Chapter Two

Mastering the Art of Forgiveness

How our anger becomes a burden

By Dr. Robert Leichtman

The practice of forgiveness is often difficult because some of us may be reluctant to give up particular grievances. For this reason, we must be strongly motivated to persist in understanding our issues and our efforts to forgive.

Our determination to overcome our resentments is strengthened as we recognize how much our anger significantly undermines our humanity. Anger is not the friend and aid that many claim it to be. Instead, it is essentially a burden. Our clutter of resentment can keep us in a dysfunctional mood. Blaming others can blind us to our opportunities for peace and harmony. The time we spend nursing our emotional wounds reduces our possibilities for engaging in more constructive projects. Even the grievances that we believe are well-justified can undermine our humanity and alienate us from the higher life. Eventually, we will realize that the burden of sustaining these grievances interferes with the growth of our humanity and spirit.

Most of our anger may be unrecognized

Our anger can be a far more significant problem than we initially believe it to be. Most of our hostility manifests in moderate ways we fail to acknowledge as anger based. The reason for this is that our concept of anger often involves an image of people who are agitated, aggressive, and defiant. But more often, anger manifests in outwardly quiet and calm behavior. Inwardly, however, the same people usually tend to be distrustful, cynical, and reluctant to cooperate with others.

Dark emotions are often cleverly normalized and become socially acceptable in their new disguises. Depressed people, for instance, are rarely sad because they are busy being pessimistic or apathetic. Anxious people may not appear nervous but are often filled with doubt and hesitant to act. Likewise, angry people rarely shout their objections. Instead, angry people are busy being fussy and critical about views that differ from their own.

We need to recognize the bulk of our anger is bound up in these less conspicuous forms of behavior. These minor manifestations of our anger are important because these are the sites where we can safely work out the reforms essential to forgiveness. In other words, the real battleground where we can defeat our excessive anger lies in modifying traits such as our judgmentalism, impatience, and irritability.

We need to understand that our anger becomes destructive through our capacity to be distrustful, withdrawn, excessively critical, and alienated. If we work to reduce these tendencies, we are also reducing how anger can present itself in our lives.

A direct assault on our grievances is likely to fail

Trying to nullify our chronic grievances will probably provoke more anger than it will reduce its intensity. Our hostile parts are already accomplished at resisting their elimination. We can expect an intense backlash if we attempt to shut them down with tepid offers of forgiveness.

Instead, we can make progress by working in the less contaminated areas of our belief system, such as our defensiveness, rigidity, and tendency to fix the blame instead of the problem. These are the habits that sustain our significant grievances. Anything we can do to weaken their force will begin the work of forgiveness safely and effectively.

The early work performed on our major grievances is usually in the mental, not emotional, areas. This means we first seek to explore new understanding and perspectives about the issues that have generated so much resentment in us. These insights can provide a safe foundation for moderating negative judgments and beliefs. For instance, we might recognize our unwillingness to accept responsibility or failure to defend ourselves was a significant factor in the genesis of much of our distress.

Anger does not make us strong—just a bully

Anger makes us intimidating and rude. This approach may bully some people into submission, but this is a false victory that will provoke disgust and resistance in others. If we want people to respect and cooperate with us, we must stop attacking them and their beliefs and habits.

We can usually assert our rights and our authority without making enemies of everyone. We can try being creative with more skillful persuasion methods and appealing to people’s sensibilities. When we concentrate on shared problems, needs, and rewards, we can usually find common ground with those who differ. This focus is where we can agree on plans and methods that promote agreement and cooperation despite our other differences.

Expressing our anger strengthens our ability to be angry

There is a bizarre belief that expressing our anger is an effective way to relieve it. Followers of this idea need to beware that anything we exercise will increase our strength and ability to repeat it. Whether we lift weights, play the guitar, or sing, practice will likely improve our ability to do more and improve our efficiency. Likewise, arguing and complaining will enable us to complain more persistently and intensely.

We should remember that no one loses their sense of humor by laughing too much. Neither do we rid ourselves of excesses of anger by raging and screaming. The brief relief people feel after venting their anger occurs because they regard their rage as a successful retaliation against their adversary. They feel vindicated for a short while, but they have only participated in a childish tantrum in actual practice.

Some people enjoy having another excuse to express their anger.

Psychological bulimia

Many angry people get caught up in constantly complaining about various grievances. They feel justified in going over and over the condemnation of the horrible situations they have endured, the unfair behavior of others, and the criticism by unfriendly people. In effect, they gorge on assorted annoyances and then proceed to tell anyone that will listen about all the details of their suffering.

This behavior is the psychological equivalent of bulimia, except it is not excessive food we take in and then throw up. Instead, it is our grievances we vividly revisit and then share our annoyance with sympathetic listeners. Those who manage their anger this way will notice that their anger never goes away, but their humanity becomes thinner.

Expressing anger to get rid of anger is a false method. It is an excuse to pretend we are trying to relieve our anger while actually continuing to engage it.

Commentary

It is easy to justify our condemnation of the imperfections in people and society. The habit of criticism can become seductive and entice us to continue into the comfortable realms of righteousness.

However, our urge to point out flaws in others and their ideas will diminish our ability to appreciate what is correct and helpful. Our highly rationalized judgments can cause us to develop a cynical worldview that grounds us in a dysfunctional focus. Our work should be to lift the mediocre and imperfect with our example and encouragement instead of beating them with a proverbial stick of condemnation.

In many, anger can coalesce into significant grievances. Once our anger is compacted in this manner, it becomes strong enough to defend itself from most efforts to remove it. Elimination of such grievances is possible only as we work to diminish the underpinnings of anger in our fundamental outlook, tendencies to be too critical, and the tunnel vision that ignores the constructive aspects of what we criticize.

Suppose we succeed in being more detached in how we focus our attention. In that case, we can successfully review our habits of judgmentalism, obsession with flaws, and inability to appreciate the positive elements in people and their behavior. This change of perspective enables us to moderate our excess criticism and expand our capacity for approval and gratitude.

Eventually, we need to recognize how our anger significantly burdens our well-being and progress. Reducing the toxic baggage we carry in our grievances will liberate more of our human and divine potential. This is our reward for successful forgiveness.

Check out my subsequent discourse, which describes the many invisible faces of anger as intangible energy in our self-expression.

Summary

  • Anger can diminish our well-being and balanced thinking by creating a hostile mindset and obsession with the flaws in the ideas and behavior of others.
  • We often build and preserve our anger by embracing the use of intimidation to persuade and control others. This approach often stimulates opposition to us and provokes distrust from others.
  • Expressing anger (demanding, aggressive behavior, threats) usually adds to our problems and increases our ability to be and stay angry instead of relieving it.
  • The best way to manage significant grievances is to work indirectly on our tendencies to be hypercritical and judgmental.

Think on these things

Written by Dr. Robert Leichtman