.  You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

Nadine would not let her anger, hatred, and distress trap her in a world that had no future joy or love. Does she want justice? Of course, but she is not willing to let anger trap her so that whatever time she has left in this life is spent in a pure stress state, negatively impacting her emotions, thoughts, relationships, and physical well being. If she can do that, don’t you think it’s worth taking some time to consider how you can be a forgiving person? Let me help you over the next few weeks and we will journey together into the practice of forgiveness.