Mind Matters - February 2007
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

The Work of Forgiveness
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- February 2007

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I happened on your 2003 article, Finding Forgiveness, that is posted on your Web site while searching for more help about forgiveness. I think I understand the process of forgiveness but, somehow, I am not getting to my goal. I still have nightmares about the physical abuse I received from both my parents who are now in their 70s. We don't talk. My two sisters and one brother, who are much older, don't understand what I went through. I distrust people and live a kind of lonely life. Signed: Frustrated With Forgiveness.

    Dear Frustrated:

      Thank you for writing! I definitely understand how frustrating the work of forgiveness can be, especially when you have had experiences that were so frightening that they affected many aspects of your life and have left you more-or-less constantly fearful.

      Before I start describing more about the process of forgiveness, I should comment on your experience of nightmares and your distrust of people. You may be dealing with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterized by symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, emotional detachment (numbing of feelings, dissociation), sleep problems, avoidance, irritability, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle responses, and, often, clinical depression and anxiety. If you feel that the diagnosis of PTSD might fit you, I recommend seeking treatment. It is very difficult to think yourself out of PTSD and to work on forgiveness in the midst of PTSD or clinical depression.

      Although there has been much research that demonstrates positive health outcomes for people, the road to forgiveness is not always clear. There are at least three recognized "programs" that teach the forgiveness process: (1) Fred Luskin's "Forgive for Good"; (2) Colin Tipping's "Radical Forgiveness"; and, (3) Robert Enright's "Forgiveness is a Choice." Each program has a slightly different approach to forgiveness.

      The Fred Luskin and Robert Enright programs generally specify eight or more steps, which include: (1) Recognize the injury (write a list of hurts), (2) Identify emotions (list feelings next to injuries), (3) Express hurt and anger (this may require talking to friends or counselors), (4) Decide to forgive (choose to let go of old feelings and move on), (5) Work on forgiveness (cancel the debt, let go of need for revenge, use stress management techniques to soothe yourself, and generally give up trying to change other people -- people can be accidents waiting to happen and they are mostly on "autopilot"), (6) Commit to forgive (can involve behavior like taking your list of injuries and burying them or making a "Certificate of Forgiveness"), (7) Remind yourself you have forgiven, and, (8) Recognize your own need for forgiveness and how you would like people to deal with the downside of your behaviors.

      One of the most important things to keep in mind about forgiveness is that it is not necessarily about reconciliation. It can be about reconciliation if you desire that, but reconciliation is a two-person (or more) process and we can only control what we do, and not what others will do. Forgiveness is usually a huge gift to ourselves and is not meant to be a gift to someone who has hurt us.

      The Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, wrote extensively about the "defiant power of the human spirit" which is our capacity to rise above situations, illnesses, mistakes, and hurts. The key difference between pain and suffering is that although pain is a given, our experience of suffering or of not suffering is how we choose to react to the pain. Regardless of the severity of hurts in our life, we have a choice in how to relate to them. Conditions cannot completely condition us. Everything can be taken from us, but the last of human freedoms, to choose one's attitude, is next to impossible to take away.

      The forgiveness process may present us with one of the biggest challenges to defy conditions and to choose our attitude. I invite you to read more about forgiveness at www.AllAboutForgiveness.org. I hope that helps. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement

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