Nathaniel Smith shares how forgiveness is a vital component for abusive men trying to change.
Is forgiveness important for men who have hurt others? Many people in our society might think, “Why should he be forgiven when he has hurt so many people?” or “He is a bad person because he has abused others.” At my private practice in Dallas, TX, I have helped hundreds of men, through counseling, to stop abusing others. Through this work, I have discovered that men who do not learn how to practice forgiveness stay trapped in a “chronic cycle of shame and guilt.” These feelings can hinder the process, instead of help it. Therefore, in my professional opinion, forgiveness is a vital component for those men trying to change. By identifying what shame and guilt are, the forgiveness process can begin.
The majority of men I have counseled through the years, who abuse others, develop a shame belief system about who they are. This belief system causes these men to define the totality of who they are as a bad, shameful person. For example, a man that emotionally abuses his partner will start to define himself as a bad person. I’ve seen many men set this formally in their brains – “bad behavior equates to being a bad person.” I have found that many men who tie shame to their identity turn to self-protective tactics like denial, minimization, blame, and avoidance. I want to clarify here, that I do not think it is acceptable for men to abuse anyone. However, I do think men can change and stop unhealthy cycles of abuse, if they understand clearly what keeps them trapped. Feeling remorse when you do something wrong is natural and useful; in fact, it can be a catalyst for the motivation to change. A certain amount of shame can have a positive impact on a person’s moral process, but a “chronic cycle of shaming” thoughts and beliefs keep men from changing because they do not believe they deserve to change and grow.
Most men I have worked with feel guilty because of their negative behaviors that hurt others. Guilt is another normal emotion that we all feel when we behave badly. However, it is important for men working toward change not to be trapped in a “chronic cycle of guilt” because it shuts down the growth process. When men are in this “chronic cycle of guilt” over negative behavior, it creates anger and resentment, both towards themselves and towards others. In addition, it can lead to the individual feeling justified by their negative and abusive actions.
I believe that forgiveness is a key factor in helping to stop the cycle of abusing others. I have found that when men do not learn the forgiveness process, recidivism is highly likely. In this article, I will cover what I have found to help a man ultimately gain full forgiveness for pain that he has inflicted on others.
The Sides of Forgiveness
First, it is important to understand the truth about forgiveness. Forgiveness has two sides – giving and receiving. On the giving side, you are offering forgiveness to someone else. On the receiving side, you are asking for forgiveness from another person. When offering forgiveness, keep the concepts of kindness and mercy in your thoughts. Remember that no one is perfect and work toward understanding the other person more deeply. You might ask, “How do I receive forgiveness?” It only happens when you apologize and are accountable for your actions. You might also be wondering, “How do I forgive myself for bad behavior?” This process is accomplished through your “working it off” plan.
The Practice of Forgiveness
1. Be Accountable and Apologize Genuinely
The first step to gain full forgiveness is to say the actual words, “I’m sorry,” or “I apologize.” In order for the apology to be genuine, you have to be specific about your offense. For example, “I am sorry I have called you names. I know this is disrespectful and an unacceptable behavior.” The second step is to avoid defensiveness by staying away from “I’m sorry, but . . .” That one word simply nullifies the apology. Don’t “apologize to appease.” Empty, repeated apologies come across as dismissive and unsympathetic.
2. Commit To Making Changes
After apologizing, explain what you will do to avoid repeating the mistake. However, do not promise more than you can deliver. It is better to commit to one small step, rather than to overextend yourself and feel like a failure. Hold yourself accountable for following through on your commitments, and avoid procrastinating or altering the commitment.
3. Forgive Yourself
If your conscience still troubles you and you cannot seem to forgive yourself; then you take it a step further by “working off” your guilt. You can convey your regret by doing virtuous things for the person you hurt; be more available, offer to help, and so on. If you have already been forgiven and there is nothing left to repair, then transfer your “working it off” plan to someone on the sidelines, or even a total stranger.
4. Recognize Your Growth
Take inventory of what you have learned – welcome the lessons and apply them in all aspects of your life. Value yourself and the progress you have made up to this point. Offer empathy to yourself – appreciate both your strengths and your limitations. Accept your own humanness—make room for imperfection and focus on continued growth.
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