On Forgiveness, part two

A lot has happened since I last posted. Joyous holidays, the battle with a depressive episode—- still lingering and touched mightily by recent family affairs, progress with workouts under direction of my personal trainer, and the severe illness and death January 31st of my beloved younger sister, Ellie. She was the first in our family of six brothers and sisters to pass. I miss her greatly.

I have been studying forgiveness and the power of forgiveness in one’s life for some time now. Indeed, I have an essay On Forgiveness on this website already devoted to the topic.   In that essay, I wrote that “forgiveness does not mean forgetting. And yet it is more than tolerating. I was startled to read that forgiveness is beyond letting go of negatives, such as anger; it is also the inclusion of positive gift-like qualities such as compassion, generosity, and even love.”

This posting is part two of my growth in understanding of this most powerful act of human reconciliation.

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I’ve now made a little dent into the literature of forgiveness, and have learned two major facts: One, there is research to show that physical and mental health benefits come from forgiving and Two, that forgiving, learning forgiveness, is hard work. I’ll write about those benefits in this posting. The hard work of forgiveness will be addressed in future posts.

“NOT Forgiving — nursing a grudge—is so caustic”, reports Fred Luskin, PhD, a health psychologist at Stanford University and author of Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. “It raises your blood pressure, depletes immune function, makes you more depressed and causes enormous physical stress to the whole body.”  In this book, citing research and teaching by vivid example, Mr. Luskin shows that people who are forgiving tend to have not only less stress but also better relationships, fewer general health problems and lower incidences of the most serious illnesses like depression, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

So how does one forgive? Is it a process one can learn, something each of us might do, or a work for the saints among us only?

Forgiveness can be hard work. Robert Enright, PhD, the author of Eight Keys to Forgiveness, says: “….in its essence forgiveness is not something we do to just help ourselves. It is not something about you or done for you. It is something you extend toward another person, because you recognize, over time, that it is the best response to the situation.”  And then, Professor Enright continues:  “Working on forgiveness can help us increase our self-esteem and give us a sense of inner strength and safety. It can reverse the lies that we often tell ourselves when someone has hurt us deeply—lies like, I am defeated or I’m not worthy. Forgiveness can heal us and allow us to move on in life with meaning and purpose. Forgiveness matters and we will be its primary beneficiary.”

I’ll end this post with a brief outline of forgiveness’ process.

First, accept that something happened in opposition to your wishes and you can’t change it. What can you do to suffer less?  Then, look at your involvement with this person—simplify it.

Second, try to move past the hurt and go on. Perhaps the steps suggested below will help you progress.

  • Acknowledge that you have been hurt. Talk to a few close friends to explore your feelings and obtain a sense of perspective.
  • Make a commitment to forgiveness.
  • Start with small things. Start by trying to forgive modest slights by people who have done you harm in life.
  • Recognize your “grievance stories” and gradually deemphasize and replace them by thinking of your own positive goals.
  • Focus on facts rather than emotions. Attempt to understand what led the person to the hurtful behavior. Bless you.
  • Try not to take things personally. Many offenses were not deliberately targeted to hurt you personally, but were byproducts of other people’s own selfish goals.
  • Forgive those you love. The most important people to forgive are those close to us.

( Find these steps in Terrie Heinrich Rizzo’s posting The Healing Power of Forgiveness, 2006 )

On Forgiveness

One aspect of my illness that I’ve struggled with for many years is forgiveness – forgiving the people, events, and even the institutions where I have felt anger, humiliation and pain.

Why do I struggle and feel so strongly about this? A level playing field must be found among friends, family and providers to nurture communication, comfort and a new beginning. Imagine setting aside blame while acknowledging responsibility. Think of deeds being forgiven and the tangled web of the past losing its ability to shape our future.

Just what deeds am I thinking of forgiving? Sadly, they are all real, and the ability to forgive them will not come easily. People with mental illness many have experienced being abandoned when ill, or we may remember restraints and seclusion. We may have experienced involuntary commitment, deep humiliation, or poor care resulting in severe symptoms that led to years of mistrust toward caregivers. For many family members, deeds that need forgiving may include their relative’s antagonistic behavior, violent acts or threats of violence, sexual infidelities and indiscretions, verbal abuse, or unreasonable demands or careless spending sprees which left the family in debt.

I have a thoughtful book of essays that is helping me sort through many questions about forgiveness. What is forgiveness between us? Why forgive? And where to begin? Exploring Forgiveness, edited by Robert Enright and Joanna North, contains a forward by Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa that states:

“Forgiveness is taking seriously the awfulness of what has happened when you are treated unfairly. It is opening the door for the other person to begin again. Without forgiveness, resentment builds in us, a resentment which turns into hostility and anger. Hatred eats away at our well being.”

What I am learning is that forgiveness is not pretending that things are other than they are. It is not cheap. Robert Enright and others write that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. And yet it is more than tolerating. I was startled to read that forgiveness is beyond letting go of negatives, such as anger; it is also the inclusion of positive gift-like qualities such as compassion, generosity, and even love. Joanna North insists that forgiveness is hard work, and that:

“Forgiveness is not something that we do for ourselves alone, but something that we give or offer to another. The forgiving response is outward-looking and other-directed; it is supposed to make a difference to the wrongdoer as well as to ourselves, and it makes a difference in how we interact with the wrongdoer and with others.”

Learning how to forgive includes understanding both the perspective of the injured party and that of the wrongdoer. When we begin to separate the wrongdoer from the wrong which has been committed; we also begin to see the person who has committed a particular wrong. Healing can then occur to the person injured and to the relations between the two parties.

It is my hope that in the year to come we can learn, as people with mental illnesses and as family members, to speak not only of understanding and empathizing with the other, but also to explore issues of forgiveness. “Without forgiveness there is no future,” Bishop Tutu declared.

Let us create a good future.

From Shame – Moving Toward Healing

During the recent half decade I have been so fortunate, as Brene Brown* describes, to have completed the journey from the “not being good enough” shame struggle to believing and knowing “who I am is enough.” Shame from having mental illness has left me. Shame from being related to other people with mental illness has left me also. I have been graced.

I only recently realized I had made this journey. I understand now how much shame – and my growing resilience in the face of shame – had influenced the course and depth of my mental illness through the years.

It didn’t happen, this journey to being shame-free, automatically. I happened to want to do what is recommended for building shame resilience for other reasons; I wanted to help others cope with mental illness. Often, as part of my work, I told my story of family and personal mental illness. I didn’t realize then, twenty five years ago, how much nurturance I would receive from assisting others.  My story of the power of shame and how I arrived at healing from shame follows …. [Read the Full Article]


*   Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW   Audio lecture, 2012: Men, Women & Worthiness, The experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough.  Available on CD at Soundstrue.com  PO Box 8010/Boulder CO  80306.

Stubborn Hope

Endurance is a passive quality,
transforms nothing, contests nothing,
can change no state to something better
and is worthy of no high esteem;
and so it seems to me my own
deserves, if not contempt, impatience.

Yet somewhere lingers the stubborn hope
thus to endure can be a kind of fight,
preserve some value, assert some faith
and even have a kind of worth.

Dennis Brutus, former prisoner of conscience, South Africa
From Stubborn Hope, c1978 Heinemann Educational Books, Inc., Portsmouth, NH.

I have two sets of tools to use in managing my illness. One set consists of the familiar: support of friends, family, the members of my support group, my psychiatrist, plus therapy, medication, rest, exercise, use of behavioral and cognitive techniques and calm, quiet settings.

The second set is much more personal. These “tools” are experiences in my life that provide comfort when treatment isn’t effective. I list them on a set of index cards that are always ready at hand. When I’m having trouble with obsessive negative thoughts, despair, and grinding hopelessness I read through the cards individually, with care and consideration. Most cards list a single word:

“Music,” stirring music.

“Humor.” I cannot generate humor, but at some level it reaches me.

“Beauty.” Something beautiful must be near at hand. Usually it is light falling on my favorite glass vase, an illustration, or a textured fabric. My eyes and mind are soothed. Vibrant colors stop ruminating thoughts and bring peace, a dramatic although brief period of relief.

“Favorite books.” They are important as reminders of the admiration I have for the author’s intellect and talent. Virtuosity stimulates my constricted mind.

The last index card, however, cuts to the quick; sometimes there is no comfort. This card reads, “And some times, only endurance.” Years ago I wrote that phrase with a bitter heart. But since then, I have come to agree with Dennis Brutus. Endurance has value and relies on faith, albeit unrecognized by me. It reflects a stubborn hope, for tomorrow and the tomorrows to follow.

Greetings to you and to those you love and support.

Offering True Support

Most of us have found ourselves, at one time or another, wanting to provide a friend or relative with a listening ear… or to be a helpful sounding board; in other words, to provide support. What is present when someone is offering true support?

True support is present when the recipient feels listened to and understood. Some emotional needs have been shared and supported together. Just listening well and empathically may help someone clarify options or sort out thoughts. If you’re unsure if the support you offer is satisfactory and your intention is genuine, I suggest asking the recipient gently: Did she feel really listened to? Did he feel a lifting, even temporarily, of a burden? If yes, you have given someone a great gift!

My experience as a support group facilitator and as a trainer of facilitators, both in giving and in receiving support from people with mental illness through an adult lifetime guide me to these recommendations (Under “On Healing” in the menu bar). I hope you find them thoughtful.