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Role of Forgiveness in Family Relationships
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looked at the relationship between shame and depression, how shame feeds depression,
which in turn breeds shame. As you know, many men who are depressed come from
homes in which depression was fostered and subsequently passed down through generations.
Whether men have been physically or emotionally abused, often they cannot truly
move on to heal themselves without first forgiving their abusers or negative role
In this section, we will discuss forgiveness, in terms of both the reasoning behind it and the process that leads to healing. We'll look specifically at forgiving abusive parents, but as you listen, think about ways to apply the principles of
forgiveness to the unique situations that your own client faces.
As you know, one way to reconnect broken interpersonal bonds is to forgive, which
many times strengthens those bonds. John Giles, a contributor to the book Men
Healing Shame, describes how he grappled with whether to forgive his abusive parents. His mother tied him to a chair and bound the ropes to his legs so tightly that
they went numb; she undressed in front of him or forced him to watch her use the
restroom and bathe; she did not allow him privacy in using the bathroom; she got
drunk during his birthday party, and so on.
His father would drink as well. Giles
recounts many incidents of abuse as a child, incidents that stayed with him for
years and scarred his emotions. For much of his life, Giles was silent. The age-old
pattern was being perpetuated: injustice was surrounded by silence.
men find it very difficult to revisit their past, as you know. Just like in the
exercise of "Reparenting" we discussed earlier, facing the neglect or
pain they experienced as children is an unpleasant, often terrifying exercise. But as you know, there are dangers involved in remaining a victim. These dangers
become reality when depressed fathers abuse their children and their spouses and
hurt themselves in the process. After an ashamed man confronts his past and the
possible wrongs that his parents committed against him, he must look at his options.
Choices Men Have
of a client you've have or are treating, who was abused, in some way, by his parents.
The abuse does not have to be physical, and it does not even have to be severe.
Was your client reluctant to forgive? Most likely, he was. As you are aware that
is because abuse is a seemingly "unforgivable" atrocity. In cases like
these, I've found it helpful to present different options to my clients. Basically,
they have three choices.
First, they can seek revenge against their victimizer.
Second, they can hold a grudge against their victimizer and remain silent.
they can forgive. I ask my client what he could receive from getting revenge.
Sometimes, if his parents are dead, revenge is simply not possible. But if it
is possible, it only takes a few minutes of discussion for my client to realize
that hurting them in some way would solve nothing. It would also undoubtedly hurt
him as much as or more as the perpetrators.
Next, then, we look at the prospects
of holding a grudge. Holding a grudge would only make the client more depressed,
intensifying his anger until he lashed out. It seems that seeking revenge and
holding grudges serve to pronounce the differences between the victimizer and
the victim. In this way, then, I point out the client would always be the victim.
weighing the other options, it becomes clear that forgiveness is the most reasonable
choice in healing abuse. Once a depressed client makes the choice to forgive,
it's important for him to remember that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting.
As you know, it's impossible to forget the abuse, and suppressing the memories
only perpetuates denial of shame and depression.
Case Study: Giles
case, he finally forgave his mother in a private ritual at her gravesite. He enacted
a ceremony of forgiveness after years of recovering from the damaging abuse he
suffered because of her. He began by reading passages from her letters and journal
entries, inserting his own comments and feelings as he wished. He made sarcastic
remarks, shouted at her, and whimpered. In short, he did all the things he had
wanted to do but was too afraid to do as a child, when she was alive and abusing
him. With each sentence and document, he said he exposed his mother for the fraud
As he read these things, he took notes on his feelings. At the end, then,
he read aloud a list he had compiled of particular wrongs she had committed. As
he read each item on the list, he added the phrase, "I forgive you" to each sentence. "For leaving me in the chair, tied up, for hours at a time,
time after time
I forgive you," he said to the grave. "For ruining
the only birthday party I ever had by getting drunk
I forgive you."
He voiced many more indictments and many more expressions of forgiveness. Then,
he placed the list on the grave and burned it. When he left, he said, he felt
a burden lifted; he felt that he left behind much more than just the ashes of
the paper. He left behind a lot of the shame.
Five Steps to Forgiving Abusive Parents
As you know,
Giles' experience is a very specific example of how to forgive. Each person has
to forgive in a way that suits him. However, there are a few steps that can help guide a depressed client seeking to do the unthinkable, seeking to forgive his abusive parents. As I read these five steps, see if any would be appropriate for
you abused client.
♦ 1. Educating himself
Is it appropriate for your client to learn more about the abuse he suffered? As
you know, part of this learning involves discovering that the abuse was not his
fault. At the same time, do you agree that he needs to realize that he alone is
responsible for his current actions?
♦ 2. Finding his anger
What can you do in your next session to assist him in releasing his anger that
doesn't hurt others, like shouting when he's alone and hitting a pillow.
♦ 3. Finding his sorrow
As you are well aware, sorrow is an
emotion that many men learn, through cultural conditioning, to remove from their
emotional vocabulary. In you next session, would it be an appropriate goal to
facilitate your client in experiencing the sadness and grief resulting from a
lost or marred childhood?
♦ 4. Designing his own process of forgiveness
For Giles, his process was to perform a private forgiveness ceremony at his mother's
grave. As you know, forgiving could mean discussing the abuse with a sibling or
someone else who witnessed or experienced the abuse. If your client has passed
through the phases of educating himself, finding his anger, finding his sorrow
and is in the designing his own process of forgiveness stage, would it be appropriate
in you next session to help your client figure out what's the best way for him
♦ 5. Moving on
Perhaps the old maxim
is true: "The best revenge is living well!" He cannot, of course, change
the past, but he can improve his relationships now. He can break the cycle of
abuse. What is your client doing to break this cycle? How can you reinforce this
in your next session?
Forgiveness can be a key in healing masculine depression. Is this a key you might be overlooking? As I reread through the 5
steps, think of your depressed client. Can you pinpoint the stage or stages he
has or is going through?
1. Educating himself;
2. Finding his anger;
3. Finding his sorrow;
4. Designing his own process of forgiveness;
5. Moving on.
facilitate you in creating a treatment goal for you next session?
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Cole, B. P., & Davidson, M. M. (2019). Exploring men’s perceptions about male depression. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 20(4), 459–466.
Kong, J., & Martire, L. M. (2019). Parental childhood maltreatment and the later-life relationship with parents. Psychology and Aging, 34(7), 900–911.
Maio, G. R., Thomas, G., Fincham, F. D., & Carnelley, K. B. (2008). Unraveling the role of forgiveness in family relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 307–319.
Smallen, D. (2019). Practicing forgiveness: A framework for a routine forgiveness practice. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 6(4), 219–228.
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