South African Study: Individuals with Higher Intelligence are Better at Self-Forgiveness

Potchefstroom, South Africa – A just-released scientific study from a theology professor at one of South Africa’s largest universities has determined that individuals with higher emotional intelligence are more effective at self-forgiveness because they can better address “the emotional and spiritual challenges linked to the process of self-pardon.” 

The study was published on May 25, 2020, in In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi, the acclaimed official journal of the Reformed Theological Society. Although the study immediately generated some controversial backlash, its author says his findings should come as no surprise.

“Research has also shown how important emotional intelligence is for the success of a marriage, relationship(s), self-discipline, physical wellbeing, social popularity and the workplace,” according to researcher Wentzel Coetzer. “The literature is quite conclusive.”

A theology professor at North-West University in Potchefstroom (68,000+ students), about 35 miles south of Johannesburg, professor Coetzer focused his study on analyzing what he calls “the four prominent pastoral-psychological models identified in the forgiveness literature.”

The first of those four models was developed by psychologist Dr. Robert Enright (The Enright Forgiveness Process Model) while the second of the four models was developed jointly by Dr. Enright and psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons (Forgiveness Therapy). Professor Coetzer also outlines his belief that self-forgiveness has been more or less neglected by forgiveness researchers and is “even occasionally described as the ‘ stepchild ‘ of research on forgiveness.” 

Despite that, professor Coetzer outlines that one of the earliest psychological definitions of self-pardon was that of Enright (1996).” In fact, it was just one of Dr. Enright’s early contributions to the History of Forgiveness Therapy. The co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, who was labeled “the forgiveness trailblazer” by Time magazine, Dr. Enright’s definition of self-forgiveness hasn’t changed since he developed it nearly 25 years ago:


“Self-forgiveness may be defined as a willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself.”
Dr. Robert Enright


Citing Dr. Enright’s definition and subsequent research, professor Coetzer uses his study to emphasize that self-forgiveness must not be “a self-serving mechanism to simply avoid the pains associated with owning up to ones offenses.” Rather, he says, authentic self-forgiveness must include:

  • accepting full ownership of one’s transgressions;
  • accepting responsibility rather than casting it unto others;
  • acknowledging guilt or shame;
  • refusing to consider yourself as a victim; and,
  • attempting to repair the damage.

Professor Coetzer  also emphasizes that the bitterness towards ourselves due to offenses and failures can be just as damaging and debilitating as not forgiving others. That can lead, he says, to emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, distrust, negative self-esteem, social withdrawal and neurotic characteristics. Accordingly, he concludes, these actions should be dealt with by “canceling the debt.”

Self-forgiveness, as outlined in this study (and as detailed in Dr. Enright’s seven self-help forgiveness books), is a rational decision affirming your intention to treat yourself as a valuable person. This implies, among other things, that you are no longer vindictive toward yourself and you are no longer going to try to punish yourself for failures of the past. On the contrary, you will consider yourself worthy.


Learn more about Self-Forgiveness from Dr. Robert Enright:

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1 comment

  1. How timely, as work from Dr. Enright was written in this article I came upon today re: Forgiveness Therapy: https://aeon.co/essays/forgiveness-therapy-can-free-you-from-the-hurts-of-the-past

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