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The Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness

By Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.
Professor, University of Northern Iowa

I loved seeing the article on forgiveness in last month’s newsletter.  I have discovered in my 30 years of studying forgiveness from a psychological perspective, that there are many misconceptions associated with what it means to forgive and contexts associated with forgiveness.

A common comment I hear from students in my university course on interpersonal forgiveness is that forgiveness is more complicated than people realize. It may not be the same notion of forgiveness preached by one’s parents or a religious leader. It goes beyond just saying the words, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” Although we often ask for forgiveness for minor injuries, forgiveness occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt (Smedes, 1996, The Art of Forgiving).

Specifically, forgiveness involves a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward an offender, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, empathy, and goodwill toward one’s offender (Enright, 2001, Forgiveness is a Choice). Notice that in this definition, one has a right to resentment and that the offender does not deserve one’s compassion and goodwill.

Although frequently confused with forgetting, acceptance, condoning, excusing, pardon, and denial of anger, forgiveness is none of these. When we forgive, we decrease our negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward the offender and over time, increase our positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors toward the offender. We can also only forgive for the way that we were personally impacted by an offense.

Another common misconception about forgiveness is that you cannot forgive unless you receive an apology from the offender. This may be true for reconciliation but not forgiveness. Forgiveness is something people can do all on their own, for their own well-being, without any response from the offender. Forgiveness can sometimes lead to reconciliation between the injured party and the offender, but it does not have to.

Photo by Thalyson Souza on Unsplash

I began my career by educating adult incest survivors about forgiveness, and have recently turned my attention to children and adolescents. By teaching students about the psychological process of forgiveness, we are helping them develop healthy ways to express feelings, understand the perspective of others, and practice empathy and kindness.

As summarized by a 5th grader who was part of a forgiveness education program that I taught:

“I’ve learned that anger is a natural feeling. It takes time to forgive. You don’t have to forgive right away. They don’t always apologize. Forgiveness is one step closer to healing. You don’t have to be friends with the offender after. Apologies make forgiving easier. Forgiveness is made by the person who was hurt. If you want revenge, then you haven’t forgiven in your heart.”

I am often asked “Why forgive?” and my response is always the same: “What’s the alternative?”  Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury, or damage caused by the injury, it allows us to move forward in our lives free from the negative effects of all-consuming anger, hatred, and resentment. It offers us a way to heal while still acknowledging that what happened to us was wrong, unfair, and extremely hurtful.


This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of SEL in Action, “a newsletter written for educators, by educators to share real world stories, questions, ideas and opinions about how to address the social and emotional needs of students and the adults who teach them.” Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.

Dr. Suzanne Freedman

Dr. Suzanne Freedman is the author of The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness, a curriculum guide for 4th and 5th grade students she co-authored with Dr. Robert Enright. 

Dr. Freedman was recognized with a Veridian Community Engagement Fellowship (Fall 2020) for “meeting a community need through teaching and/or scholarship.” That same year she was also awarded a Kern Family Foundation Grant for a project that “examined ways that moral virtues, such as empathy, can be infused into a course on child and adolescent development.

Learn more about Dr. Freedman and her work at the University of Northern Iowa.

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Can Group Forgiveness in Liberia Lead to Peace?

The head of the Liberia Forgiveness Education Program (LFEP) has been appointed by that country’s president to serve on a Special Presidential Committee that will mediate post-civil war land disputes that have recently become violent. The appointment provides a unique opportunity to test the potential effectiveness of Group Forgiveness interventions developed by Dr. Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI).

Bishop Kortu Brown, who heads up the IFI Liberia Forgiveness Education Program.

Bishop Kortu Brown was appointed last month to the Nimba County Conflict Resolution Committee by Liberian President Dr. George Manneh Weah. Bishop Brown, Chairman/CEO of Church Aid Inc. (CAI) has been National Coordinator of the LFEP since it was established by Dr. Enright nearly 10 years ago.

“The president of Liberia has asked me to participate in a national effort aimed at resolving land conflicts in one of Liberia’s troubled sub-political divisions,”
Bishop Brown said of his recent appointment. “Nimba County has more than 500 land conflicts recorded so we hope that our work can help bring healing and reconciliation to this troubled area.”

The Nimba County conflicts are the aftermath of a horrendous 15-year civil war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 250,000 Liberians between 1989 and 2004, the displacement of more than a million others from their homes, the overthrow of the government of the late President Samuel K. Doe who was assassinated in 1990, and the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers throughout the country. According to a Global News Network Liberia report, the US government has provided more than $2.4 billion in supporting Liberia’s post-war stabilization and development.

Unfortunately, the misery in Liberia did not stop with the end of the civil war. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 4,800 people died from Ebola in Liberia—the West African country hardest hit by the outbreak—and now the country of 4.8 million people is dealing with the deadly uncertainty of the coronavirus epidemic. According to the World Health Organization, Africa accounts for less than 1% of the coronavirus vaccine doses administered globally.

“There is a serious need to bring closure to the civil war and that means reconciliation through forgiveness,” Bishop Brown says, repeating what he has been espousing since becoming the head of the LFEP. “If Liberians will forge peace and reconciliation, they must forgive. Without forgiveness there will be no genuine reconciliation.”

Prior to becoming Liberia’s 25th president in 2018, George Manneh Weah was regarded as one of the greatest African footballers (soccer) of all time and was named African Player of the Century in 1996.

Dr. Enright has been working closely with Bishop Brown and other civic leaders in the West African country since Rev. Joseph Cheapoo, a native of Liberia, walked into Dr. Enright’s University of Wisconsin-Madison office in 2003 and bluntly asked, “Professor Enright, can you help me save my country?”

Rev. Cheapoo, who had fled his home country for the US to save his family during the civil war, agreed to head up the LFEP when he returned to Liberia in 2004. Sadly, Rev. Cheapoo unexpectedly passed away 8 years ago. Bishop Brown anxiously assumed leadership of the LFEP soon after.

“In light of his appointment by President Weah, I have suggested that Bishop Brown engage all Committee members in the Enright Group Forgiveness process before addressing the social conflict issues,” Dr. Enright says. “I suggested that approach, in all humility, because dialogue will not be fruitful if those engaging in the dialogue are still very angry about past grievances. Forgiveness is a scientifically-supported way of eliminating that anger.” 

In response, Bishop Brown shared with Dr. Enright a draft strategy he has since developed for the Committee’s first working session that he calls Reconciliation Through Forgiveness: A Program Concept for Community Bridge-Building.” Components of that strategy include:

  • Conducting a 3-day Awareness Workshop on healing and reconciliation for 150 community, religious and traditional leaders from the 9 sub-political districts in Nimba County on the need to bring closure to the civil war chapter.
  • Conducting a 3-day Forgiveness Education training workshop for teachers in Nimba County primary and secondary schools.
  • Replicating the Forgiveness Education Programs that Church Aid Inc. already has in place in Monrovia (the country’s capitol), Brewerville, and Monsterrado County by initiating identical programs in 25 schools in Nimba County using Kindergarten through Grade 12 curriculum guides developed by the IFI in collaboration with CAI.
  • Conducting a 3-day training and commissioning workshop for 45 Community Reconciliation Animators (CRA) who will continue the work of healing and reconciliation in their respective communities after the Special Presidential Committee’s tenure expires.

“I think that interventions like the Enright Group Forgiveness process are critical to bringing peace and harmony to the communities we seek to serve in Liberia,” says Bishop Brown. In addition to being the General Overseer of the New Water in the Desert Apostolic Pentecostal Church in Brewerville and Chairman/CEO of Church Aid Inc., Bishop Brown is also president of both the Liberia Council of Churches (LLC) and the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia (IRCL).

Forgiveness provides hope for children in Liberia.

“If this forgiveness initiative works as it did in our scientific studies, then resentments and hatred will be reduced, forgiveness will increase, and fruitful dialogue will commence,” Dr. Enright adds. “If forgiveness solves the entrenched group-to-group conflict in Liberia, that country will astonish the world with this new way of attaining peace.”

The Special Presidential Committee will conduct its first session in the next few days and is expected to report its formal recommendations to President Weah within 60 days. The Committee will be chaired by Liberia’s Minister of Internal Affairs while the Chairman of the Liberia Land Authority will serve as co-chairperson.

Learn More

A New Strategy for Peace in the World. . .The Enright Group Forgiveness Inventory

Examining Group Forgiveness: Conceptual and Empirical Issues 

Measuring Intergroup Forgiveness: The Enright Group Forgiveness Inventory

First Ebola, Now Coronavirus: Liberia Suffers Again

Help spread forgiveness education, reconciliation and peace throughout Liberia, West Africa. Click the “Donate” button at the bottom of this page to become a hero to the children of Liberia.


 

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DOMESTIC ABUSE VICTIM CHOOSES COURAGE, FORGIVES HER HUSBAND, AND TURNS HER LIFE AROUND

Ruchi Singh is a young woman who refused to be just another statistic of domestic violence. To turn her life around after fearfully incurring years of abuse at the hands of her alcoholic husband, Singh decided to choose courage—and forgiveness.

Ruchi Singh is a domestic abuse survivor who courageously chose forgiveness and turned her life around.

“Life is made up of millions of moments but there comes a moment that decides the rest of our life,” Singh says. “For me, it was the night my husband (now ex-) put a knife to my throat, threatening to kill me. I am lucky he changed his mind.”

Although Singh wishes she did not have to know how it feels to be terrified in her own home, she acknowledges that it happened and that she had to choose what was going to drive her life—fear or courage.

“I chose courage,” Singh now tells anyone who will listen. “I chose courage, gave myself a voice, and took ownership of my life. The moment I took responsibility for my life, I moved from a place of weakness to a position of strength.”

After the knife incident, Singh was able to get away from her husband in Sydney, Australia, and return to her home in India where she told her parents for the first time about the abuse she endured. With her new-found courage, she told her husband she was not coming back to him and instead filed for divorce.

“Forgiving my husband was something I needed to do to avoid becoming a negative person,” Singh now relates. “I didn’t want to be cruel and hurtful like him. One way of staying internally clean has been by never calling him abusive names. I have even blessed him. It’s not easy, but it’s helped me free myself.”

Singh clarifies her statement by adding that forgiveness does not mean saying she is okay with her husband’s treatment of her, but that she can now continue with her life in a more peaceful frame of mind.

Ruchi Singh provided a keynote speech at the 2020 Peace Summit of Emerging Leaders in Bangkok and received a standing ovation.

“The reason I forgave him was because holding onto hate would have been very harmful for my mental wellbeing,” according to Singh.  “I started my new life by creating awareness on domestic violence together with the message on courage, confidence and the power of communication. Little did I know that it was the beginning of an amazing journey.”

For Singh, forgiving didn’t come easily. It took her three months of intense meditation and hard work to forgive, in large part because her ex had never apologized and he still said everything was her fault.

“I couldn’t just think myself into forgiving, I had to take action,” Singh says. “I had to clean out the muddy water by feeling my way through all the ugly emotions until finally these negative feelings began to dissipate. Also, the chronic hip pain I’d had for four years, which no specialist could figure out, disappeared after I moved away from the relationship.” 

Today Singh is an international keynote speaker, best-selling author, talk show host, and humanitarian who runs her own personal leadership and communications company. Courageous leadership is at the heart of everything she does. She brings that to her website talk show “RuchiSinghTalks” where she provides a safe platform to have uncomfortable but important discussions.

Singh received one of her country’s highest awards in 2020 for her “contribution towards the nation’s development.”

“I share my story to create awareness about this epidemic (domestic violence) which impacts millions all over the world,” Singh says. As she outlines in her video The Power of Forgiveness: Mindset Motivation, she believes everyone has within them “the power to transform and recreate your life.”

Last year, Singh was invited to deliver a keynote speech at the 2020 Peace Summit of Emerging Leaders held at the United Nations Conference Center in Bangkok. The Summit is designed to inspire and empower young people who are passionate about positive social change. The 450+ attendees from 55 countries gave her a standing ovation.

Singh is featured in a documentary film “Till Death Do Us Part” that was the official selection of the 2020 New York Lift-Off Film Festival. That same year, she received one of her country’s highest awards, the Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Award (named after the 2nd President of India).

Learn more about Singh’s amazing transformation and decision to forgive on The Forgiveness Project website.

Watch Singh’s video “The Power of Forgiveness” and all her videos on YouTube.

Visit Ruchi Singh’s website.


 

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TEACHERS: GET TO THE HEART OF LEARNING

As you begin to read about and consider different SEL programs for your students for the 2021-2022 school year, we want you to know about FORGIVENESS
EDUCATION–what it consists of and looks like, how you can easily teach it, and the benefits of forgiveness education for your students and your school.
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The International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) has a variety of curriculums available for all grades from pre-k through 12th grade. Our most recent one is, The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness..

  • For the basic description of this curriculum, check out this link: The Courage to Forgive.
  • For the complete 15-page introduction that explains more about forgiveness education, this specific curriculum, why it is needed, and the benefits of forgiveness education, check out this link: The Courage to Forgive Introduction.
  • To learn more about the IFI’s full range of teacher resources, check out this link: Curriculum Guides.

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New, Just Published Curriculum Guide – THE COURAGE TO FORGIVE: EDUCATING ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN ABOUT FORGIVENESS

Grade school educators, counselors, and homeschooling parents now have a new resource available to help teach their 4th and 5th grade students (ages 9-12) about forgiveness. Serving either as a Social-Emotional Learning or a Character-Education curriculum, the focus is on what forgiveness is, is not, what forgiveness looks like, and the basic concepts associated with forgiveness, including kindness, empathy, perspective-taking, and healthy expression of anger.

The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness uses children’s literature and incorporates the latest social-emotional learning (SEL) and character education principles into its 16-lessons. Each lesson in the 64-page guide is approximately 45-minutes in length and lessons include a variety of activities for students to complete, group and individual discussion questions to reflect on and answer, and even an opportunity for students to write their own book about forgiveness. One life-long teacher was so impressed after previewing the guide that she called it her “character education handbook.”

This new curriculum includes the model of forgiveness developed by Dr. Robert Enright, as well as techniques honed by Dr. Suzanne Freedman during her 2015 research with 5th grade students in a racially-diverse Midwestern school. Selected children’s books, such as, The Forgiveness Garden by Lauren Thompson, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester are used to teach and illustrate forgiveness and related concepts. Book summaries and online videos of the books are included with the curriculum guide.

As stated by Dr. Freedman in the introduction to the curriculum, “It is hard for students to forgive if they don’t know about forgiveness or see examples of it. The children’s literature used in this curriculum illustrates what forgiveness looks like, what’s involved in forgiving and the impact of forgiveness for both the characters who do the forgiving and those who receive it. 

“Helping students develop empathy toward others is a key strategy not only in character-building but in bullying prevention and intervention,” according to Dr. Freedman. “It is critical that we help kids develop empathy early in their lives and this curriculum guide is a great way to do that. Plus, the short sessions using children’s literature are fun for the kids so they are eager to learn.” 

Although this curriculum was written specifically with 4th and 5th grade students in mind, it can be used with older (middle school students) or younger students, since activities can be modified as necessary. Even adults will find the curriculum helpful in their understanding and practice of forgiveness.

“SEL programs are being recognized as an important part of the school curriculum for all students,” Dr. Freedman adds. “In this guide, SEL is incorporated with Forgiveness Education in order to teach students how to recognize and express anger and other emotions in a healthy way, understand the perspective of others, and recognize the humanity in all.” 

The following quote illustrates how one 5th grade student benefited from learning about forgiveness:

“I like forgiveness because it helps me learn how to forgive people. Before forgiveness I was mean and rude to people- I learned to forgive people. I had a lot of anger before but since you came here- I learned to control my anger and calm myself down!”

For more information about the curriculum, read the full 15-page introduction to the guide. 

For more information about the research behind this curriculum guide, read The Impact of Using Children’s Literature to Teach 5th Graders about Forgiveness.


 

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VOLUNTEERS NEEDED FOR RESEARCH PROJECT

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