Forgiving another, what it really means.
I have just returned from another fantastic international study trip with Dr. Leslee Brown, exploring Existential Analysis in Vienna. Leslee sources experts in various psychodynamic disciplines and puts together amazing learning opportunities for both professionals (these courses are accredited) and anyone who is interested in these topics. Her next tour is in July 2016, this time in Argentina, and explores Lacan and Tango therapy. Follow this link for more information on this fantastic opportunity.
The Existential Summit I attended was in Vienna and presented by Alfried Längle, M.D., Ph.D., Professor and President of the International Society of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis. For more information on this amazing man and Existential Analysis, please follow this link to his website. Victor Frankl, the Founder of Logotherapy was a close friend and associate of Professor Längle.
As a Jungian, exploring other methodologies can be challenging at times. But Existential Analysis was like a breath of fresh air. There are many obvious differences between the Jungian approach and the Existential Analysis approach. I would say the main being that Jungian Analysis focuses on exploring the unconscious using symbolic dialogue, whereas Existential Analysis is focused on the individual and their sense of self in relation to their external and internal environment. What I really liked about Existential Analysis is that the paradigm it is based on is the sensing of self. Whereas Jungian psychology focuses on self-awareness. Sensing oneself is what I would relate to Anima energy, the ebb and flow of feeling and resonance within is what drives the Existential approach. How do I become myself, how do I express myself, how do I find myself and how do I touch my authentic being? These questions are at the root of Existential Analysis. It explores the concepts of judgment, autonomy, integrity, morality, identity and self-worth and authenticity. Our guide in this process, Professor Längle, was the epitome of someone who sensed himself at all times. His spark was undeniable and his love of life palpable.
There were so many fascinating ideas that were presented during this Summit, but I decided to write about the topic of forgiveness since it is such an important and profound concept. In South Africa, forgiveness was one of the main drives behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was formed during 1996, after the first democratic elections. This Commission allowed both victims and perpetrators to share their stories and experiences. The perpetrators had to face the families of their victims (or the victims themselves) and could ask for amnesty and forgiveness. But there are many people who cannot forgive the past injustices. And many still inflict their ignorance and prejudice on others, even 22 years after democracy. Forgiveness in this environment is not easy.
There are a multitude of thoughts and perspectives on forgiveness and one never knows how to actually go about it. What is the right approach? Forgive but do not forget? Forgive and forget? Forgive and move on? Forgiveness makes you stronger? The quotes and expressions are numerous. All religions promote Forgiveness, and people suppress their anger and discontent to behave in line with their religious beliefs. But from both a Jungian and Existential perspective, it is far better to be cognizant of your feelings and relate to them and work with them than to suppress or repress them. These feelings will explode and it will either make your sick or it will cause you to lash out on other people.
In this blog I will look at forgiveness as a psychological process and not a religious driven concept. Existential Analysis certainly does not support any ideas of “should” or “must”. It supports the idea of authentic morality and ethics, which are born from being just and respectful towards oneself.
But what does it mean to forgive?
We have all experienced this feeling of rage and injustice due to the way we were treated at some point in our lives. Being human usually results in experiencing some form of abuse or violation of self in various degrees. If unaddressed and suppressed, these feelings can make us ill or cause us to separate ourselves from others in order to protect ourselves. Whatever the cause, it is not a good idea to try to “get over it”. Especially in this modern world, no-one is encouraged to delve into their emotions and wallow in self-pity. Do something, very quickly, and move on. Some people go on a weekend workshop, some say positive affirmations, some try to ease the pain through meditation or medication. But emotions cannot be suppressed. They are the soul’s feelings and we must take heed of this. Ignoring your pain, rage and frustration is certainly not a healthy way of relating to yourself. This is only further violation of yourself by yourself.
So when Professor Längle explained the process of forgiving, I decided that I must share it. Having some guidelines to follow not only helps with clarity but also helps to gain some measure of consciousness with regards the incident that you are not able to let go of.
What it doesn’t mean.
First of all, forgiving does not mean that the pain stops. Forgiveness does not mean reconciliation either. Once you have forgiven the other, then you are often left with pain or grief or regret. As Professor Längle pointed out, regret involves forgiving yourself. And for this you can follow the steps below as well.
What it does mean.
Forgiveness means that you free yourself, that you let go of your dependency; your need for the perpetrator to make it right in some way, or of vengeful thoughts. Forgiveness is about erasing the debt, accepting the past and letting go of what you have lost. Forgiveness is also about realising what you have gained from the experience and recognizing that you are now a different person because of what transpired.
At this point you may think that it is unacceptable to forgive the other for their behavior. That they should not be allowed to get away with it and must be punished. But these feelings of revenge and hatred tie you to the other – you are defined by them – they become the centre of your universe. You are not free.
Of course this does not mean that they should get off scot-free, or unpunished, especially if their actions violated human rights, your rights. But this is a separate issue. Now we are only addressing the concept of forgiveness.
Professor Längle relayed to us the following process of working through an issue in order to reach the point where you are ready to forgive.
The Steps to forgiveness
The first step involves describing clearly the violation. Write it down in a journal or on computer and make sure that no-one else will ever see it. This is to allow yourself to be totally honest and brutal about what happened. Describe in detail the actions, how you felt, what happened, how you still feel, how this affected you and your life, the repercussions for yourself and your loved ones, your thoughts. Don’t censor yourself, remember no one else will see this.
The second step is to reflect on how important this issue is to you. What is the weight, how heavy does it weigh upon you? Do you wake up thinking about it? Do you find yourself lost in the pain and grief? Is it crushing your soul? Or is this something that you think about only when you are triggered by specific words or images? Can you manage it? Write down the weight of it for you and try to use an image for it, e.g. it is like a millstone around my neck, or, there is a permanent scar on my heart.
The third step is assessing what you need from the perpetrator to make it right. What do they owe you? What can they sacrifice or give you to make you feel like you received justice? Perhaps an apology is enough. Perhaps you need them to confess to someone what they have done. Perhaps you want them to die. Be honest about what you feel would balance the scales.
At this point, you may want to approach the individual and make your demands. Now that you know what the price was that you paid, and what price you want them to pay, it is the right time to address this with the other party. You may choose not to take this step, since it is possible that your request will be rejected. But this you will not know until you have confronted them. You may also feel that you don’t care if they reject you, as long as you are able to express yourself clearly and let them know what the result of their actions were. It is also possible that you will get your just reward from them and that they are also weighed down by regret for what has happened.
But this is also tied in with the last step in this process. If you are aware of what was lost, and what is lacking, can you reach a place where this is not needed anymore? Are you able to accept the loss, the pain, the grief and regret? Can you allow yourself to accept what is, and no longer yearn for what was lost? Are you able to redefine yourself as you are now and let go of who you were before? Are you able to come to terms with this and integrate it into your current paradigm? Can you accept what this means for you, that then you have to face and deal with your own pain, regret or guilt?
These are big questions, but essential for the act of forgiving. They need a lot of reflection and time. Perhaps you read this and realised that you are unable to reach this place on your own and that you need to seek professional help. If you do feel this way, please don’t hesitate and contact someone to help you through this process.
Perhaps you are unable to do this now, and that is okay. Healing takes time.
Or maybe you have gone through this process and would like to share it. I know that your story will be felt and offer hope and a different perspective to many readers, so please comment below.
Until next time