Forgiveness is a virtue of the weak

Social psychology : Liberating forgiveness

Perhaps it is the porcupines that Christian Schwennen owes his subject to. The social psychologist from the Ruhr University Bochum came across the animals while reading the specialist journal “Personal Relations”. There his US colleague Frank Fincham reported on the "kiss of the porcupines". Schwennen is still impressed today by the picture that Fincham drew: “In the freezing night, the animals come together and can't help but prick each other with their spikes. Then they move apart because they are hurt. But they have to get back together to survive the night. They have to forgive each other again and again because they need the warmth. "

Schwennen found that the topic had not yet been researched in social psychology, although it is immensely important for our coexistence. “People also hurt one another, that's the reality in an imperfect world,” says Schwennen.

One of the few who had taken the subject, which was considered "soft" or even "pious", scientifically until then, was the psychologist Robert Enright from the university in Wisconsin-Madison, author of the book "Forgiveness as Chance". Enright and his research group were able to show that forgiveness has a healing effect. Women who had experienced sexual abuse, as well as men over whose heads their partners had made an abortion decision, were instructed in a step-by-step forgiveness program designed by Enright. Her mental health was then better than that of the control group.

Schwennen deliberately translated the English verb “to forgive”, which his US colleagues Fincham and Enright used, as forgiving, not forgiving. First of all, because the word awarded has several meanings in German: Not only mistakes, but also jobs, grades or penalties can be awarded. "The second reason is that the theologians already use the concept of forgiveness," says Schwennen.

So forgive. First of all, within the closest interpersonal relationships. “We psychologists try to give advice on how to design partnerships. Forgiveness is an important aspect that has so far been forgotten in our science. ”Schwennen always kept the porcupines in mind.

Lovers are vulnerable because they open up and reveal their innermost desires and secrets. The partner can hit the other at weak points. He could divulge what he knows and expose the other. He could question the desired and usually expressly promised exclusivity of the relationship through a form of "cheating". Affair and situations that lead to strong jealousy are usually mentioned in Schwennen's surveys as the cause of particularly serious injuries.

Schwennen calls it an interpersonal paradox that the closest relatives are the source of both the most pleasant and the most stressful events. In fact, a survey of 3000 Brits showed that the trigger for the most negative feelings the previous day had brought them was always a family member.

Schwennen wants to find out what role personality plays when it comes to how easy or difficult it is to forgive. Personality traits are relatively stable, they cannot be changed quickly and easily. So are there people who are more likely to forgive? "Self-confident, stable people forgive relatively easily, while emotionally unstable people tend to find it difficult to do so," reports Schwennen. Even those who are particularly conscientious and particularly extroverted are quicker to forgive.

Schwennen is now also researching forgiveness in the world of work. This is where many of us spend most of our everyday lives, and as a result, misconduct, carelessness, injuries and conflicts occur again and again. “Colleagues turn out to be more helpful to an employee who is generally willing to forgive. The ability to forgive increases job satisfaction and improves the quality of communication within a team. "

Finally, the industrial and organizational psychologists have also examined whether the whole thing has a positive effect on the results of the work. “People who can forgive more easily end up having a greater ability to change perspectives and to put themselves in other people's shoes. And it is precisely this ability that is particularly important when it comes to innovative behavior. "

The researchers were able to show that employees who found it easy to forgive also had a particularly large number of ideas. Employers would therefore be well advised to make sure that you have a positive attitude towards forgiveness when you are hiring.

Does it always have to be guilty for there to be reason to forgive? This is a problematic term for the psychologist. “We know from therapy for couples and also from conflicts in the workplace that both sides can perceive the same situation very differently.” Schwennen prefers to speak of supposed guilt, but even more of responsibility. The other person may have already taken on this responsibility and asked for forgiveness. A request for an apology makes forgiveness much easier.

Schwennen defines forgiveness as the answer to a misconduct. Such an answer can be generous, so it is not selfless or purely altruistic. It is an act that benefits both sides. Well-being suffers and it can even make you sick if one can no longer find out from brooding over an injustice suffered and from the role of the victim.

Psychiatrist Michael Linden, who heads the department for behavioral therapy and psychosomatics at the Seehof rehabilitation center of the German pension insurance in Teltow, threatens bitterness. For him, forgiveness means destroying negative emotions. That can mean hard work for those at risk of bitterness. On the other hand, it doesn't mean going through life blindly or stupidly. "Forgiving does not include approving an action or not drawing any consequences," explains Schwennen. “It doesn't mean that a woman will stay married to a man who beats her. Nor does it mean that the man will not be charged with assault. ”People can forgive without behaving like porcupines and immediately looking for their old closeness again.

The author recently published “Being able to forgive - oneself and others” (Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin, 184 pages, 14 Euro 90).

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