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Forgive-me-nots

9:40 AM  Mar 19th, 2015
by Erin Callahan '15

Forgive, forget: it’s a choice most of us face throughout our lives. The church teaches on the power of forgiveness; seminars and self-help books have focused on the subject; Google brings up millions of hits. But that’s just the process of learning how to forgive. Alan Demmitt, associate professor in counselor education and human services, wants to know if there’s more to it.

Demmitt discusses the concept in his Integrated Approaches to Clinical Counseling course, geared toward students preparing to become mental health counselors. He’s been conducting his own research for the past two years on how forgiveness, or lack thereof, affects mental health — and our daily lives. Though psychology major Michaela Eames ’15 hasn’t taken his course, she’s taken interest in his research. “This isn’t an area I’ve seen much about, so I find it really interesting,” she said.

While most of us aren’t mental health experts, avoiding a grudge could be as easy as following these steps and considering the questions Demmitt poses through his research.

1. Look beyond the books. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is the reference guide mental health counselors use to diagnose mental illnesses like depression or anxiety. However, there may be additional factors to consider. “Things you won’t see in there are bitterness, resentment or a lack of forgiveness, but there are many people struggling with those issues, and it could lead to depression, anxiety or fractured relationships,” Demmitt said. Taking those negative feelings into account could help individuals pinpoint — and solve — the problem.

2. Consider your values. Whether you practice a religion or not, certain values could influence your approach to forgiveness, Demmitt said. As part of his research, he interviewed a group of 10 clergy of different faiths about how they apply their religious practices to forgiveness. He’s transcribing the results and plans to next interview individuals without a faith tradition. Eames wonders if research could also address one of her observations: “Forgiveness is innate in
everyone, whereas faith is not.”

3. Establish a forgiving spirit. Demmitt devotes a portion of his research to how people prepare for forgiveness. “I’m focusing on what people do to be ready to forgive when a situation arises,” he said. “How do they go about cultivating this sense of forgiveness in their lives?” Eames calls it “stabilized forgiveness”: finding its origin and learning how to keep it going to prevent a grudge from interfering with
your life.

4. Keep it up. It’s easier to accomplish something than it is to maintain it, Demmitt said, like losing 5 pounds versus keeping it off. “Are there habits and practices people engage in on a daily or weekly basis to keep a forgiving spirit about them?” his research asks. Like the religious figures Demmitt interviewed, following a certain faith tradition or another moral code can contribute to maintaining the forgiving spirit you establish. While Demmitt has not yet reached a conclusion in his research, Eames contends that addressing the process — and the topic itself — is an important first step in helping people live happier lives.

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