Forgiveness is the remission of sins. For it is by this that what has been lost, and was found, is saved from being lost again
The power of forgiveness when 'done right', is a neuropsychological process that destroys the biochemical ability of the brain to re-enact shame, the sex addicts drug-of-choice. It re-trains the brain to learn a new level of normalcy, one without the debilitating correlates of shame. When this occurs, the brain produces different neurochemicals that the brain interprets as healthy, and an amazing thing happens - the brain is now motivated - driven really - to keep that new level of normalcy, to keep shame out and keep serenity in. This is the neuropsychological power of forgiveness.
As concepts go, forgiveness has been on the scene pretty much since we have. In fact, its opposite, Lex Talion's, is quite possibly the most fundamental construct we have. If 'an eye for an eye' was working for us for such a long time (and still is to some), you might wonder why we need the concept of forgiveness? Perhaps it was to modify our bloodlust, which I would imagine in evolutionary terms helped keep the peace, enabling the homo sapiens among us to flourish a little beyond the dinosaur. It simply was not in our best interest, genetically speaking, to burn, rape, pillage, stake, and otherwise behead everybody that annoyed us for one reason or another. I cannot speak to your family, but without some sort of built-in damper, mine might have thinned out a tad. Or perhaps, as we shall see, it might have originated for another reason. Forgiveness, what it means and why we have it when we do, has been a subject of much debate throughout recorded history in philosophical, theological, historical and political circles. What I find particularly bewildering if not downright disturbing however, is why, given its topical weight in our collective conscience through the centuries, has it taken science so miserably long to catch up? Somehow we dropped the ball. The good news is that we are back on top and we have a lot to say about the matter.
Beginning with the well known Prisoner's Dilemma, an exercise in empathy and judgment set in the world of game theory circa 1950 (c.f. Flood & Dresher, 1950; or click here for a terrific cartoon video explaining it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRZ_oH9Sxm4), psychology did not really take a serious interest in these matters. Constructs such as trust, betrayal, cognitive dissonance (my personal favorite), guilt, and even forgiveness were only beginning to come under scientific investigation in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Today, forgiveness from a psychological perspective has merged with the field of social neuroscience to bring us even closer to understanding the hows and why of forgiveness. Very exciting. It took us a while, but what we have learned in these lo many trial-and-error decades of scientific vigor is significant and in a word, inspiring.
Cardinal Franz Konig, Archbishop of Vienna, in his discussion on the necessity and limits of forgiveness from a Christian orientation wrote that "The distinction between whether we can forgive and whether we may forgive still leaves unresolved the question of whether or not we should forgive" (1997). I can answer that...
Those of us that clinically treat the disease of addiction have long since advocated for one model or another that can incorporate the use of forgiveness as a treatment modality for recovery. This is not news. It has, ironically, become the problem. Although applied to all addictions, nowhere is it more important, neurologically speaking than for the 'process addictions', to calm, if not downright heal the portion of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that is damaged in the sex addicted brain, before attempting this phase of treatment. This is news.
The process of forgiveness requires the ability to relinquish anger, to take on or at the very least consider the viewpoint of another, "to detach him- or herself from the personal experience of having been harmed", and to acquire "highly developed emotion-management skills that enable him or her to regulate anger and related forgiveness-hihibiting emotions" (Emmons, 2000). The problem here is that if you have a process addiction, by virtue of the disease, these are the very things you are in varying degrees incapable of doing and/or feeling. Further, research has suggested that "people with low empathic capacity, such as those with narcissistic, borderline,antisocial, or avoidant personality disorder [or even subclinical traits thereof], are unlikely to benefit from interventions that attempt to generate empathy to stimulate forgiveness" (Worthington, et al, 2000). It is not that these problems are irreversible, it is that much work needs to be done well before these changes can take place. So why are clinicians so quick to bypasss this incredibly fundamental component of the disease and continue with a treatment protocol that will at its best not work and at its worst, set the patient up for a lifetime of treatment failures and disappointments? Further, if character traits such as empathy, humility, intra- and interpersonal sensitivity, the ability to walk in the shoes of another, a relinquishment of grandiosity, self-centeredness, and entitlement, and the willingness to admit fault and assign blame, are nowhere to be found in the untreated sex addict by virtue of their disease, then we have a predicament, or as the saying goes, it's a mystery; a riddle wrapped inside of an enigma and hidden inside a Chinese box. Were this a rant on all things doom and gloom, my job here would be fait accompli. But it isn't and as such, despite these very real factual concerns, there is every good news to be had.
Forgiveness assumes a willingness on the part of the transgressor, a genuine desire to render oneself exposed and vulnerable. We move at warp speed when called upon to forgive others for their harm caused us. We seem to think the ability to forgive somehow guarantees a box seat in the heavenly hereafter. And so without much thought we say those all important words "I forgive you". But do we? Do we really? Have we, in that briefest of declarations, suddenly and miraculously forever lifted whatever shroud of hurt, anger, and resentment that caused harm? Surely then, a truer miracle could not compare.
The desire to forgive presupposes the willingness to repent. They are not synonymous. Repentance is the 'doing' part of the forgiveness process, just like in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the obsessions are the thinking part and the compulsions are the doing of something that when applied, cause the obsessions to stop. Like Mutt and Jeff. Different from one another but a necessary component of the other. Being repentant enables the forgiveness process to work. This is where the sex addict gets stuck.
Sex addiction, as I state none-too-often, is fundamentally concerned with unmitigated and unrelenting shame. Not just having it, but repeating it. Over and over and over again, as if it were a drug, which to the sex addicted person it biochemically is. What is the source of all this shame? Toxic childhood. As mentioned in my previous posts, if you are sex addicted, nine-times-out-of-ten, you are the victim of abuse in your childhood, nearly but not necessarily always sexual abuse. That other one (out-of-ten) either has a disorder that impacts the PFC such as an Asperger's disorder, or there was an accidental or genetic rationale for the impairment of these brain areas. To those other nine-out-of-ten, it means that someone has caused you grievous emotional harm during critical periods of childhood neurodevelopment, which in turn disrupted your limbic system and PFC, causing your sex addiction in adulthood.
Robert Sapolsky, one of the stress research elite, maintains that "when humans experience transgressions, their physiology is affected... chronic physiological arousal with frequent unforgiveness has the potential to create a pathophysiological pattern, which can lead to illness or can exacerbate preexisting illness" (2005). Worthington refers to this as the psychoneuroimmunology of forgiveness because it significantly effects our immune functioning. Sapolsky is concerned with the changes produced by the brain in response to stress - real or imagined, past, present and/or future. When stressed chronically or severely, and regardless of how long in the past the stressor originated, our brain is biochemically instructed to prepare itself by secreting copious amounts of various hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, the glucocorticoids, most notable among them, cortisol (AKA the aging and abdominally fattening hormone), as well as increases in beta-endorphines, glucagon, prolactin, and vasopressin, while it decreases insulin manufacture and as Sapolsly states "hormones related to sexual behavior, reproduction and tissue repair, and inhibition of the parasympathetic nervous system" (2005). In a phrase, stress is responsible for a massive onslaught of multi-systemic dysregulation. Unforgiveness, repeated and unresolved shame-based acts and feelings, whether self- and/or other-directed, whether by choice or genuine ignorance, is indeed a stressful and disease-producing state of affairs.
The inability to forgive oneself is the trademark of the sex addict. Treatment must, first and foremost address the problems inherent in the damaged PFC. Only after this significant process can any lasting arousal regulation take place. And until this stage of treatment is completed, the higher order issues of empathy and forgiveness will be impossible.
Charles Griswold, guru of all philosophical things forgiveness-related, forewarns that "forgiveness comes with conditions attached" (2007). Like many things worth having, there is a price tag.
Forgiveness is neither a quick fix nor a panacea for harm and shame reduction. Rather, forgiveness is by necessity an oft painful and lengthy process; a healing process of repentance, of personal responsibility and accountability, and of respect for one's self and others, that must include apology, transparency, obligation, reparation, and restoration. This is the redemptive power of the process of forgiveness. But forgiveness takes time. Without the passage of time with which to judge our having changed our offensive, forgiveness is woefully incomplete.
The process is hierarchical. First comes the acknowledgement of wrongdoing and the personal acceptance of having perpetrated harm. Next comes apology; somewhat more involved. It would be safe to say that apology is what sets the stage.
There are two parts to an apology, including a promise that in turn has three parts. The first part of an apology is in the expressed recognition of personal wrongdoing. The second part is the expressed promise to never let it happen again. Hannah Arendt, one of my all-time favorite writers, put it best when she wrote "promises are the uniquely human way of ordering the future, making it predictable and reliable to the extent that this is humanly possible" (1958). The promise of a personal assurance to refrain from committing the same crime in the future, no matter what it takes, itself makes a powerful statement. The promise categorically assumes that a) you are aware of the nature and extent of the hurt, b) that the power is within you for corrective action, and, c) that you will never forget what happened by always being mindful, present, and anticipatory.
It is unfortunate that a majority of people, wittingly or otherwise, skip over that last vital part of the process. This is indeed unfortunate in that this redemptive gift as I call it, has the power of having changed you in a very important and lasting way. It has been gifted to you (although also by you) from the very victim you have hurt. It is in a word, transformative. In the Jewish tradition it is customary when someone dies, to purchase a tree seedling to be planted in Israel, in memoriam. Many others have followed suit with similar customs such as the request from a decedents relative for donations to be made to a favored charity. I recall when Princess Diana died, her family requested in lieu of flowers or other such substantive outpourings of grief, that a donation be made instead to her favorite charities such as the Cluster Munition Coalition, as she was a recognized champion for landmine removal of unexploded bombs. These are examples of gifts that have redemptive value. They give us pause and help us give back in the person's honor. These gifts from the heart honor those we have in some way injured, which in turn honors us. The message states in so many words that 'I have caused you to suffer in some way, and as such, I will honor you and atone for that harm by giving to someone else what I have taken from you'.
Forgiveness is a lengthy process because our repentance includes the apologetic concept of promising not to commit the harmful offense in the future. Not just to the harmed party, but to everyone, forever. To many in the 12-step programs who subscribe to a 'day-at-a-time' ethic, 'forever' is a challenging if not antithetical concept, but I assure you it is really neither. We obligate ourselves to never again repeat the same kind of harm to anyone for any reason in any context. Deborah Lipstedt, PhD, professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, writes about teshuvah (in The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, and a must read) on the Hebrew equivalent of repentance, wherein she notes that "those that perform teshuvah to the highest level (teshuvah gemurah), have done so only when the individual is in the same situation in which he or she originally sinned and chooses not to repeat the act" (1997). When we enter into the forgiveness contract, and make no mistake this is really what it is, we obligate ourselves to change, and to remain changed well into the future. That leaves us with the dilemma of knowing when the "future" has ended. Ever? Upon our demise? Postmortem? The future, as we know all too well, in a blink of an eye becomes the past. William Faulkner said it best, "the past is never dead, it's not even the past".
Nick Smith, author of I was Wrong; The Meanings of Apologies (2008), stipulates that "if we view a categorical apology as a promise to reform kept over a lifetime, violating the conditions of reform or redress vitiates its meaning. An apology gains credibility as time passes without a relapse, and for this reason we can only finally judge the offender's commitment to reform over the duration of her life". Forgiveness, to be sure, is a work-in-progress.
Hannah Arendt is also the author of my favorite phrase "the predicament of irreversibility and unpredictability". The predicament of irreversibility refers to the state of desperately wishing we could have a do-over. But of course there aren't any do-over's and Eve can't un-bite that rotten apple. In the bite of that apple, we were rendered prelapsarian no more. Arendt states that "The possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility - of being unable to undo what one has done - is the faculty of forgiving. The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainty of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. Both faculties depend upon plurality, on the presence and acting of others, for no man can forgive himself and no one can be bound by a promise made only to himself." Forgiveness she writes, "is the key to action and freedom".
Neurologically, forgiveness involves different aspects of the parietal, temporal, and prefrontal areas; the 'forgiveness triad' as it were. Though we know that the posterior and left inferior parietal regions are implicated in the ability to self-reflect, it is particularly interesting to note that the right temporo-parietal junction is activated during moral and non-moral judgments, but the medial PFC is involved in non-moral judgment only. No surprise here, this is the area of the brain medicated in sexual addiction.
When the addict gets 'high', whether through the use of pornography or prostitution, the PFC is the area they are anesthetizing. As discussed in prior posts, by shutting down this aspect of the brain's functionality, the ability to experience the Executive Functions such as judgment, attention, reason, and planning, for example, are pretty much shut down. Shut these areas down and you shut down or dampen down arousal, and not just sexual arousal but any kind of arousal that is unpleasant. A sex addict gets high for the same reason most addicts get high, to block as much pain, anxiety, and fear as possible. The limbic system, where these feelings arise, feed directly into the PFC by way of dopamine-rich receptors, thus bringing on the experience of pleasure and warding off feelings that are painful or uncomfortable. How does the sex addict know to do this? The same reason that the calcium-deficient child knows to chew on blackboard chalk, which is basically like a big calcium stick.
In a fascinating and relatively new area of research, the team of Farrow and Woodruff have conducted studies using fMRI brain scans to study the neurology of forgiveness. The research suggests that in studying forgiveness as a concept with a biological basis, there are four particulars that the team identified as being components of forgiveness. These four areas include judgments that depend upon one's perception of cultural and societal norms, moral judgments, empathy, and what is referred to as theory of mind (ToM), otherwise known as the ability to take another person's view into account or seeing the world from their perspective. One of the ways in which they attempted this was to compare and contrast these four indices with the types of individuals known for these abilities and those individuals known to be lacking in these measures. For example, we know that those with an antisocial personality disorder, what we used to call psychopaths or sociopaths, are lacking in empathy, while a cardinal trait of those with Asperger's is their lack of ToM. And so on.
Of particular interest, the Tsuang, et al, team have demonstrated that there are genetic factors underlying the probability of whether or not a person is able or willing to forgive. These researchers have also identified four core areas involved in forgiveness, each of which play a crucial role in understanding how forgiveness effects the brain and hence the individual. These core areas are empathy, coping, spirituality and religion, and personality.
Especially noteworthy are the results from these and other similar fMRI studies suggesting that individuals diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for example, classically absent much empathy secondary to their continual 'numbing-out' (not at all, by the way, unlike sex addiction), were found to show significant changes in the fMRI scans post therapy compared to both normal subjects and more importantly, from their original fMRI scans prior to their therapy. The type of therapy we are talking about here is neuropsychologically-driven cognitive-behavioral therapy (with emphasis on the neuropsychological part). This is a very specific brain-based (non-invasive) cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) regimen targeted exclusively toward healing and enriching these functions such as forgiveness.
Are we even motivated to forgive? If by motivation we mean the brain's innate goal to above all else, keep itself and consequently the body that comes along with it, alive and functioning up to snuff, then 'yes' we are motivated to do what it takes to feel good - about ourselves and those we interact with. Motivation is generically defined as a drive that pushes us toward a particular goal. But what exactly causes that drive, makes us motivated or as the case may be, unmotivated? It should not be surprising to note that neurochemically the mesolimbic dopaminergic systems, are a significant part of the process (refer to previous posts on the role of dopamine in the reward pathway and the sex addiction link). Serotonin is also a significant contributer. If you have been following this blog, then you already know the role of the PFC and its relation to sex addiction. It should come as no surprise at this juncture, to learn that motivation is also considered an Executive Function. If that part of the brain responsible for motivational drive is damaged, then it stands to reason that our ability to actually be or become motivated is by default also damaged.
Motivating oneself toward the lofty goal of salvation takes on a superhuman aura if the very parts of the brain that brought you to my office (sex addiction, gambling, cutting, eating) in the first place, are the very parts of the brain that are impaired. We are almost always motivated to feel better. We are motivated to feel better because the brain, whose job it is to protect us and keep us at homeostasis (AKA home plate), is programmed to do so. It is programmed to do so because feeling better is equated with actually being better. This is evolutionarily hard-wired. Nothing is more motivating than to eliminate pain and experience pleasure. This is the conundrum. To an addict, medicating feels good.
As mentioned, the problem here is that the sex addicted brain is not a normal brain. It is damaged. Not irreversibly, but damaged nonetheless. We know this. We know where it is damaged and how it got that way. But remember, the job of your brain is to keep you healthy by returning you to a state of homeostasis. Since the sex addicted brain was damaged very early on in life, the brain has compensated for this, which by the way it does astonishingly well, and has simply created a new normal, a new homeostasis. Remember shame? Remember that shame to the sex addict is like cocaine to the drug addict. To the sex addicted brain shame may feel psychologically devastating, but the brain thinks shame is what you are supposed to be feeling. To the sex addicted brain, experiencing shame is a return to homeostasis. Until its fixed, the sex addicted brain will do whatever it takes to cause it to feel shame. It's arousing, not sexually, but arousing nonetheless. An addicted brain has a significantly higher threshhold for arousal, so it will take lots of shame hits to keep the brain happy.
Fogiveness by definition is a shame-buster. If you are sex addicted, your brain is expert on knowing the fast track to shame. Visiting a prostitute if that happens to be your prime shame-delivery-system, is a double hit. Not only is it generally speaking, shameful to procure their services in the first place, but then you have the pleasure so-to-speak, of reminding yourself what a horrible, low-down, low-life heathen you really are, for example. And if you are in a committed relationship and you sneak away at every opportunity to engage in hours of cyberporn, you are also hitting a shame-based home-run. Not only do you most likely hate yourself for having to stoop low enough to engage in watching people on a computer screen engage in various and sundry pornographic acts so that you can masturbate yourself half to death while a perfectly good significant-other lies sleeping in the next room or is at home with the kids, but then you can continue the shame-hit for hours, days, weeks, and months on end because those images now seared into your skull will be served up on a tarnished platter in what is referred to as euphoric recall every time you engage in relations with your completely oblivious SO. Now you can shame yourself by doing nothing but thinking a thought. And the shame cycle repeats. This is your new homeostatic level - shame. You may not like it, but you have unwittingly trained your brain to like it for you.
I like cheese doodles. A lot. When my brain sees orange it sees cheese doodles. I prefer cheese doodles to cheese cake. There was a time (before my time) when those that taught used to receive the proverbial apple for a job well done. Each semester, just before mid-terms, it's funny how piles of those delectable little cheese doodle bags wind up on my desk. Not entirely convinced they are performance-related, but I digress... The reason I prefer cheese doodles to cheese cake is because genetically, I have more sensory taste neurons in the quadrant of my tongue that detect 'salty' better than I can detect 'sweet'. We interpret this as preference when in reality, preference really means sensitivity. I also know that to stay healthy, I should not be eating a lot of salt. My dilemma therefore is either to reduce my sensitivity (and hence my preference) for salt, or to increase my sensitivity for sweet. And because my preference is also to avoid becoming one of the hundreds of thousands of people that now have acquired adult onset (Type-II) diabetes, my pick? Reduce my salt intake, slowly but surely until just a little bit of salt tastes to me now what a lot of salt used to taste like before. What I have accomplished is changing my preference by changing the way my brain operates and hence perceives. It can be said that i cured my motivation to want highly salty food. Now I am motivated to not want them as well. Think about the relevance.
In his recent book (2010) Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, Stephen S. Hall writes that "one of the hallmarks of wisdom, what distinguishes it so sharply from "mere" intelligence, is the ability to experience good judgment in the face of imperfect knowledge". This is both true and problematic if one is sex addicted. Does that mean that sex addicts are not wise? Yes, that is what that means. This also means that decision-making, motivation, attention, goal-directed behavior, ToM, and judgment, as I have already discussed, are impaired. This is the sex addiction paradox. If what is needed to get well is to first and foremost have the ability to be wise, to judge, discern, empathize, attend, become and stay motivated, and to plan for future events, all of which are emanating from an impaired brain, then how is the sex addict supposed to get in and stay in treatment? Reminds me of the quandary one might face when applying for a job that requires experience that you do not have and cannot get because all the jobs require the same experience that you do not have. So how on earth is a sex addict supposed to find the cognitively higher-order act of forgiveness when to do so means giving up shame and giving up shame directly contradicts what the brain thinks is normal for you to do? It does not want to get fixed. It wants to act out. I remind my patients that they have a broken thinker and if they want to heal then they will need to give up their broken thinking process, and allow those of us with working thinkers to do the treatment-related thinking for them. After all, if your car is broken don't you bring it to the shop and get a rental, or do you prefer to drive a broken clunker that never gets you to your destination because it always breaks down (surprise, surprise), which in turn aggravates you to no end, and leaves you wondering, in a fit of anger and frustration, why it is you can never get to where you are going without getting stuck in some nefarious neck of the woods?
Empathy is a major component of forgiveness and therefore a major component of the healing journey for the sex addict. If however, these things are not possible in any significant way at the outset, since this area of the brain is broken, then how is it the vast majority of clinicians treating sex addiction are administering therapy and expecting their patients to reap the benefits, when they have not even remotely addressed the fact that they cannot hear you, metaphorically speaking, because they are deaf to what you are saying! This is detrimental to the addict trying to recover. It reminds me of a Twilight Zone episode where a guy would take the train to get home just like he always did a million times before. For some reason however, every time he tries to exit for his stop, he steps out into a place he had never before seen, from a time way before his. Over and over again he dozes on the train and wakes up to step off at his stop and winds up at this same very bizarre place. Every time it's the same - he cannot get home.
Every clinician knows that the best therapy in the world is pointless at most, dangerous at worst, if you have not correctly diagnosed your patient! A falsis principiis proficisci if ever there was one. In order to arrive at an accurate spot-on diagnosis, it means two things at the very onset; that we are as completely entrenched in and up-to-date in the area(s) of our specialty as is humanly possible, and, that we are academically well-versed and trained enough to know what questions to ask in the first place. If you are sex addicted and your brain has not been assessed (non-invasively) for these basic functions, then you are not going to get well. Helen Keller notwithstanding, you cannot dance to music you cannot hear, can you? I have a cartoon snipping of Snoopy and his bird Woodstock wherein they are both sitting atop Snoopy's dog house. Snoopy is talking away, and Woodstock appears transfixed by what Snoopy is saying. The cloud above Woodstock, instead of showing the words that Snoopy is speaking, shows nothing but line-after-line of exclamation marks! Clearly, Woodstock is not hearing what Snoopy is saying and neither are the wiser for it.
In his research on how different people progress along different trajectories, Gregory Smith (2009) begins, and rightly so, with the statement that "the core marker of progress in psychological science is the degree to which our work enhances the welfare of people... In the end, the most important marker of the value of what we do, is the degree to which advances in psychological knowledge lead to the increased well-being and life success of people". Amen.