Our Forgiveness Blog

Forgiveness Therapy and Getting Past Unconscious Resistances

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.

Gianna Elms, LCSW, is a mental health and disability advocate who has been practicing for twelve years in Missouri and Arizona and is a passionate ambassador for 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.

For more information about Gianna, you may find her on giannaelmslcsw.com or forgivepraylove.com.


 

Reflecting on Resolutions — Again

Editor’s Note: Exactly 10-years ago this week, in this very same website section, Dr. Robert Enright urged his blog followers to consider adopting a New Year’s resolution to “have a strong will as a forgiver.” Given the unprecedented hyperawareness of forgiveness and forgiveness interventions that has developed since then, his 2012 essay “A Reflection on Resolutions” merits an encore. Here is part of what he wrote:

“This New Year’s Day, my challenge to you is: resolve to have a strong will as a forgiver. . . By that I mean your inner determination and behavioral manifestation of staying the course, finishing the race. . . We talk in society about free will and good will, but rarely about the strong will that helps us stay the course.

“To forgive requires a free will to say yes to the path of mercy and love, a good will to embrace mercy in the face of unfair treatment, and a strong will so that you do not stop persevering in forgiveness. To persevere in forgiveness is one of the most important things you can do for your family, your community, and for yourself.

“Without the strong will, you could easily be like the rowboat, once tethered to the dock, now loosened from the moorings as it slowly drifts out to sea. As the cares of the world envelope you, the opportunity to cling to the forgiving life may slowly fade until you are unaware that the motivation to keep forgiving is gone.

“Having a strong will means that you will remember what you resolved; you will follow through with the resolution. You have the opportunity to make a merciful difference in a world that seems not to have a strong enough collective will to keep forgiveness alive in the heart. The choice is yours. The benefits may surprise you.”


Dr. Robert Enright, Ph.D., who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness, is co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. He is also a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a licensed psychologist. The various titles and labels that have been bestowed on him during his 37-year career devoted to forgiveness include:

  • Dr. Forgiveness. . .
  • Dr. Bob. . .
  • The forgiveness trailblazer. . . 
  • The father of forgiveness research. . .
  • The man who pioneered the social scientific study of forgiveness. . .
  • Creator of a Pathway to Forgiveness. . . (the Enright Process Model of Forgiveness)
  • The guru of what many are calling a new science of forgiveness. . .
  • Aristotelian Professorship in Forgiveness Science. . .

A Promise Kept

Have you ever made a promise to love, honor, and obey outside the covenant of marriage?  In a certain way, I have. 

That promise, which I made in 2002, has now been fulfilled as we turn the clock to 2022.  We at the International Forgiveness Institute had just decided to start forgiveness education programs at the century’s turn.  The point was this: If learning to forgive can aid people’s recovery from deep injustices against them, then wouldn’t it be a good idea to help young children learn to forgive so that, once the storms of life hit them as adults, then they would have a tool, forgiveness, to avert confusion, resentment, and even possible abiding anger and anxiety?  It seemed to be worth a try and so we looked around the globe with this question: Where is there a society that now is post-conflict, which has suffered, and which might benefit from forgiveness education?

Our team at the International Forgiveness Institute, after much thought and discussion, centered on Belfast, Northern Ireland for four reasons: 1) There had been The Troubles across Northern Ireland, in which Irish Catholics and British Protestants were in an escalated conflict since 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry/Londonderry; 2) there was a signed peace accord in 1998, which reduced the conflict, but still there was a post-conflict sense of tension; 3) the two groups were English-speaking and so we would not have to start with interpreters; and 4) Ireland and Northern Ireland are two of the closest ports-of-call from the Eastern United States.

So, off my two sons and I went in July of 2002, landing first on the West Coast of the Emerald Isle and then to Belfast, where we met the esteemed Anne Gallagher, who formed Seeds of Hope to do her best to bring peace to Northern Ireland.  Anne was amazing in introducing us to primary school personnel and we had the great honor to start forgiveness education in both St. Vincent de Paul Primary School and Ligoniel Primary School, both on the Ligoniel Road in Belfast.


“Forgiveness isn’t something that’s talked about with reconciliation, but it’s needed to bring closure to the pain and suffering experienced in Northern Ireland. You can’t contemplate hope unless you address despair. To heal the wounds of Northern Ireland I believe you have to see humanity in the face of the enemy. Forgiveness is a journey.”

Anne Gallagher (1953-2013)


Upon my first visit to the principal of St. Vincent de Paul School, Mr. Brian McParland, he heard our proposal for forgiveness education and agreed that this is a vital vision for Northern Ireland.  He assented to having this programme pioneered in his school.  Yet, he quickly added this: “You will not last more than 3 years here in Belfast.”  I was surprised to hear that and asked, “Brian, why do you say that?”  He looked at me and said, “No one lasts more than 3 years in Belfast.  After that time, people grow weary, the thrill of travel wears off and they quit.”  I took a deep breath and answered, “Brian, I will give you 20 years.”  He looked at me with kindness, but said nothing.

Well, as I consult Siri on the Apple Watch, I see that the calendar is about to turn to the year 2022.  Hold on for a minute. . . I have to do a little bit of quick math.  Ahh, yes. . . it has been exactly 20 years now since my promise to Mr. McParland.  Our International Forgiveness Institute has successfully implemented forgiveness education now in many schools of Belfast and surrounding communities.

As we end the 20th year, some of us at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are doing a research program with 18 classrooms of primary 7 students (grade 5 in the United States), across Northern Ireland, funded by the John Templeton Foundation.  This will culminate in an international conference in Madison, Wisconsin, led by Jacqueline Song of our International Forgiveness Institute, in which these teachers will participate.

As I look around, I see that Mr. Brian McParland now is retired from his educational duties.  Mrs. Claire Hilman, the principal at Ligoniel Primary in 2002, also is retired.  Dear Anne Gallagher now has passed to eternal life.  No other educators who joined us two decades ago are still there.  As I look around, I see that I have kept my promise now only to God and me.  And that is sufficient for the promise-keeping.  I hope that at least some in Northern Ireland are the better for it.

A promise kept may bear fruit of which none of us is aware and this is why we press on with the vision for forgiveness education, started two decades ago.

Robert

Shedding Light on “The Dark Side of Forgiveness”

On December 16 this year, I had an interview with Justin Ballis, writer for the London-based magazine, What the Doctors Don’t Tell You, that aims to provide evidence-based holistic solutions to illness. Mr. Ballis was one of the most informed interviewers on the topic of forgiveness whom I have ever encountered. The interview covered an impressively wide range of topics on forgiveness, one of which centered on criticisms leveled against the practice of forgiving those who hurt us. In his researching the skeptical views, Mr. Ballis came across a journal article on “the dark side of forgiveness” by Dr. James K. McNulty:

McNulty, J.K. (2011). The dark side of forgiveness: The tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 770-783.

This discussion with Mr. Ballis got me thinking: If well-informed journalists are aware of Dr. McNulty’s article, then it is important to have a thoroughgoing critique of that work, which is flawed in many ways. So, with this in mind, here is an excerpt (chapter 14) from my book with Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness Therapy (American Psychological Association, 2015), in which we examine the science behind this work:

McNulty (2011) claimed to have found scientific support for the view that forgiving within marriage perpetuates injustice. Seventy-two first-married couples took part in a survey in which they responded to hypothetical situations regarding forgiveness. For example, one of the partners asks the other to mail a very important package which the other partner then forgets to do. On a 1-to-7 scale, the respondent reports the degree of forgiveness that he or she would offer to the forgetful spouse.  We have four criticisms of the study’s conclusions: a) The questionnaire was very short (five items); b) the questions were all hypothetical and not actual situations in the marriage; c) only one of the hypothetical scenarios is actually serious (an alleged affair), and d) the questionnaire simply asks the participant if he/she would forgive without ever defining the term. The forgetful spouse who failed to mail the package did not act with intent to harm. The one choosing to have an affair did. In other words, some respondents may be confusing genuine forgiveness with excusing or “letting go.”  This is a serious flaw to the work (failing to distinguish related but quite different terms) that could have been overcome by asking people what they mean when they use the word forgiveness. The findings could reflect this: Those who score high on this scale are doing the most excusing or condoning, which could make them vulnerable to further abuse. In other words, those who excuse may not seek a proper justice solution upon “forgiving.”

So, there is our critique. My conclusion? It is this: If there is a “dark side” to forgiveness, the above study is not the one to show it.

Robert

The Good Old School Days

OK, everyone, it is time to reflect on those good old school days of yore, those care-free days when everyone thought we did not have a care in the world. Yet, sometimes we carry burdens from those days and we do so in the silence of our own hearts. When was the last time that you, as an adult, had a discussion about your days in elementary, middle, or high school? When was the last time you had such a discussion with an emphasis on the emotional wounds you received back then? I am guessing that such discussion-times have been quite rare.

I wonder how many of you reading this still have some unresolved issues from the good-old-days. It is in school, within the peer group, at recess, on the sports team that our current sense of self is shaped, at least to a degree. Sometimes we are influenced by those days to a greater extent than we realize.

So, it is time for a little quiz. Please think about your days in school and see if you can identify one person who was unjust to you, so unjust that when you think about the person now, it hurts. This person is a candidate for your forgiveness. I have an important question for you: How has this person inadvertently influenced your own view of yourself? How has this person’s actions made you feel less than who you really are? Do you see that it is time to change that?

My challenge to you today is to take steps to forgive the person for those behaviors long ago that have influenced you up to this very moment. It is time to take a better look at what happened, to forgive, and then to ask the question after you forgive: Who am I now as I admit to the injustice, admit to it negatively influencing how I have seen myself all these years, and who am I now as I stand in forgiveness?

Perhaps the good old days will seem a little brighter once you forgive. You will have lifted a silent burden.

Robert

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