Mind Matters -- July 2003
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Finding Forgiveness

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      One of the most difficult things for me to deal with is my parents' new-found desire to make amends for past wrongs. They both drank too much alcohol and were very "hard" people. Somehow, I survived their craziness. My brother was not so fortunate. He is still struggling with depression to this day. My parents "discovered" Alcoholics Anonymous a few years ago and have been trying to make things right with people. I am angry and upset about their "last-minute" attempts at reconciliation. They weren't there for me when I was young, why should I be there for them now? It seems so phony, older people getting fearful about dying and suddenly trying to fix things. How do I handle this? -- Signed: Not Ready for Reconciliation in Redmond

    Dear Not Ready:

      Thank you for writing! After many years of dealing with parents who have hurt us, it is not easy to begin to take down the important walls we built to protect us from their insults and bad behavior.

      The fact that your parents may be following the AA 12-Step process in which Step 9 requires making direct amends to people they have harmed, except when to do so would injure someone, probably means they are not trying to "push" their apologies on you. If they are, then they need to learn more about Step 9.

      With respect to the fact that as we get closer to death we often try to fix things with folks we have hurt, this is only natural. You will experience this yourself as you age. Impending death affects all of us, and it often allows the meaner, more self-centered folks among us to tap into their better selves. They may try to do the right thing, maybe for the first time in their lives. It can be a change that is difficult to believe in.

      Here is the most important thing to consider about the process of dealing with people who have hurt us in the past, but who are not hurting us now: forgiveness can be very good for us. In the last 20 years, scientists have discovered how much forgiveness can lead to emotional and physical healing and wholeness. In your situation, it may allow you to significantly decrease the emotional background noise in your life. Resentment eats up a lot of energy, even when it is well locked-up.

      It is unfortunate that the word "forgiveness" carries a large amount of stigma due to its historical association with religion because the process of interpersonal forgiveness is very different than religion's "divine forgiveness." Although both types of forgiveness carry profound psychological consequences, interpersonal forgiveness stands apart in that its goodness does not arise from the fulfillment of a religious obligation. For that reason, I invite you to forgive the word forgiveness and let yourself consider its meaning without its religious overtones.

      What is interpersonal forgiveness and why is it so powerful? Lewis Smedes, one of the early thinkers about forgiveness, defines three steps to the process of interpersonal forgiveness: (1) surrendering the right to get even with the person who wronged us, (2) reinterpreting the person who wronged us in a larger format (letting go of the over-simplified picture we have created of them), and (3) allowing the emergence of a desire for the welfare of the person who wronged us. In forgiving, the forgiver gets to benefit from reducing their own negative affect (resentment), negative cognition (harsh judgments), and negative behavior (revenge-seeking).

      Although forgiveness can be seen as an unconditional gift given to someone who may not deserve it, it is also a huge gift to our own mental wellness. As we let go and forgive a person who has hurt us, we experience relief and healing. Since it is impossible to describe all the important details of the forgiveness process in a short article, I invite you to visit some of the links further down this page. I hope this helps. Best wishes to you as you deal with this new experience with your parents. -- 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. Read our Disclaimer.

        Links to Information and Resources about Forgiveness.

        Thank You for Stopping By!

      Have a great day!

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