by Steve Andreas
A great deal of therapeutic effort goes into struggling with anger and resentment, because this “unfinished business” causes so much difficulty–both for the person who has it and for other family members, friends, and associates. All of us can think of people who spend much of their time preoccupied with old hurts and injuries, interfering with their ongoing relationships and preventing them from getting on with their lives. How often have you wished that there were a quick and easy way to help a someone give up this preoccupation with the dead past and refocus on present and future living?
In a fascinating and elegant videotape made in 1986 (“Forgiving Parents” -DVD), family therapist Virginia Satir demonstrated that it is possible to resolve long-lasting resentment quickly. Linda, the 39-year-old client, started with great anger and resentment toward her mother. But at the end of the 80-minute session she feels only love and compassion, and says, “I think you’re right that I won’t ever be able to look at my mother in the same way again. I feel clearer, and much more loving. I’m in love with everyone in the room.” In a three-year follow-up interview, Linda goes into great detail about how well she got along with her mother after the session. At one point she says, “In fact, I felt like I was her best friend, which was really something I would never ever have said before.”
Some might be tempted to dismiss this as only a single case, that it was a result of Virginia’s consummate skill, impossible for ordinary therapists to emulate, or that Virginia got lucky, and that Linda was an easy client. But although Linda was cooperative, she was a very tough client, as a careful review of the videotape will show. At one point Virginia says to Linda, “One of the things I sense about you is that you have a highly-developed ability to stand firm on things.” (How’s that for a reframe of being “stubborn”?)
Another way to think about this session is that Virginia showed us that it is possible to deal with a client’s long-standing resentment in a very short time, and then go on to wonder, “What are the crucial elements in her work that could be discovered, tested, and taught to others?” About ten years ago, my wife Connirae and I, along with participants in an advanced modeling seminar, discovered the essential components in the process of reaching forgiveness, and developed a pattern, or experiential recipe, for teaching people how to do this.
Before describing this recipe, I want to say a few things about recipes in general. Some people find the idea of a recipe for personal change objectionable, and I’d like to touch on two of the major objections I have encountered.
Firstly, until recently, many approaches in the field of psychotherapy have typically maintained that one recipe can be used for all sorts of human problems. That is like saying that a given recipe will work equally well for a beef roast, a chocolate cake, or a tossed salad.
Others make the mistake of confusing the recipe with the result of using the recipe. You can’t get much nourishment from the recipe itself, any more than you can find much shelter under the architectural plans for a comfortable home.
A recipe is only a set of instructions that tells you what to do in order to get a given result. If a recipe is followed carefully (and the appropriate ingredients are available) the result is dependable. Our world is filled with the satisfying results of recipes that work dependably, from cookbooks to computer manuals. All of science consists of detailed recipes that get specific results in specified contexts.
“The term science should not be given to anything but the aggregate of the recipes that are always successful. All the rest is literature.”
– Paul Valery (6, p.41)
I am grateful to Paul Watzlawick for pointing out the crucial difference between descriptive language and injunctive language. Descriptive language is exemplified by psychiatry’s DSM IV diagnostic manual. Over 700 pages describe the different kinds of disorders that people have, but not a single page tells what to do to resolve them! In contrast, injunctive language tells you what to do in order to have a particular experience. George Spencer Brown said it well:
“The taste of a cake, although literally indescribable, can be conveyed to a reader in the form of a set of injunctions called a recipe. Music is a similar art form; the composer does not even attempt to describe the set of sounds he has in mind, much less the set of feelings occasioned through them, but writes down a set of commands which, if they are obeyed by the reader, can result in a reproduction, to the reader, of the composer’s original experience.” (4, p.77)
Frieda Fromm-Reichman once said, “People don’t come to therapy for explanation; they come for experience.” A recipe is only a dependable way to create a specific experience.
Elements of Forgiveness
There are two major processes on the path to forgiveness:
1. The first process is discovering the specific mental transformations that a particular person needs to make in order to reach the state of forgiveness. This is determined by a gentle exploration of internal images, voices, etc. – comparing how a person represents someone who has already been forgiven with how they represent someone they are still angry at. This quickly provides information about the internal perceptual changes that need to be made for this particular person. Once this is known, the changes can be made in a few minutes.
2. The second part of the process usually takes somewhat longer: dealing with the objections that a client has to going ahead with reaching forgiveness. These objections often have to do with wanting protection against the expected consequences of forgiveness: “If I forgave him, then something bad would happen” – I’d be tempted to reconcile with him, he could hurt me again, etc. Objections about consequences need to be met by eliciting or teaching specific protective coping skills. “If you forgave him, how could you still maintain your resolve to stay separate and be protected against future hurt?”
Other objections have to do with the meaning of forgiveness to the client. “If I forgave her, that would mean something about me–that I’m a wimp, that I condone what she did to me, etc.” Objections about meaning need to be met by changing the client’s meaning through some kind of reframing. “Can you see that far from being a wimp, your forgiving her would mean that you have accomplished a change that takes great courage, compassion and understanding–one that only a few human beings are capable of?”
A short mind-experiment can provide you with a very compact experience of these two elements in the forgiveness process:
1. First think of two people in your life:
a. someone you like very much, and
b. someone you dislike very much.
2. After identifying these two people, think of them simultaneously.
3. Continuing to think of these two people in your mind simultaneously, notice how you represent them differently in your mind.
a. First look at your images. One image is probably larger than the other one, one farther away than the other, one brighter or more colorful than the other, one more to your left than the other, one higher or lower than the other, etc.
b. Next notice your auditory experience of these two people. Are there sounds or voices with one image and not with the other, or are there differences in the volume, tonality, or tempo of the sounds or voices, etc?
c. Finally notice differences in your feelings in response to these two images. Besides feeling like for one and dislike for the other, do you feel colder/warmer, more connected/disconnected, etc. with one than the other?
4. Now comes the really interesting part. Try exchanging the locations of the images of the two people in your mind, and notice how your feelings change in response to this little experiment. For instance, I represented the disliked person small, far away, dim, on my right and silent. The image of the liked person was large, close, bright, on my left, with a clear voice. If I exchange the two, the disliked person is now on my left, large and bright, with a clear voice.
Many people simply refuse to do this experiment. Those who are willing to try this, at least for a few moments just to see what it is like, typically feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and want to quickly put the images back where they started. There are four main points that I’d like to draw from this little experiment:
1. The location and other process characteristics of internal images are vitally important in determining our responses to them.
2. Since these process characteristics are completely independent of the content of the image, they can be used with any content, and constitute interventions that are totally content-free.
3. When you tried the experiment of exchanging the images, you found that it was relatively easy to move them around and change how you represent them.
4. Before you would be willing to make such a change permanent, we would have to find some way to satisfy your felt objections to making the change–you would need to be able to feel completely comfortable and safe with the new arrangement. These four main points are true of all therapeutic work. In the following, they are illustrated by an edited transcript of an audiotaped demonstration of the forgiveness pattern (2-audio-CD) with a woman who was angry with an ex-boyfriend.
Steve: Ann, you have someone you’re still angry with, and you also have in mind someone you have forgiven. Think of those two experiences; how are they different?
Ann: (briskly) The anger is here on the right; it’s close, larger than life. (softly and more slowly) Forgiveness is pretty far out in front of me, 10 or 12 feet, perhaps three or four inches high. (rapidly) Anger is in really bright, stark, angry colors. (softly) The forgiveness one is pastel, softly lit from the back. I feel soft and warm and connected with that person. Forgiveness is real quiet. (quickly) The angry one has lots of dialogue, with “Yeah, buts” and rationalizations; it’s argumentative.
Steve: OK, now what objection do you have to transforming anger into forgiveness?
Ann: (thoughtfully) It feels like leverage, a way that I can get the change that is needed.
Steve: So, you have some outcome, and by remaining angry you think that will help you get it. What is it about remaining angry that helps you make progress toward the outcome?
Ann: By remaining angry, that creates, literally, distance between us, and he doesn’t want the distance; so as long as I’m angry, then he needs to do something.
Steve: You strike me as a fairly resourceful woman. How could you maintain distance without having to be angry, so that you could enjoy it even more?
Ann: The objecting part is saying, “If I let go of this anger, then I’ll let him come back, and he won’t have made the requisite changes. And then we’ll be right back where we were before.
Steve: It sounds like that part doesn’t believe that you, Ann, have the strength of mind or character, or whatever, to maintain a particular outcome and go for it.
Ann: Not without a lot of struggle.
Steve: OK. What makes it difficult? Ann: It just seems like there’s such a discrepancy in our value systems.
Steve: Given that you recognize this discrepancy in value systems, it sounds like you’ve made a fairly congruent decision that distance is the best thing, at least for now. And you said something about leverage – that this person wants to be back with you, and that as long as you can say “not now,” you have a way to create some motivation for him to maybe make changes.
Steve: Now given that’s a decision you’ve made, what do you need the anger for? It seems to me it would be even easier to do all that without anger. It would give you even more of a feeling of power and upholding your own values.
Ann: It appears easier with anger.
Steve: What makes it appear easier? Is it just that it’s familiar?
Ann: (thoughtfully) There is an element of familiarity in there.
Steve: Try traveling into the future. Imagine that over the next week, you have no anger, and you’re very clear, and your mind is set on this goal, and you could be even more comfortable in just simply saying “No,” to any possible encroachment, or whatever. . . . Do you have any objections to that? (No.) Does any part have any objection? (No.) OK, are there any other objections? (No.)
It sounds like you still have some connection with this person, that there are some valuable parts of this person that you also respect and have warm feelings toward as well. A lot of people think that if you feel warmly toward someone, that means you can’t feel angry at them, or you can’t deny them something. To me, it’s even more respectful of them as a whole person if you can say, “Look, this part of you fits1 for me beautifully; this part over here doesn’t fit for me and I don’t want it.” And just be really clear about that. It’s not that you’re bad or that I’m good. It’s just, “This fits for me and that doesn’t.”
It can be even easier for you to say what doesn’t fit if you acknowledge the parts that do fit, so that you’re not rejecting him as a whole. That has got to be hard for him; he’s going to be defensive, and then you’re going to have to be defensive, and so on. But instead you can say, “Gosh, the way you do this is wonderful, and this over here doesn’t fit for me, and I refuse to do it.” Does that make sense to you? (Yes.)
OK, let’s go ahead and change your anger to forgiveness. As we do this, I want you to be very sensitive to any other objections that might come up. Take this representation of him on your right, and move it over here and farther away, and see what other changes occur spontaneously. Find out what it’s like to represent this person in pastel hues, softly lit from the back, just like that other person you have already forgiven.
Ann: (softly, thoughtfully) I feel a loss of power; the powerlessness of not being able to say “No.”
Steve: And what is it that prevents you from saying “No” to future harm?
Ann: (happily) I just fixed it. I brought him closer, so he’s life-size, so then we’re equal. When he was smaller than life-size, then I felt pity, and I couldn’t say “No.”
Steve: And now, what’s your feeling toward him? Do you have that warmth, and sense of connection?
Ann: Yeah, and I can have a conversation with him as equals, rather than having to play “topdog” or “underdog”.
Steve: Great. Now close your eyes for a minute, and jump into next week or whenever you might have an interaction with him and see how that goes. . . (Ann is smiling and relaxed.) That looks pretty good from here!
Ann: Yes. (quietly) I feel softness, and tenderness, and understanding, and a real connection that wasn’t there before. When you used the word “fit” earlier, that was absolutely perfect for me, because the objection part was being judgemental, making him wrong, and those things he did be bad, whereas just to see it as not a fit makes a big difference.
In an audiotaped follow-up interview ten weeks later, Ann said, “At the time of our session, he was in Vermont, and as far as I was concerned, he could stay there. Now he’s back here and we’re setting a wedding date! How’s that for results! There are two other things that I’m specifically aware of. One is that there’s no bitterness on my part, and there’s no reservation. I find it easy to have the same level of intimacy and trust as I did before. . . And I’ve also used the forgiveness process in my own practice with couples, and it works.”
This transcript presents a typical example of guiding a client through the forgiveness process, and another example is available on videotape (3). However, it is an example of someone who already believed that forgiveness might be useful. With someone who has no interest in forgiving, some preparatory work would be needed to deal with objections and motivate the client to even consider the possibility of reaching forgiveness. Some common objections, and brief examples of dealing with them follow:
1. “The other person doesn’t deserve forgiveness.” Perhaps not. But forgiveness is not for him, it’s for you, so that you can live in your body with more comfort and congruence. Forgiveness is so that you don’t have to continue to be burdened by angry feelings, preoccupied with obsessive thoughts about revenge, etc.
2. “I need to get even first.” What would getting even do for you? Often people say that they feel personally diminished by the harm that was done to them, and that getting even would help them feel powerful and good about themselves again. I want you to feel powerful and good about yourself, and I’d like to offer you other ways of doing this. For instance, I’d like you to learn how to cope effectively with possible repetitions of this kind of behavior, so that you feel safe and strong in knowing what you can do to prevent a recurrence.
3. “Anger makes me feel powerful; I don’t want to give it up.” Yes, there is a certain feeling of power in feeling angry, in being courageous and willing to stand up for yourself and your values. But usually there is also a sense of lack of choice in having to be angry and having to be preoccupied with thoughts of that person who harmed you. When someone says, “He made me angry,” what they are really saying is, “He can control my feelings; I have no choice but to get angry.” I’d like to offer you more choices, so that you can be the one in control of your feelings and behavior, and stand up for yourself even more powerfully.
4. “I refuse to forgive and forget.” I agree with you completely. I don’t want you to forgive and forget. If you forgot, then you’d be completely vulnerable to a repetition of the harm that was done to you. I want you to forgive and remember. I want you to remember so that you are protected against possible recurrences, and to remember in a way that provides you with feelings of strength, choice, and resourcefulness, instead of being provoked into choiceless anger.
5. “If I forgave him, then he’d think what he did didn’t matter and he could feel comfortable doing it again.” So you want him to know how terrible it was for you, and so that he won’t do it again. I think that it is important for you to communicate that to him. I don’t know about you, but I find that when I’m angry I don’t communicate very well. Often the other person gets defensive and doesn’t listen, and maybe “blows it off,” thinking “Oh, he’s just upset; it doesn’t mean anything.” I’d like to help you find ways to really get through to him, and my guess is that will be much easier if you’re not angry and upset.
The common theme in all these examples is to completely respect and align with the positive outcome that underlies the client’s objection, and find a way that the client can realize that reaching forgiveness would actually support that outcome.
This same process can be used for forgiving yourself for the harm you have done to others. The only difference is that you would begin with an experience of harming yourself, (rather than having been harmed by someone else) and an experience of forgiving yourself. (rather than someone else). There are two additional understandings that are usually vitally important in self-forgiveness: 1) That everyone always does the best they can in a given situation, and 2) The healing value of atonement.
1. The presupposition that everyone always does the best they can is basic to all our work, and is best illustrated by a brief experiment. Think of a time when you harmed someone else, and you now regret it. Looking back on that situation, think about your motives, your knowledge, your perceptions, capabilities, fears, limitations etc. at that time. Considering all this, at that time could you have done anything different?
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, and subsequent learnings, etc. you may be able to do something different next time, but at that time you did the very best you could. Understanding this can also be a very useful part of being able to forgive others, but it is an absolutely essential part of forgiving yourself.
One of the main results of Virginia Satir’s “Family Reconstruction” process (in which the client directs and observes a vivid reenactment of the parents’ childhoods2) was to be able to see the parents’ harmful behavior as the best that they could do in the context of the limitations and difficulties of their own upbringing.
2. Atonement can also be spelled “at one ment,” becoming “at one” with, rejoining with what has been alienated. Anything that can be done to compensate for the harm that you did to others helps the healing, because it transforms regret into positive action. This can range from a simple heart-felt apology to taking steps to make up for the harm that was done. If the actual person who was harmed is dead, or otherwise unavailable, one can do good to others in the same kind of situation. Many Vietnam veterans have said that going back to Vietnam and helping the people there in some way has been a very healing experience.
We have been teaching the forgiveness pattern for over ten years now, and I’m happy to report that it has been put to the supreme test: it has been successfully used even by someone with a complete misunderstanding of the principles involved! Like any good recipe, if the steps are followed carefully, the results are good, whether or not the cook has an understanding of what function the different components serve.
The healing power of forgiveness is a very ancient teaching, but typically this teaching has been to point to a goal and describe it and its value, but without much information about what to do to get there. Now that we know how to do it, this ancient teaching can be manifest in the world.
One ex-prisoner of war asked another, “Have you forgiven your captors yet?” The second one replied, “NO, NEVER!” And the other one turned and said, “Then it seems like they still have you in prison, don’t they?”
“One of my close friends spent, I think, eighteen years in Chinese prison and labor camps. In the early ’80s they allowed him to come to India. On occasion he and I discuss his experiences in various Chinese labor camps. And he told me that during those periods, on a few occasions he really faced some danger. I asked what kind of danger, and his response was, ‘Oh, danger of losing compassion for the Chinese.’ That kind of mental attitude is, I think, a key factor to sustain peace of mind.”
–The Dali Lama
“If we could read the secret history of those we would like to punish, we would find in each life enough grief and suffering to make us stop wishing anything more on them.”
St. Peter: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?” Jesus saith unto him, “I say not unto thee until seven times: but until seventy times seven.”
–St. Matthew, 21.
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
“Father, forgive them: for they know not what they do.”
–St. John, 34
“Judge not, and ye shall not be judged”
–St. Luke, 27
In Warsaw, in 1939, a man watched as the Nazis machine-gunned hundreds of jews, including his wife, two daughters, and three sons. “I had to decide right then whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who mattered most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life–whether it was a few days or many years–loving every person I came in contact with.”
–George G. Ritchie, Return from Tomorrow, pp. 115-116
THE FORGIVENESS PATTERN OUTLINE
This pattern was developed by Connirae and Steve Andreas and participants in a six-day intensive workshop in March 1990. It is useful for anyone who is angry or resentful/ blaming, particularly if it is long-standing, and the person who harmed him/her is dead, or out of the person’s life. This outline of the pattern presupposes considerable NLP training, particularly in submodalities, and in shifting (and aligning) perceptual positions.
The goal of this pattern is to bring peace and resolution to the person feeling anger or resentment. Forgiving others (or yourself) does not mean condoning the behavior that harmed you (or someone else), or giving up the values that were violated. An important part of the pattern is to reaffirm your own values and criteria and use them to develop ways of coping resourcefully. The resolution and integration that forgiveness brings will make it easier to take effective action to uphold your values and standards in the future.
1. Resentment/Anger. Identify the person and the incident you are still angry/ resentful about, and with whom you would like to reach a feeling of forgiveness and resolution. Take a moment to notice how you think of this person and incident now. (Calibrate to client’s nonverbal responses.)
2. Forgiveness. Identify an experience of forgiveness in your past. There are two major choices for this resource experience:
a. You once resented someone, but when you think of that person now it is with a feeling of forgiveness and compassion.
b. Someone harmed you, and you forgave him/her right away because you recognized that they harmed you accidentally, or that they were doing the best they could, etc. For instance, a small child hurt you, and you instantly recognized that he couldn’t possibly do otherwise, or understand the consequences of what s/he did. (Calibrate to client’s nonverbal responses.)
3. Contrastive Analysis. Compare the experiences in steps 1. and 2. above to determine the submodality differences between the two, particularly location.
4. Test Submodality Differences. One at a time, change the submodality differences of the resentment/anger experience to make it like the experience of forgiveness. Notice which submodalities are the most powerful “drivers” in changing resentment/anger to forgiveness. (Typically location will be the strongest.)
5. Ecology Check. “Does any part of you have any objection to reaching forgiveness with this person?” The most common objections are of two types:
a. Meaning. Forgiveness would mean condoning the harmful behavior that violated the person’s values and standards, or that forgiveness would mean something about the client, for instance, that he’s a wimp, etc. Reframe.
b. Forgiveness would eliminate a positive function, usually protection from a repeat occurrence of the harm. Separate this positive function from anger or forgiveness, and provide specific behavioral responses to accomplish this protective function without the need to get angry.
Satisfy all objections – at least conditionally – before proceeding to step 7.
6. Step into “Other” Position. First take the observer position to observe yourself and the person who “harmed” you from the outside, in the context in which are were harmed. Then step into the other person, noticing what you can learn that is new to you about this person’s experience. What additional information do you get about how this person sees, hears, feels, and understands events? (This will be much easier and more effective after aligning perceptual positions.) “Do you realize that this person (and yourself) was doing the best s/he could in this situation, given this person’s background, limited knowledge or motivation, etc.?” Take time to be sure this presupposition is in place.
7. Transform Resentment/Anger into Forgiveness by “mapping across” all submodalities, starting with the more powerful “driver” submodalities you identified in step 4. (Often changing location alone willl be enough.) As you do this, be sensitive to any emerging objections or reluctance, and satisfy them before proceeding.
8. Test. “Think of the person you used to feel resentment/anger toward. How do you feel about him/her now?” Calibrate to the nonverbal responses, comparing with what you observed previously at steps 1. and 2. Usually the incident of harm will now be the past, while the person who has been forgiven will be in the present and/or future, and with a feeling of neutrality or compassion.
9. (Optional) Timeline Generalization. If the person has had many experiences of resentment/anger, it can be very useful to take the experience of knowing how to forgive, float up over your timeline, then drop down onto the timeline before these other experiences of resentment and anger occurred. Let yourself move forward through time to the present, as your unconscious transforms these experiences. This “re-sorting” process can have a dramatic impact on a multitude of past experiences and also install forgiveness as a “through time” ability that becomes part of the person’s sense of themselves in the present and future (as in the “Decision Destroyer”7).
3. Andreas, S. (1999) “Diffusing Reflexive Anger, NLP” (videotape). Phoenix, nAZ: Zeig, Tucker & Co. (3618 N. 24th St., Phoenix, AZ 85016 zeigtucker.com/brief.htm
4. Brown, G. S. (1973) Laws of Form. New York: Bantam Books.
6. Valery, P. (1932) Moralites.
*Anchor Point, Vol. 13, No. 5, May, pp. 5-16