It is not a rarity of being hurt by someone’s actions once in a while during the course of one’s life. Being hurt leads to a series of negative feelings and emotions such as disgust, resentment, bitterness, revenge, etc. Depending on various factors, the individual may behave in a number of ways.
People, sometimes, tend to hold on to the negative feelings and emotions, caused by harmful events. This, in the long run, may cause further harm to the individual. An alternative to this, would be trying to release such negative feelings and emotions, and in the process trying to overcome them. In other words, the individual would be indulging in forgiveness.
Forgiveness is something that is very often misconstrued. It does not in any way mean that the harmful event or transgression is not acknowledged and that it is completely forgotten. It also does not in any way imply ignoring the transgression or denying it.
Forgiveness is rather a way of coming to terms with the harmful event and trying to put oneself in a better frame of mind. It is a voluntary action, which means that it cannot occur without the will of the person who has been harmed. Further, it has nothing to do with trying to benefit the transgressor (the person who has caused the offense). It is an action that the victim takes solely for his/her own betterment.
Being an ambiguous concept, there are multiple perspectives that try to explain forgiveness. One view suggests that forgiveness is a replacement of the negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions towards the offender or transgressor with that of positive thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Forgiveness is also seen as a reduction in the negative motivations such as revenge and avoidance, which leads to a motivation to forgive the transgressor. Another view suggests that forgiveness is a combination of the two aforementioned perspectives.
These perspectives, even though they differ from each other, commonly suggest that forgiveness is a process that involves a reduction in the negativity associated with the transgressor. The individual goes through a transition from the initial phase of being hurt to an alleviation of the pain from the hurtful event and a change of feelings towards the transgressor.
The reduction of negativity and alleviation of pain involved in forgiveness gives an indication that the individual goes through some positive changes from the initial phase of being hurt. These positive changes prove to be beneficial for an individual when it comes to both mental and physical health.
Research shows that forgiveness is associated with greater subjective wellbeing and global mental health. Forgiveness also leads to higher self-esteem and promotes self-respect as it enables the individual to refuse to get dominated by harmful thoughts, feelings, and memories. Further, forgiveness has been found to be associated with low anxiety, lesser depression, decreased feelings of anger, and a release from resentment.
Studies comparing the measures of heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance, and electromyography (EMG) of people who had forgiven and those who have not, show that people who had forgiven have lower physiological stress. Further, studies monitoring the physiological reactions of people who had forgiven after being emotionally hurt compared to those have not, show that people who had forgiven had lower physiological reactivity (e.g. diastolic blood pressure, mean arterial pressure, and forehead EMG activity).
Evidence clearly shows that forgiveness has a lot of benefits associated with it. Despite the positives associated with forgiveness, there are times when a person is unable to forgive. Even if the person is willing to forgive, it may be difficult to do so. This is because there are a number of factors that have an influence on forgiveness.
One of such factors is empathy. Empathy has been found to have a strong link with forgiveness. People who are more empathetic are more likely to forgive. The personality traits of agreeableness and neuroticism have also been found to influence forgiveness.
People with the trait of agreeableness are kind, sympathetic, cooperative, warm, and considerate. People high on agreeableness have less conflict with others and assert lesser power during a conflict. They are also more likely to empathize with others, which, as mentioned above, is an important factor for forgiveness.
The trait of neuroticism is about how emotionally stable or unstable a person is. People high on the trait of neuroticism are characterized by anxiety, moodiness, worry, jealousy, and are more likely to be in a depressed mood. People high on the trait of neuroticism experience a high level of interpersonal stress, give more attention to negativity, and report more health problems and negative life events. They also have more negative emotional reactions and tend to ruminate a lot more over negative life events. These aspects in people who are high on the trait of neuroticism tend to make them less likely to forgive others.
Empathy, agreeableness, and neuroticism are individual or personal factors that may influence forgiveness, which means that there are individual differences in them. Apart from these individual factors there are a number of other factors that may influence forgiveness.
The relationship between the transgressor and the person who has got hurt plays a role in forgiveness. If the transgressor is in some kind of a close relationship (friend, committed relationship) with the person who is harmed then forgiveness is more likely to occur. If the transgressor is apologetic then there are more chances that the person who is hurt may forgive. If the act of harm is intentional compared to being unintentional, then it is less likely than forgiveness may occur.
The severity of the offense also plays a significant role in forgiveness. An offense that is less severe may lead to greater forgiveness as compared to a highly severe offense. There can be individual differences in the perception of how severe an offense maybe, but there are many offenses that are universally seen as being highly offensive. In such cases forgiveness is less likely to occur.
The severity of the offense, in fact, is often seen as one of the most important factors that may influence forgiveness. Even though forgiveness can lead to better mental and physical health, sometimes the offense is so severe that it becomes very difficult to forgive. In such instances the person may experience unforgiveness.
Unforgiveness refers to a combination of delayed and chronic negative thoughts and emotions such as resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear. It occurs in situations that remain hurtful for an extended period, due to which a person is stuck in a chronic hyperaroused stress response, primarily through continuing rumination.
Such experiences do not occur all the time. It is when the offense is extremely severe, such as being sexually abused or witnessing the murder of a loved one, that a person may experience unforgiveness. In such instances, the emotional damage done to the individual seems to be irreparable. The person goes through a highly traumatic experience and recovering from it may seem to be almost impossible.
Even though the offense may be extremely severe leading to trauma, holding on to the negativity associated with it will further exacerbate the condition of the individual. Being overpowered by tremendous negative feelings, emotions, and experiences tends to damage the psyche of the individual. The mental and physical health of the individual continuously deteriorates and if efforts for recovery are not made, the person may get into a situation where he/she may seem to be doomed. Therefore, the individual needs to be saved and needs to be somehow taken out of this trauma.
This is where forgiveness training, sometimes referred to as forgiveness intervention or forgiveness therapy, comes in. Forgiveness training involves making individuals learn to forgive through standardized and systematic techniques. The proponents of forgive training see forgiveness as a psycho-educational concept. It proposes that when it becomes difficult to forgive, then forgiveness can be systematically instilled within an individual through training and intervention programs.
Forgiveness training is mainly described as an approach to reduce anger and restore emotional health. The idea behind forgiveness training is that when a person has been a victim to a highly severe offense that leads to traumatic experiences, the only way to come out of that trauma is to forgive the transgressor. Forgiveness, as mentioned above, involves a release of all the negative feelings and emotions. Since the offense has been so severe, it becomes impossible for the individual to forgive, and that is why he/she is made to learn to forgive; the individual is trained to forgive.
The most widely used forgiveness training program is developed by Enright and the Human Development Study Group at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA. This group is led by the psychologist Robert Enright who has been extensively involved in forgiveness research. Enright’s forgiveness training program involves four phases – the Uncovering, the Decision Phase, the Work Phase, and the Deepening Phase.
In the Uncovering Phase, the individual reviews the hurtful event and its effects. The individual identifies the psychological injury and recognizes the anger, pain, and thought processes associated with it. In the Decision Phase, the individual is introduced to forgiveness as viable option. The individual makes the attempt to understand what forgiveness is all about, makes a cognitive decision to forgive, and further makes a conscious commitment to forgive.
In the Work Phase, through reframing and various cognitive exercises, the individual experience various changes of affect and is led to offer forgiveness. This phase also involves the acceptance of pain due to the offence, which is followed by the individual being guided to relinquish his/her pain. By relinquishing the anger, the individual is in no way made to excuse the transgressor of his/her responsibility of the offence. Forgiving the transgressor also does not mean any kind of reconciliation. Through the means of forgiveness, the individual is helped towards letting go of the anger and pain as well as overcoming the psychological trauma that he/she has gone through.
Finally, in the Deepening Phase, the individual is led to find meaning in the suffering, develop a new purpose in life, and come to an increased sense of emotional wellbeing. The individual is made to have a deeper sense out of the experiences. By finding a deeper meaning in events previously viewed as mostly negative, the individual releases resentment and may find a new life purpose. This leads to a healthy emotional regulation and a re-examination of the self as more than just a victim.
Forgiveness training has been successfully applied on a wide range of people who have been a victim of severe offenses. The training program has been applied to sexually and emotionally abused victims, elderly women hurt in family relationships, people witnessing the murder of a loved one, survivors of incest relationships, and men emotionally hurt by their partner’s abortion decision. Further, it has been applied in resolving conflicts in marriages and solving other relationship problems.
Forgiveness training has also been largely applied to children and adolescents hurt by peers, whose parents have been divorced, who have insecure attachment with parents, and with those who have been physically abused. A large number of forgiveness training programs have also been applied on children who live in areas of violence and poverty.
Research on the outcomes of such forgiveness training programs suggests that it leads to improved affect, lowers rate of psychiatric illness, lowers physiological stress responses, improves physical wellbeing, and facilitates the restoration of relationship closeness. It has also been found that forgiveness training leads to reductions in anger, anxiety, depression, and improvements in hope and self-esteem. Specifically for children and adolescents, forgiveness training has led to a decrease in anger, improvement in grades, a better attitude towards relationships with friends and family, and an enhancement of self-esteem.
These findings, for adults, adolescents, and children, clearly show that forgiveness training is very effective, on a wide range of people, in restoring emotional and physical health. It also gives an indication that forgiveness can be helpful even when individuals are victims to offenses that may be extremely severe and cause psychological trauma.
In life, many a times, people get to face circumstances that they may not want to be in. Nobody wants to be hurt by others. Most of the time, such incidents happen unexpectedly, which causes more trouble. Being hurt, even in the slightest of manner, is not at all a good feeling and can be harmful in its own ways. It can only be imagined how much harm a severe offense can cause.
In it is not much a person can do when a harmful event has occurred. No matter how much damage a hurtful event has caused, something that has occurred cannot be changed. The only thing that can be changed is the feelings, emotions, and thought processes associated with that hurtful event.
Forgiveness helps in bringing about a change in ones negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions towards a hurtful event and the transgressor. One does not forgive for the other person. It is only for oneself that a person forgives. With the help of forgiveness, an individual is able to overcome all the anger, pain, frustration, depression, and trauma associated with the hurtful event.
Forgiveness not only helps in restoration of mental and physical health, it also gives the individual a new direction, newer goals, and new hopes in life. It may lead to having a new meaning in life, which leads to finding a purpose in life, and may also lead to self-discovery.
Being hurt is something that is highly undesirable. But, life does not end at that point. There is a lot more in life, apart from that hurtful event. Forgiveness becomes the mediator that leads the individual towards the path of restoration of mental and physical health, thought processes that take the individual beyond the hurtful event, a breath of fresh air, and a better perspective of life.