Our Forgiveness Blog
A recent study by Peetz, Davydenko, and Wohl (2021) concludes that there is a “dark side” to self-forgiveness. They, in fact, use this term three different times in the journal article. The point of this blog is to challenge their view and to show that the statement is an over-reaction to their data.
Here is what they did in the study: They asked people who were entering a grocery store to fill out a self-forgiveness scale specifically regarding over-spending in the past and a scale that assesses beliefs about whether people can change their abilities or not. For the latter variable, the researchers were interested, for example, in whether participants believed they could or could not change their spending habits if they overspent.
Those who believe that people, including themselves, can change unwanted habits are called incrementalists. This issue of incrementalism is important in this research because the authors were hypothesizing that if people think that they cannot change their behavior of over-spending (they are not incrementalists), then they likely will be more cautious in how they spend relative to the incrementalists who might take the cavalier attitude that “I can always change bad behavior.”
So, the expectation in the research was this: Those who over-spent in the past and who now have forgiven themselves, and who think they can change, will have problematic spending on this new shopping venture. This is what the authors called—three times—the “dark side” of self-forgiveness.
So, then, what did they find? In Study 1, with over 100 participants, the statistical results were not significant. The findings approached significance in that those who forgave themselves and who are incrementalists (believing that they can change and so over-spending should not be that big of a deal) tended to spend more, but again it was not statistically significant.
In Study 2, they did a larger study with over 200 participants and found the exact same thing. There was no statistical significance for self-forgivers, who are incrementalists, to over-spend.
Upon their third try, they looked at spending relative to what was the pre-determined budget prior to shopping. Here they did find that those who self-forgave for over-spending in the past and who were incrementalists (thinking they could change and so the over-spending probably is not a big deal) did spend more than those who kept themselves in check because they were not incrementalists (in other words, they did not trust themselves to change spending habits as much as people with the incremental beliefs that they could change).
Yet, here is the bottom-line critique of this work: The authors never assessed: 1) whether or not the participants who spent more than they had planned had way-overdone the spending; 2) whether or not the spending was harmful to their budget or to the family’s budget; and 3) whether or not any true economic injustice was done by the purchase.
The average reported total amount spent by participants in Study 2 was $74.06. For the majority of people, this hardly would destroy the family finances. In other words, was this kind of spending harmful? Self-forgiveness takes place in the context of harm, of unjust treatment, often toward others, and is seen by the self-forgiver as unjust. Was this kind of spending in this study unjust? The authors did not ask the participants if they thought this was the case.
So, in the final analysis, we see that in one of three statistical tries, participants, who formerly have self-forgiven for over-spending and who think they can change their behavior, spend perhaps a little more than those who think they cannot change. How big is this difference and how serious is it for the family? Given the statistical failure in two out of three tries and given the small sum spent on the average ($74.06), it seems to me that calling this a “dark side” of self-forgiveness is not warranted, at least for now. Do you see how there is a “dark side” to exaggerating conclusions about the dark side of forgiveness?
Robert Peetz, J., Davydenko, M., & Wohl, M. J. A. (2021). The cost of self-forgiveness: Incremental theorists spend more money after forgiving the self for past overspending. Personality and Individual Differences, 179, 110902.
For over 10 years on this site, we have posted a reflection in which we encourage readers to grow in love as their legacy of the present year. We have said this across the years:
“Give love away as your legacy of 2022.
How can you start? I recommend starting by looking backward at one incident of 2021. Please think of one incident with one person in which you were loved unconditionally, perhaps even surprised by a partner or a parent or a caring colleague. Think of your reaction when you felt love coming from the other and you felt love in your heart and the other saw it in your eyes. What was said? How were you affirmed for who you are, not necessarily for something you did? What was the other’s heart like, and yours?”
It is now about four months later. Can you list some specific, concrete ways in which you have chosen love over indifference? Love over annoyance? If so, what are those specifics and how are they loving? We ask because we have only about eight months left to 2022. Have you engaged in about a third of all the loving responses that you will leave in this world this year?
If you have not yet deliberately left love (or enough love) in the world this year, there is time. . . . . and the clock is ticking.
Viktor Frankl, a psychoanalytic psychologist, imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II, had a direct response to Nietzsche by saying that the primary human force is the Will to Meaning, a will to make sense out of life and particularly out of suffering. Finding meaning, not a specific meaning common to all people, but finding a meaning itself has the survival value. As people think of life as meaningless, then they die. Yet, this contentless Will to Meaning has a contradiction in it. It cannot be opposing Nietzsche’s Will to Power if, in finding meaning, one person’s meaning for life is to gain more influence over another. In other words, Frankl’s deliberately contentless theme of the Will to Meaning must accommodate the content in some people’s minds that the Will to Power is their own personal meaning to life. It is the way the world works, at least as some people try to make meaning out of a cruel world. Yet, Frankl’s view, I think, is a developmentally more sophisticated worldview because it makes room for much more than the brutish vying for dominance and control in the world.
Jesus Christ, in contrast to Nietzsche and Frankl, has a different worldview. It is the Will to Love. Others, of course, have said this, too, but we must be scholarly here and give credit to the original proclamations. This Will to Love consciously repudiates the need to dominate, to seek power. Even if Nietzsche is correct that the Will to Power typifies the untrained, under-developed will of humanity, Christ’s challenge is to overcome that. Nietzsche, in other words, takes what is and mistakenly presumes that this is what ought to be. Frankl, in contrast, takes what is (we are presuming for now that the Will to Power is a natural tendency in humans) and is showing us that we can fill in the blank with other, perhaps better content when we ask, “What is the meaning of life and suffering for me?” Christ, in contrast to Frankl, and in common with Nietzsche, commits to one particular content—in this case, love—as the central Will for humanity.
It seems to me that we have a developmental progression here in terms of a greater fulfillment of humanity, the fulfillment of who we are as persons. We start in the mire of a Will to Power and can do great damage if we stay there, and if the world stays there. The Will to Meaning is a transition in that it takes us out of the inevitability of seeking power. The Will to Love, which honors the life of all, is the highest of these world views. Why? Because it is the only one of the three that is intimately concerned about all life. If humanity will survive, our questing after the Will to Power is a dangerous path because in its conscious, extreme form, it destroys others so that one’s own domain can expand.
To those like Nietzsche who think that love and the equality of persons is a weakened view of humanity, my response is this: How are you distorting the moral virtue of love? How are you misunderstanding it? To love is to help with the survival of all others, not to destroy for one’s own survival, dominance, and control. In the seeking of others’ betterment, one finds vitality and joy and gives the freedom to others to do the same. The Will to Love is the only assurance of survival and the thriving of all, including the self.
Which of these world views will you bring to others today?
First you need to change your view of who you are as a person if you have been stuck in unforgiveness and are discouraged. The power perspective will tell you that you are less than you should be if your loved ones reject you. Do not listen to the voice of power. It is all too easy to condemn yourself when others first condemn you. Try to counter that power perspective starting now. Who are you as a person? You are someone who has inherent worth even when you struggle in life. You are someone who is special, unique, and irreplaceable even if you have unhealthy anger in your heart. You are not a failure at forgiveness.
Remember that forgiveness is a process that takes time and patience and determination. Try not to be harsh on yourself if you are struggling with this process. How you are doing in this process today is not an indication of where you will be in this process 1 month from now. Who are you?
Excerpt from R. Enright (2015). 8 Keys to Forgiveness. New York: Norton
Guest Blog by Gianna Elms, LCSW
My experience as a psychotherapist who has specialized in helping clients resolve unconscious anger through forgiveness for nearly a decade has been a mission of healing. Forgiveness is the most powerful therapeutic method that I have found because it is the answer to what underlies the psychological conflicts that produce psychiatric symptoms in many, yet the medical model would prefer that we believe differently. Forgiveness is the antidote to anger, which is difficult for people to release because the world teaches us that “getting back” at someone for hurting us or at least desiring revenge is healthy and a sign of strength.
Beyond everything else that I have learned, there’s an important factor that must be in place before I recommend working with forgiveness therapy.
In the case of forgiveness therapy, the role of the psychotherapist is to help the client to abandon their anger towards the offender and adopt agape love for the offender. Some clients are not ready to even hear words that are common in forgiveness therapy like forgiveness, love, fear or even anger. I have learned that some other psychotherapeutic interventions are necessary to help these clients to be ready to accept that they are angry, and forgiveness can help them heal.
The greatest challenges that I have witnessed clients face when working towards forgiveness is an unwillingness to let go of the illusion of strength or control that they believe they have when they hold onto their anger and maintain a lack of healthy boundaries, which often leads to continuing or renewing a relationship where there is no forgiveness, trust, apology, or justice between the parties. It’s another attempt to hold onto another illusion that they have achieved forgiveness or reconciliation. Many times, it’s more about learning to let go of what is familiar, such as a belief system that they had prior to beginning psychotherapy or an unconscious defense mechanism (e.g., denial). After all, unconscious defense mechanisms have an original protective purpose. It can be hard for clients to believe that forgiveness, which is so new and unfamiliar, is going to offer them greater freedom and protection.
The journey to learning how to forgive is often challenging and rewarding as clients work through their pain. I have learned that it is important to always demonstrate that I understand by being genuinely empathetic and compassionately normalizing the client’s pain, fear, and other emotions. I also provide teaching and reasoning as a therapeutic intervention about how healthy boundaries, for example, serve as a means of self-protection from future abuse and how it is consistent with healthy self-love and agape love for others.
If a client decides to receive or continue treatment while communicating with the offender, I provide supportive therapy and help the client to identify how the relationship is healing or causing more pain. Clients are typically able to figure out on their own, with the help of this type of psychotherapeutic intervention, that the relationship is unhealthy, and they will ultimately abandon their false belief that somehow they can make a relationship work with the person who is unwilling to change, which then increases their willingness to accept the new, healthier ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, to include the primary goal of forgiveness.
“I believe that forgiveness should be used more in therapy because it promotes wellness and it’s good for the soul.”
Gianna Elms, LCSW
There are some cases when clients choose not to forgive and the effects are simply the same as when they started treatment, or in some cases, worse. I believe that forgiveness should be used more in therapy because it promotes wellness and it’s good for the soul. The secret to forgiveness though is that once a person learns how to forgive…the person can forgive immediately, even while the injury is happening because they’ve learned the meaning of forgiveness beyond just the therapy model. It comes from their heart that was healed and they adopt it as a new belief system that protects them from anger as long as they put it into practice. It’s like a muscle memory in the unconscious that connects to the heart, which needs to be exercised regularly, so that they never forget. That’s something that I learned one night, and I now teach it to others.
I hope that you will consider your state in life and how forgiveness will be of value to you and others who you have the opportunity to help. We all need forgiveness because we have hurt others, but we need forgiveness to heal us when others hurt us too.
About Gianna Elms:
Gianna Elms, LCSW is a mental health and disability advocate who has been practicing for twelve years and is currently based in Flagstaff, AZ where she provides tele-therapy, spiritual counseling, consultations, and on-site services when travel permits. She has been a passionate ambassador of forgiveness since completing the International Forgiveness Institute’s Helping Clients Forgive course (now called Forgiveness Therapy). She has an MSW in Social Work and has a valid license to practice as a Clinical Social Worker in Arizona and Missouri. She is also a qualified clinical supervisor in Arizona.
Before her MSW, Gianna earned an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology and a B.S. in Disability Studies and has a valid certification to practice and supervise as a Rehabilitation Counselor nationwide. After receiving her MSW, she completed a Post-Graduate Fellowship in Psychoanalytic Thought and an ADA Coordinator Certification. Her clinical experience includes crisis intervention, treatment of past abuse, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (PNES); evaluation and treatment of mood, anxiety, alcohol and substance use disorders and chronic pain; career counseling, case management, advocacy, accommodations of people who experience disabilities, blindness and visual impairments; and training clinicians and others.