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How To More Easily Feel Forgiveness

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

The latest issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (October 2006 Vol. 74, No. 5, 887-897) is a special edition devoted to exploring how it is that people grow in the wake of negative life events and traumatic events. The term "grow" as used here is meant primarily to refer to emotional growth (as in maturity, wisdom). If I had to summarize the theme of this issue from my 10,000 foot perspective (having read only the abstracts of the articles), I would say that it is this: The shape that personal growth takes in the wake of a negative life event is determined in large part by how that negative life event gets interpreted.

One article in this issue caught my eye as most worth sharing in this weblog manner. It is titled, "Writing About the Benefits of an Interpersonal Transgression Facilitates Forgiveness", and it was written by Michael E. McCullough, Lindsey M. Root, and Adam D. Cohen, all of the University of Miami. Here is the experiment these authors performed in a nutshell:

  • Gather together a group of people and ask them to think about the most recent time someone they were in a relationship with had hurt or offended them.
  • Divide the people into three groups, and give each group a different writing assignment.
    • The first group is instructed to write about the negative features of the hurtful exchange; how the hurtful interpersonal exchange damaged them.
    • The second group is instructed to write about the positive features (the silver lining) of the hurtful exchange; how the hurtful interpersonal exchange benefited them.
    • The third group is instructed to write their plans for what they will do tomorrow, in detail. This third group is what is known as a control task; it exists to provide participants with the experience of writing about something other than the active topic under study (e.g., reaction to hurtful interpersonal events).
  • Ask each participate to complete a few questionnaires, including something called the TRIM, which measures aspects of forgiveness. When looked at mathematically, TRIM scores seems to boil down to two basic underlying componants, which can be thought of as Avoidance, and Benevolance. This makes conceptual sense – if you are to forgive someone you need to stop avoiding them, and you need to start feeling more benevolent towards them again.
  • Analyze the TRIM scores and other data you’ve collected against the three writing conditions and see what you find.

The primary finding is interesting, but not necessarily unpredictable: Those people who showed the most evidence of having forgiven their partner who had transgressed against them were also the people who had engaged in the positive writing exercise. It seems that it is easier to be in a forgiving mood when you are aware of how you have benefited, however inadvertantly, from a transgression. Put another way, it is easier to forgive when you see yourself as a winner rather than as a loser.

Forgiveness is important, becuase it is freeing; it benefits the person who has been harmed, moreso than the person who caused the harm. When you are unable to forgive someone who has transgressed against you, you remain linked to that person in a negatively toned relationship which can be quite capable of wearing you down.

The nice thing here is that in many cases where people have been harmed, whether they are winners or losers as a result of having received their wounds is, in large part, a matter of perspective. If someone divorces you against your will, but then you go on to become involved with a partner with whom you are really more compatible, is that really a loss? Even if you don’t meet the person of your dreams, if you are rid of someone who no longer values your company, is that a loss? You might think so, and it could be so if you see it that way. However, there is generally room and, apparently a great deal of utility, for seeing things in an optimistic light.

Not too much stock should be put into this single study, but the general takehome message that it is easier to forgive (and thus move on) when you find ways to see your experience (or the consequences of that experience) as positive rather than negative is quite in line with with the larger body of Positive Psychology research that we have reviewed in our Emotional Resiliance topic center.

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