Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Dissertation on shame. Chapter 21.1 Forgiveness

21.1 Forgiveness

Forgiveness is spoken of by only five of the participants in this study and is mentioned 18 times (appendix 19) mostly in connection with forgiving ones abuser (father) and in forgiving oneself. I include this theme here, even though it is not mentioned often, because of the possible healing potential which lies in the reduction of guilt. Margaret explains that she has forgiven her father who was one of the three men who abused her. Her father has never asked her to forgive him; she says that forgiving him was her way of getting him out of her system.

Margaret:        I’ve forgiven my father. He’s one of the three men who sexually abused me. He’s alive today, but the others are dead. And when (.) when I remembered how he had abused me, I stopped having any contact with him. I didn’t see him for eight years. He lives up north…I had to take the time I needed. First I wrote to him ((waves her hand in the air)) and confronted him with what he had done. He didn’t reply ((looks down)). He couldn’t ask for forgiveness for something he hadn’t done. He has never talked with me (.) about the abuse, about what he did. But I was determined that I was going to get over it (.) that’s ok, you can say whatever you like, you did what you did, but I’m going to be free. Forgiving is my way of getting rid of him. If I hadn’t forgiven him, I would have had to drag him along with me. All the hate and rage and (  ) and I’m going to be free…Now I see him as just a man, a father, not as a criminal. So now I have a better relationship to my father…I’ve come out of the tunnel. Put the past behind me ((pushes something away with her hand in the air)) it doesn’t bother me anymore. What he did is his problem, but I’m finished with it…He’s a perpetrator, but I relate to him as just a man…I accept him as he is he is. There’s a difference between my perpetrator-father and who he is otherwise. (.) If you understand what I mean? (.)

Forgiveness for Margaret seems to be to have to do with freeing herself from her abuser, getting rid of him, so she could continue her life. In my opinion, Margaret seems also to be speaking of reconciliation. She has accepted what has happened as something belonging to the past, she has reflected upon what has happened and placed the responsibility on her abuser, and accepted him for what he is. She seems to have come to an understanding with herself to let go of hate and rage, because these emotions are experienced as holding her back. How can Margaret forgive her abusive father? First of all it seems that she differs between her perpetrator-father and her father as a man. She then conceptualizes a picture of her father in her mind, and taken a confrontation with him there. In her mind she can relate to him as a man, not just as a perpetrator. In her mind, she can see this man as guilty and forgive him. It might be that she still feels the perpetrator-father as still guilty and not forgivable, but her father as a man is she someone she in her mind now is able to relate to and forgive. Leith and Baumeister (1998) argue that in guilt, the negative affect and remorse remain linked to the particular action; in simple terms, one can regard someone as a good person who has done a bad thing.

Linda has a different perspective to forgiving her father and argues that forgiving him would mean exonerating him of his guilt, and she believes that her father is guilty. She would accept his apologies, but never forgive them.

Linda:                         I’d accept their apologies, but I’d never forgive them…If I forgave them, then I would relieve my father of his guilt. My father is guilty…I have never talked with him about the abuse or with anyone else in the family. But my brother has apologized. When I came home from the hospital, he gave me a bunch of flowers with a card he had written, asking for forgiveness. But my father never did. He died when I was 15…My brother also abused me. The abuse was (.) pretty much the same. Umm only that my father (.) my brother had sex with both me and my friend. She was four years younger than me. She was six years old when it started and I was ten. With my brother that is. It went on for quite a few years. It was sexual intercourse and things. My father had sex with me at that time also. He sexually abused me together with his friends…it didn’t stop until I was 15, when he died. And with my brother I was, umm…I’m not sure…It stopped because I told him that if he didn’t stop I’d tell our mother…Then I started becoming psychotic. All the abuse from my father haunted me. He came alive again. I would see him standing in front of me. I  felt like he was chasing me clear up until a few years ago ((laughs))…I was a psychiatric patient for three years…You can’t handle it mentally (  ). Like my father. He should have made me feel secure, but then he just kept on abusing me.

In my onion, victims should not be expected to forgive their perpetrators because of the reasons given by Linda her. Forgiveness might then be conceived as taken guilt from the perpetrator. If forgiveness is given nevertheless, it should be given on the grounds Margaret gives above, as a statement which makes it possible to let go of hate and rage in order to live ones life forward and not in the past. Linda says that her father never felt guilt or shame because he abused her throughout her childhood. Only Linda knows that he is guilty. If someone feels guilt about having hurt another person, it would seem odd if they did not feel some shame as well, because their actions would have threatened their perception of the kind of person they were, and their perception of how others would judge them.

According to Tangney, Fee, Reinsmith, Boone and Lee (1999), an individual’s ability to forgive depends on contextual variables related to the specific transgression and to a more enduring general propensity to forgive. The role of shame and guilt in the process of forgiving has, according to Konstam, Chernoff and Deveney (2001), remained relatively unexplored. To their knowledge, only Tangney et al. (1999) have addressed the relationship between forgiving shame and guilt and the distinction between the two constructs of shame and guilt. When feeling shame, an individual focuses on the entire self. A failure in behavior is experienced as reflecting an enduring deficiency within the self. The person who feels shame feels worthless and powerless. In contrast, when an individual feels guilty, the main focus is on the faulty behavior. According to Leith and Baumeister (1998) and Tangney (1994), guilt is associated with an increased understanding of perspective taking, an ability that strengthens and maintains close relationships and has adaptive functions. Tangney et al. (1999) argue that shame-prone individuals were relatively unforgiving of both themselves and others. Shame seems to provoke irrational anger as well as the externalization of blame, a defence used to guard against feelings of shame (Tangney 1995; Tangney et al. 1999; Tangney et al. 1996).

Knut believes that self-forgiveness was important for his healing process; it gave him the option of not having to feel hate any more.

Knut:                          My healing process had to do with forgiving myself. I gave myself the opportunity (.) of umm not having to feel guilt or hate towards my transgressor.

It seems that for some victims of sexual abuse, guilt and shame are interwoven, and being able to heal ones shame may involve first healing ones guilt. If a person is convinced of being guilty for some part of the abuse, it may be useless just to say to that person that the guilt is irrational and believe that the feeling of guilt will therefore disappear. For some it will be more helpful to do as Knut and forgive oneself. This gave him the opportunity to let go of the feelings of guilt and hatred he had towards his perpetrator, and as with Margaret above, makes it possible to live a better life through a healing process. Fisher and Exline (2006) have carried out a study of self-forgiveness in a sample of 138 undergraduate students. Their results suggest that if people are to grow from the process of self-forgiveness, they must honestly face and grapple with their misdeeds. The acceptance of responsibility, particularly if coupled with a sense that self-forgiveness requires effort, predicts pro-social responses. Forgiveness is both interpersonal (forgiving others) and intra-psychic (forgiving oneself). Enright and Zell (1989) argue that it takes time and involves choice. Forgiving is not to be equated with forgetting, pardoning, condoning, excusing, or denying the offence. Enright and the Human Development Study Group (1991) define forgiveness as a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgement, and indifferent behavior. Forgiveness also includes fostering undeserved compassion, generosity, and perhaps even love for the perpetrator. Areas of disagreement include the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation (Freedmann 1998), whether forgiveness is a necessary component of personal growth (Hargrave and Sells 1997), and whether one must feel love and compassion toward the offender in order to forgive (Denton and Martin 1998).

In this section, I have focused on forgiveness even though the topic was not discussed often. The roles that shame and guilt play in the process of forgiving seem to have remained relatively unexplored. Margaret and Knut say above that forgiveness played a role in the healing process, but Linda believes that forgiving her abuser would mean exonerating him of his guilt. This is not something she can do or even wants to do. I will now turn to the subject of mothers and investigate what the participants say about the relation between mothers and shame.

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