Forgiveness

by Steve Andreas

A great deal of therapeutic effort goes into struggling with anger and resentment, because this “unfinished business” causes so much difficulty both for the person who has it and for other family members, friends, and associates. All of us can think of clients who spend much of their time preoccupied with old hurts, interfering with their ongoing relationships and preventing them from getting on with their lives. How often have you wished that there were a quick and easy way to help a client give up this preoccupation with the dead past and refocus on present and future living?

In a fascinating and elegant videotape made in 1986 (4), Virginia Satir demonstrated that it is possible to resolve long-lasting resentment quickly. Linda, the 39-year-old client, started with great anger and resentment toward her mother. But at the end of the session she feels only love and compassion, and says, “I think you’re right that I won’t ever be able to look at my mother in the same way again. I feel clearer, and much more loving. I’m in love with everyone in the room.” In a three-year follow-up interview, Linda goes into great detail about how well she got along with her mother after the session. At one point she says, “In fact, I felt like I was her best friend, which was really something I would never ever have said before.”

Some might be tempted to dismiss this as only a single case, that it was a result of Virginia’s consummate skill, impossible for ordinary therapists to emulate, or that Virginia got lucky, and that Linda was an easy client. But although Linda was cooperative, she was a very tough client, as a careful review of the videotape will show. At one point Virginia says to Linda, “One of the things I sense about you is you have a highly-developed ability to stand firm on things.” (How’s that for a reframe of being “stubborn”?)

But another way to think about this session is that Virginia showed us that it is possible to deal with a client’s long-standing resentment in a very short time, and then go on to wonder, “What are the crucial elements in her work that could be teased out, tested, and taught to others?”

About eight years ago, my wife Connirae and I, along with participants in an advanced seminar, modeled out the essential components in the process of reaching forgiveness, and developed a pattern, or experiential recipe, for teaching clients how to do this.

I am grateful to Paul Watzlawick for pointing out the crucial difference between descriptive language and injunctive language. Descriptive language is exemplified by the DSM IV manual. Over 700 pages describe the different kinds of disorders that people have, but not a single page tells what to do to resolve them! In contrast, injunctive language tells you what to do in order to have a particular experience. George Spencer Brown (3) said it well:

“The taste of a cake, although literally indescribable, can be conveyed to a reader in the form of a set of injunctions called a recipe. Music is a similar art form; the composer does not even attempt to describe the set of sounds he has in mind, much less the set of feelings occasioned through them, but writes down a set of commands which, if they are obeyed by the reader, can result in a reproduction, to the reader, of the composer’s original experience.” (p.77)

There are two major processes on the path to forgiveness:

  1. The first process is discovering the specific mental transformations that a particular client needs to make in order to reach the state of forgiveness. This is determined by a gentle exploration of internal images, voices, etc. comparing how the client represents a person who has already been forgiven with how they represent someone they are still angry at. This provides information about the internal structural changes that need to be made for this particular client. Once this is known, the changes can be made in a few minutes.
  2. The second part of the process involves dealing with the objections that a client has to going ahead with reaching forgiveness. These objections often have to do with wanting protection against the expected consequences of forgiveness: “If I forgave him, then something bad would happen” that I’d be tempted to reconcile with him, that he could hurt me again, etc. Objections about consequences need to be met by eliciting or teaching specific protective coping skills. “If you forgave him, how could you still maintain your resolve to stay separate and be protected against future hurt?”
  3. Other objections have to do with the meaning of forgiveness to the client. “If I forgave her, that would mean something about me” that I’m a wimp, that I condone what she did to me, etc. Objections about meaning need to be met by changing the client’s meaning through some kind of reframing. “Can you see that far from being a wimp, your forgiving her would mean that you have accomplished a change that takes great courage, compassion and understanding one that only a few human beings are capable of?”

A short mind-experiment can provide you with a very compact experience of the forgiveness process:

    1. First think of two people in your life:
      • a. someone you like very much, and
      • b. someone you dislike very much.
    2. After identifying these two people, think of them simultaneously.
    3. Continuing to think of these two people in your mind simultaneously, notice how you represent them differently in your mind.
      • First look at your images. One image is probably larger than the other one, farther away than the other, one brighter or more colorful than the other, one more to your left than the other, one higher or lower than the other, etc.
      • Next notice your auditory experience of these two people. Is there a voice with one image and not with the other, or are there differences in the volume or tonality of the two voices, etc?
      • Finally notice differences in your feelings in response to these two images. Besides feeling like for one and dislike for the other, do you feel colder/warmer, more connected/disconnected, etc. with one than the other?
    4. Now comes the really interesting part. Try exchanging the locations of the images of the two people in your mind, and notice how your feelings change in response to this little experiment. For instance, I represented the disliked person small, far away, dim, on my right and silent. The image of the liked person was large, close, bright, on my left, with a clear voice. If I exchange the two, the disliked person is on my left, large and bright, with a clear voice.

Many people simply refuse to do this experiment. Those who are willing to try this, at least for a few moments just to see what it is like, typically feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and want to quickly put the images back where they started.

There are four main points that I’d like to draw from this little experiment:

    1. The location and other process characteristics of internal images are vitally important in determining our responses to them.
    2. Since these process characteristics are completely independent of the content of the image, they can be used with any content, and constitute interventions that are totally content-free.
    3. When you tried the experiment of exchanging the images, you found that it was relatively easy to move them around and change their characteristics.
    4. Before you would be willing to make such a change permanent, we would have to find some way to satisfy your felt objections to making the change you would need to be able to feel completely comfortable and safe with the new arrangement.

These four main points are true of all therapeutic work. In the following, they are illustrated by an edited transcript of an audiotaped demonstration (2) of the forgiveness pattern with a woman who was angry with an ex-boyfriend.

Steve: Ann, you have someone you’re still angry with, and you also have in mind someone you have forgiven. Think of those two experiences; how are they different?

Ann: (briskly) The anger is here on the right; it’s close, larger than life. (softly and more slowly) Forgiveness is pretty far out in front of me, 10 or 12 feet, perhaps three or four inches high. Anger is in really bright, stark, angry colors. The forgiveness one is pastel, softly lit from the back. I feel soft and warm and connected with that person. Forgiveness is real quiet. The angry one has lots of dialogue, with “Yeah, buts” and rationalizations; it’s argumentative.

Steve: OK, now what objection do you have to transforming anger into forgiveness?

Ann: (thoughtfully) It feels like leverage, a way that I can get the change that is needed.

Steve: So, you have some outcome, and by remaining angry you think that will help you get it. What is it about remaining angry that helps you make progress toward the outcome?

Ann: By remaining angry, that creates, literally, distance between us, and he doesn’t want the distance; so as long as I’m angry, then he needs to do something.

Steve: You strike me as a fairly resourceful woman. Is there any way that you could maintain distance without having to be angry, so that you could enjoy it even more?

Ann: The objecting part is saying, “If I let go of this anger, then I’ll let him come back, and he won’t have made the requisite changes. And then we’ll be right back where we were before.

Steve: It sounds like that part doesn’t believe that you, Ann, have the strength of mind or character, or whatever, to maintain a particular outcome and go for it.

Ann: Not without a lot of struggle.

Steve: OK. What makes it difficult?

Ann: It just seems like there’s such a discrepancy in our value systems.

Steve: Given that you recognize this discrepancy in value systems, it sounds like you’ve made a fairly congruent decision that distance is the best thing, at least for now. And you said something about leverage that this person wants to be back with you, and that as long as you can say “not now” you have a way to create some motivation for him to maybe make changes.

Ann: Right.

Steve: Now given that’s a decision you’ve made, what do you need the anger for? It seems to me it would be even easier to do all that without anger. It would give you even more of a feeling of power and upholding your own values.

Ann: It appears easier with anger.

Steve: What makes it appear easier? Is it just that it’s familiar?

Ann: (thoughtfully) There is an element of familiarity in there.

Steve: Try traveling into the future. Imagine that over the next week, you have no anger, and that you’re very clear, and your mind is set on this goal, and you could be even more comfortable in just simply saying “No,” to any possible encroachment, or whatever. Do you have any objections to that? (No.) Does any part have any objection? (No.) OK, are there any other objections? (No.)

It sounds like you still have some connection with this person, that there are some valuable parts of this person that you also respect and have warm feelings toward as well. A lot of people think that if you feel warmly toward someone, that means you can’t feel angry at them, or you can’t deny them something. To me, it’s even more respectful of them as a whole person if you can say, “Look, this part of you fits for me beautifully; that part over here doesn’t fit for me and I don’t want it.” And just be really clear about that. It’s not that you’re bad or that I’m good. It’s just, “This fits for me and that doesn’t.”

It can be even easier to say what doesn’t fit if you acknowledge the parts that do fit, so that you’re not rejecting him as a whole. That has got to be hard for him; he’s going to be defensive, and then you’re going to have to be defensive, and so on. But if you can say, “Gosh, the way you do this is wonderful, and this over here doesn’t fit for me, and I refuse to do it.” Does that make sense to you? (Yes.)

OK, let’s go ahead and change your anger to forgiveness. As we do this, I want you to be very sensitive to any other objections that might come up. Take this representation of him on your right, and move it down here and farther away, and see what other changes occur spontaneously. Find out what it’s like to represent this person in pastel hues, softly lit from the back, just like that other person you have already forgiven.

Ann: (softly, thoughtfully) I feel a loss of power; the powerlessness of not being able to say “No.”

Steve: And what is it that prevents you from saying “No” to future harm?

Ann: (happily) I just fixed it. I brought him closer, so he’s life-size, so then we’re equal. When he was smaller than life-size, then I felt pity and I couldn’t say “No.”

Steve: And now, what’s your feeling toward him? Do you have that warmth, and sense of connection?

Ann: Yeah, and I can have a conversation with him as equals, rather than having to play topdog or underdog.

Steve: Great. Now close your eyes for a minute, and jump into next week or whenever you might have an interaction with him and see how that goes. . . . (Ann is smiling and relaxed.) That looks pretty good from here!

Ann: Yes. (quietly) I feel softness, and tenderness, and understanding, and a real connection that wasn’t there before. When you used the word “fit” earlier, that was absolutely perfect for me, because the objection part was being judgemental, making him wrong, and those things he did be bad, whereas just to see it as not a fit makes a big difference.

In a follow-up interview ten weeks later, Ann said, “At the time of our session, he was in Vermont, and as far as I was concerned, he could stay there. Now he’s back here and we’re setting a wedding date! How’s that for results! There are two other things that I’m specifically aware of. One is that there’s no bitterness on my part, and there’s no reservation. I find it easy to have the same level of intimacy and trust as I did before. . . . And I’ve also used the forgiveness process in my own practice with couples, and it works.”

This transcript presents a typical example of guiding a client through the forgiveness process. However, it is an example of someone who already believed that forgiveness might be useful. With someone who has no interest in forgiving, some preparatory work would be needed to deal with objections and motivate the client to at least consider forgiveness. Some common objections, and brief examples of dealing with them follow:

  1. “The other person doesn’t deserve forgiveness.” Perhaps not. But forgiveness is not for him, it’s for you, so that you can live in your body with more comfort and congruence. Forgiveness is so that you don’t have to continue to be burdened by angry feelings, occupied with obsessive thoughts about revenge, etc.
  2. “Anger makes me feel powerful; I don’t want to give it up.” Yes, there is a certain feeling of power in feeling angry, in being courageous and willing to stand up for yourself and your values. But usually there is also a sense of lack of choice in having to be angry and having to be preoccupied with thoughts of that person who harmed you. When someone says, “He made me angry,” what they are really saying is, “He can control my feelings; I have no choice but to get angry.” I’d like to offer you more choices, so that you can be the one in control of your feelings and behavior, and really stand up for yourself.
  3. “I need to get even first.” What would getting even do for you? Often people say that they feel personally diminished by the harm that was done to them, and that getting even would help them feel powerful and good about themselves again. I want you to feel powerful and good about yourself, and I’d like to offer you other ways of doing this. For instance, I’d like you to learn how to cope effectively with possible repetitions of this kind of behavior, so that you feel safe and strong in knowing what you can do to prevent a recurrence.
  4. “I refuse to forgive and forget.” I agree with you. I don’t want you to forgive and forget. If you forgot, then you’d be completely vulnerable to a repetition of the harm that was done to you. I want you to forgive and remember. I want you to remember so that you are protected against possible recurrences, and to remember in a way that provides you with feelings of strength, choice, and resourcefulness, instead of being provoked into choiceless anger.
  5. “If I forgave him, then he’d think what he did didn’t matter and he could feel comfortable doing it again.” So you want him to know how terrible it was for you, and so that he won’t do it again. I think that it is important for you to communicate that to him. I don’t know about you, but I find that when I’m angry I don’t communicate very well. Often the other person gets defensive and doesn’t listen, and maybe “blows it off,” thinking “Oh, he’s just upset; it doesn’t mean anything.” I’d like to help you find ways to really get through to him, and my guess is that will be much easier if you’re not angry and upset.

The common theme in all these examples is to completely respect and align with the positive outcome that underlies the client’s objection, and find a way that the client can see that reaching forgiveness would actually support that outcome. With a few minor modifications, this same process can be used for forgiving yourself for harm done to others. There are two additional understandings that are usually very important in self-forgiveness: 1) That everyone always does the best they can in a given situation, and 2) The healing value of atonement.

  1. The presupposition that everyone always does the best they can is basic to all our work, and is best illustrated by a brief experiment. Think of a time when you harmed someone else, and you now regret it. Looking back on that situation, think about your motives, your knowledge, your perceptions, capabilities and limitations at that time. Considering all this, at that time could you have done anything different?

  2. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, and subsequent learnings, etc. you may be able to do something different next time, but at that time you did the best you could. Understanding this can also be a useful part of being able to forgive others, but it is an absolutely essential part of forgiving yourself.
  3. One of the results of Virginia Satir’s “Family Reconstruction” process (in which the client directs and observes a vivid reenactment of the parents’ childhoods) was to be able to see the parents’ harmful behavior as the best that they could do in the context of the limitations and difficulties of their own upbringing.
  4. Atonement can also be spelled “at one ment,” becoming “at one” with, rejoining with what has been alienated. Anything that can be done to compensate for the harm that was done helps the healing, because it transforms regret into positive action. This can range from a simple heart-felt apology to taking steps to make up for the harm that was done. If the actual person who was harmed is dead, or otherwise unavailable, one can do good to others in the same kind of situation.

We have been teaching the forgiveness pattern for about eight years now, and I’m happy to report that it has been put to the supreme test: it has been successfully used even by someone with a complete misunderstanding of the principles involved! Like any good recipe, if the steps are followed carefully, the results are good, whether or not the cook has an understanding of what function the different components serve.

The healing power of forgiveness is a very ancient teaching, but typically this teaching has been to point to a goal, without much information about what to do to get there. Now that we know how to do it, this ancient teaching can be manifest in the world.

REFERENCES

  1. Andreas, S. (1991) Virginia Satir: The Patterns of Her Magic. Palo Alto, CA. Science and Behavior Books.
  2. Andreas, S. (1992) “The Forgiveness Pattern” (audiotape). NLP Comprehensive.
  3. Brown, G.S. (1973) Laws of Form. New York, Bantam Books. (out of print)
  4. Satir, V. (1989) “Forgiving Parents” (videotape). NLP Comprehensive.

Steve Andreas, with his wife Connirae, has been learning, teaching and developing NLP for nearly twenty years. They are authors or editors of a number of NLP books and articles. Address: NLP Comprehensive, 5695 Yukon St., Arvada CO 80002.

(St. Peter) “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?”
Jesus saith unto him, “I say not unto thee until seven times: but until seventy times seven.”
Gospel of St. Matthew, 21.

“If we could read the secret history of those we would like to punish, we would find in each life enough grief and suffering to make us stop wishing anything more on them.”

Source Unknown

Originally Published in Anchor Point Magazine, May, 1999; reprinted with permission