Hope is all around us; Finding Hope in the Midst of Trauma

Ever since Darlene Harris asked me to consider writing a blog about hope, I have been thinking about the topic. I noticed how much has recently been written about hope and its importance for so many individuals who are suffering. I’ve seen a variety of articles that mention hope in relation to the environment, climate change, racial equality, cancer, and Parkinson’s Disease. Seeing hope discussed and referenced in multiple articles, for various populations, illustrates how important it is to have hope, even in the worst of circumstances. Veronica Chambers, in a recent NY Times article discussing slavery and racism, states, We had survived the unsurvivable time and time again; cultivating hope wasn’t frivolous, it was essential,” (2022). Thus, hope isn’t just nice to have, at times it is essential for survival in unbearable situations. Without hope, the will to live can diminish. One may stop caring about themselves and others, and their beliefs toward achieving a good life decrease. Hope, although scary, is directly related to a person’s belief that they can cope and move beyond the abuse or trauma they have endured. As Suleika Jaouad (2022) states in her blog post, Hope Grows in Brooklyn, “Hope has felt dangerous to me in the past—and in some ways, I remain a bit wary of it. …… But getting past the fear and stepping toward hope is what I have to do. I want to live a forward-looking life, anchoring myself in the things that are true and good and beautiful”.

Hope and Forgiveness

I automatically connect hope to my work on the topic of interpersonal forgiveness as an approach to healing from a deep, personal and unfair hurt. In this blog post, I will discuss why I believe choosing to forgive can offer individuals who have experienced the trauma of child abuse or sexual assault hope of healing and the power to move beyond their abuse. It is normal and natural to feel angry, and hopeless as a result of childhood or sexual assault trauma and one has a right to these feelings for experiencing something no individual should have to go through. If one believes that healing is impossible and/or there is nothing that can change their current attitude, feelings, and thoughts toward their abuser, it is likely they will feel despair and quite hopeless. Forgiveness offers an option for healing that allows one to hope and have faith in a better future, while also acknowledging that the abuse they experienced was unfair, deeply hurtful and unacceptable. As a forgiveness educator and expert on the topic, I aim to be a bearer of hope to those who have suffered from deep, personal and unfair hurt. 

Forgiveness Defined 

Many misconceptions exist regarding what forgiveness means and the process of forgiveness which has led to skepticism about the value of forgiveness. As stated in a recent blog post I wrote for the “Discover Forgiveness” website, “for individuals to choose to forgive, they first need to know what it means to forgive and contexts appropriate for forgiveness,” (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015). Forgiveness occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt, in contrast to everyday annoyances (Smedes, 1996).  Enright (2001) offers a well-known definition of forgiveness, 

When unjustly hurt by another, we forgive when we overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the offender compassion, benevolence, and love; as we give these, we as forgivers realize that the offender does not necessarily have a right to such gifts (p. 25).

 Forgiveness is accomplished when one experiences a decrease of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender, and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors may occur. No one should be forced to forgive as forgiveness before one is ready usually leads to false forgiveness, (Freedman, 2022). Knowing it is their choice to forgive gives the individual hope as they are in control of their own healing and can make the decision when they are ready. As Linda Sanford (1992) discusses in her book, Strong at the Broken Places, we are not in control of what happens to us as children, but we are in control of how we respond as adults. The following quote, attributed to Victor Frankl, also reflects the idea that one has the power to choose how to respond to circumstances, “Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness” (Stephen Covey, 2010). 

Common misconceptions about forgiveness that may prevent individuals from choosing to forgive include beliefs that forgiveness means excusing, condoning, forgetting, denying, and/or thinking forgiveness is mutually exclusive with justice. None of these are true. Forgiveness is having the courage to face and acknowledge one’s hurt, as well as truly feel the emotions related to the hurt.  Forgiveness does not mean that we deny or excuse the offender of wrongdoing or deny or ignore one’s feelings of pain. As Joanna North (1987) explains in her article, “Wrongdoing and Forgiveness”, forgiveness requires a recognition of the wrongdoer’s responsibility for his action. Other misconceptions include the belief that one cannot forgive unless they receive an apology from the offender and that forgiveness automatically leads to reconciliation. An apology and admittance of wrongdoing may be important requirements for reconciliation, but forgiveness is something one can do on their own, without any response from the offender. Thus, the knowledge that one does not need anything from their offender to forgive can offer survivors hope that healing is in their hands and not dependent on whether the abuser apologizes or admits to wrongdoing. These actions are important for reconciliation and can make forgiveness easier; however, they are not necessary for forgiveness. 

Anger is a Natural and Normal Emotional 

As I educate 5th graders on forgiveness, we read books on the topic and discuss how anger is a natural and normal emotion. How we choose to handle and express our anger is what is considered good or bad.  Anger and resentment are thoroughly justified if someone experiences a deep, personal, and unfair hurt, meaning they were wronged, and not just hurt (Smedes, 1996). Forgiveness requires the injured individual to acknowledge and sit with their anger, pain and uncomfortable feelings, as well as explore and release these emotions (Freedman & Chang, 2010). Knowing that one has the strength and courage to face their pain and move forward is very powerful for the individual. As stated in a previous post by Cecil Murphey quoting Gary Roe, “As we allow ourselves to feel the pain, our hearts will begin to heal”. According to Brene’ Brown (2022), once we identify and name our feelings, we can more productively express them. If we try to avoid or repress our feelings of anger and hurt, we will not be able to move beyond them. Unfortunately, society does not often offer healthy messages about how to express and cope with one’s anger. What we often see and hear are messages portraying anger as an inappropriate emotion or alternately someone exploding and acting violent and aggressive due to their anger. Jennifer Kauffman (2022), one of the Boston Marathon bomb survivors, describes how she was raised to believe that anger is unacceptable. She states, “I grew up being told that, anger is a bad emotion and something to avoid. I would get a consequence for getting angry. Kauffman goes on to say that she stuffed her anger until the bomb went off. As discussed with Melissa Monte in the Mind Love podcast, it is important to be a witness to one’s anger. If we can be with it, and let it pass through us, then we can let the other emotions in, such as compassion and empathy.  

The Role of Anger in Forgiveness and Healing

One of the most popular and well-known models of forgiveness is Enright’s 20-unit, four-phase process model of interpersonal forgiveness (Enright & the Human Development Study Group, 1991; Enright, 2001). The first phase of the process model is Uncovering One’s Anger. This phase helps the survivor of abuse begin to take control of their healing and feel hopeful as a result of choosing to face the pain from their trauma. This phase includes recognizing, accepting, and naming one’s anger and other uncomfortable feelings, identifying the cause of one’s anger and hurt, and expressing these emotions in a healthy way. Confronting and feeling one’s uncomfortable emotions is not easy, but is beneficial, as illustrated in the following quote from a student in my course on Interpersonal Forgiveness: 

Enright’s model of forgiveness forces a victim to break their anger down into detail. The first phase of the model includes questions a victim has to ask themselves about why they are angry, have they faced their anger yet, how the anger has affected them, etc. This, for me at least, is probably the most difficult part of the process. This is WHY I haven’t forgiven yet. It is hard and it is painful. I, like most people, have chosen for a long time to suppress my anger until it comes out in bursts or waves. I then tell myself I’m fine and it’s nothing and suppress again until more bursts or waves come up. It has even affected my personality. I sometimes don’t know who I am anymore (personal communication, November 2021). 

Accepting and honoring one’s anger and other feelings is a first step in healing and leads to hope that healing is possible. Sharon Salzburg also discusses how individuals mistakenly believe that anger makes them strong. She states, And anger is what we pick up—they say this in Tibetan Buddhism. Anger is what we pick up when we feel weak because we think it’s going to make us strong (Daily Good, April 8, 2022).

Individuals who have been abused need to be validated, encouraged, and supported in expressing their feelings so they can move beyond them. As Maria Shriver states in her Sunday Paper (February 2022), “I’ve learned in my lifetime that trying to outrun pain is fruitless. It always, always catches up to you. Trying to numb it also doesn’t work”. As anger and other negative emotions are expressed, healing begins to take place. Hope results from the power of knowing that one can deal with their pain, even though it hurts to do so.  Although we work through our anger, some may remain even after one forgives. However, the anger experienced will most likely be short-lived and not as intense after forgiving. As an incest survivor in Freedman & Enright’s (1996) study reported post-intervention, 

And, so now I choose to be angry at times, whereas before it was almost as if the anger was holding me. And now I can choose to get rid of the anger if I want to. Learning to forgive my father has told me that I can control my emotions, that I can hold onto a feeling and make it my own (interview transcript, 1996).

 As Smedes (1996) discusses, hope develops when we own our pain and choose to do something else with it.

 Deciding to Forgive

The second phase in Enright’s 20-unit model of Forgiveness is the Decision Phase. After exploring anger and other feelings related to the abuse, one may realize the way they have been coping with their pain is no longer working and they need to do something different to help them move on (International Forgiveness Institute, How to Forgive).  One may experience a ‘Change of Heart’, a decision to change one’s life in a more positive direction (Enright, 2001). The individual first explores what it means and looks like to forgive as a way to cope and heal before making the decision to forgive their abuser. A college student in my forgiveness class shared the following about making the decision to forgive, 

Another insight that I took away from these readings was the power you give to yourself when you choose to forgive. This concept is counterintuitive since I grew up believing that the power was held by the one who showed the anger. Those who hold resentment are typically only hurting themselves.  Forgiving does not mean you are giving up power. By forgiving, you can emPOWER yourself to move forward from the anger and resentment to be a better version of yourself (Personal Communication, March 2022). 

 One makes the decision to forgive even though the feelings have not yet developed. Those feelings develop during the Work and Deepening Phases. Deciding to forgive and committing to the forgiveness process gives one hope that they are in control of their healing, even if it is difficult. Harrison Miller, an Ohio State football player who recently shared his experience with depression, states, “”I would just say hope is just pretending to believe in something until one day you don’t have to pretend anymore“. Hope is believing that things will get better even if they don’t feel that way now. Hope is making the decision to forgive and committing to the process, even if one does not feel the forgiveness in their heart yet. Knowing that one is strong enough to move forward in their own healing, at their own pace increases feelings of hope for the future and leads to greater emotional and physical well-being. The following quote from another student in my class illustrates how knowing about forgiveness as an option leaves her hopeful and thankful. She states, 

No matter how my own healing process continues to unfold, and no matter what conflicting feelings I might have about my mother attending my graduation in May — I am grateful right now to know that forgiveness is an option, to know forgiveness is a healthy option, and to know I have the information and support I need to keep going on my healing journey. As a human who has suffered, I now have faith in the healing potential of forgiveness… even as I am still working towards giving that gift to my offender. As a counseling student, I am now genuinely awed by the possibility of forgiveness as an option for my clients to consider in their own healing journeys (personal communication, Fall 2020). 

Why Forgive?

As stated in my recent blog post for Discover Forgiveness, “I am often asked “why forgive”, and my response is always the same, “What’s the alternative?” Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury or damage caused by the injury, it allows us to move forward in our lives without the negative effects of all consuming anger, hatred, and resentment. It offers a way to heal, and have hope for the future, while acknowledging what happened was wrong, unfair, and extremely hurtful” (Freedman, 2022). As stated by an incest survivor in my dissertation study 10 years post-intervention, “It (the study) changed my life. “It changed what I thought forgiveness meant. I realized it wasn’t pardoning someone but relinquishing the anger and how it had controlled me” (personal communication, 2004).

Sherri Woodbridge (2020), a former columnist for Parkinson’s News Today, writes about having PD and hope, and her words are a reminder that healing occurs one day at a time and every sign of change is powerful and hopeful. She states:

You sit down upon the wreckage that lies around you. How will you ever find or feel normal again when everything lies ashen and lifeless, both inside and outside of you? If you look closely enough, you can see new life emerging from the ground near where you sit. It seems almost impossible, but it is there among the charred remains. It is only two small leaves, but they are enough to fill you with renewed hope as you begin the process of restoring your spirit and rebuilding your life. And so, you do: You rebuild — with hope — one precious day at a time. 

It is my hope that this blog post and the other posts bring you one step closer to healing. Remember, each day is a new beginning to choose hope and have faith that healing is possible. Know that you are not alone in your journey and that others are walking alongside you. As Maria Shriver states in her Sunday Paper, (April 17, 2022), “Today, believe that you can also rise above anything and everything that life throws your way. Trust me, I know life throws a lot on our plates, but I believe deep in my soul that we must have faith. Otherwise, there is no hope”.

p.s. This blog discusses the first two phases in Enright’s and colleagues’ process model of forgiveness. For more information regarding the complete model, please see Enright’s (2001) book, Forgiveness is a Choice and the references listed below. 

References

Chambers, V. (2022). The Wallpaper That Is Also a ‘Reminder That My Ancestors Had My

Covey, S. (2010). Foreword to Prisoners of Our Thoughts: Viktor Frankl’s Principles for 

Discovering Meaning in Life and Work Second Edition by Alex Pattakos. 

Discover Forgiveness. (2021).  https://discoverforgiveness.org/

Enright, R. D. (2001).  Forgiveness is a choice.  Washington, DC: APA Books

Enright, R. D., and the Human Development Study Group. (1991).  The moral development of forgiveness.  In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development, (Vol. 1, pp. 123-152). Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.

Freedman, S. (2022). Illuminating Forgiveness: Opportunities to Learn and Reflect – Part 1.

https://www.templetonworldcharity.org/blog/illuminating-forgiveness-part-1

Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996).  Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest 

survivors.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.

Freedman, S. & Zarifkar, T. (2015). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and guidelines for forgiveness therapy:  What therapists need to know to help their clients forgive. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 3(1), 45-58. 

International Forgiveness Institute. https://internationalforgiveness.com/

 Jaouad, S. (2022). Hope grows in Brooklyn, April 17.. https://theisolationjournals.substack.com/p/hope-grows-in-brooklyn?s=r

Miller, H. (2022). Former Ohio St. football player delivers powerful message to anyone 

struggling with depression, March 21. https://www.today.com/health/health/former-ohio-st-football-player-delivers-powerful-message-anyone-strugg-rcna20822

Mind Love podcast by Melissa Monte. (March 8, 2022). Surviving the Worst and Creating theBest with Jennifer Kauffman.

https://www.mindlove.com/podcast/surviving-worst-creating-best/

Murhpey, C. (April 9, 2022). Running from the past. And He Restoreth My Soul Project. https://andherestorethmysoulproject.org/2022/04/09/running-from-the-past-2/

Sanford, L. (1991). Strong at the Broken Places: Overcoming the Trauma of Childhood Abuse. Avon Books. 

Shriver, M. (2022). I’ve Been Thinking… Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, February 27, 

https://createsend.com/t/t-721EA0F08B9337752540EF23F30FEDED

Shriver, M. (2022). I’ve Been Thinking…. Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, Rise Above, April 17,

https://createsend.com/t/t-D2485061A15210162540EF23F30FEDED

Simon, T. (April 8, 2022). Daily Good: Giving Your Heart Over to Real Change with Sharon 

Salzberg. https://www.dailygood.org/story/2918/giving-your-heart-over-to-real-change-tami-simon/

Smedes, L. B. (1996), The art of forgiving:  When you need to forgive and don’t know-how.  Nashville, TN: Moorings.

Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris Podcast. (April 8, 2022, Episode 436), Brené Brown Says You’re Doing Feelings Wrong. https://www.tenpercent.com/podcast-episode/brene-brown-436

Woodbridge, S. (2020). Rebuilding your life with hope. Parkinson’s News Today, https://parkinsonsnewstoday.com/2020/10/12/rebuilding-life-hope-wildfires/ October, 12.

Back’. New York Times, March 25, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/25/realestate/harlem-toile-wallpaper.html

Brief Bio for Dr. Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.

Dr. Freedman is a Professor in the Educational Psychology department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright whom Time Magazine called “the forgiveness trailblazer.” Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology on Forgiveness with Incest Survivors.

Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest and sexual abuse, eating disorders, early adolescent development, and at-risk adolescents. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. At the University of Northern Iowa, she has taught a variety of psychology courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness.

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