The entrance of the idea of forgiveness into the social sciences is quite recent. The first publication within psychology that centered specifically on people forgiving other people was published in the late 20th century (Enright, Santos, and Al-Mabuk, 1989). That article examined children’s, adolescents’, and adults’ thoughts about what forgiving is. In other words, the study took one slice of forgiveness, in this case people’s thoughts, and examined those thoughts from a scientific perspective. Such an investigation, of course, does not then imply that forgiving is all about thoughts and thoughts alone just because that was the focus of the scientific investigation.
People forgiving other people is an ancient idea, first explicated thousands of years ago in the story within the Jewish tradition of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers who sold him into slavery. The portrait of forgiveness in that ancient report includes Joseph’s entire being, not just his thinking, as he shows anger, a sense at first of revenge, which slowly transforms into tenderness toward his half-brothers in the form of weeping, hugs, generosity, and an outpouring of love. His entire being was involved in the forgiving.
Philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, have developed what is known as the virtue-ethics tradition to explain morality. To be virtuous is, like Joseph, to produce a moral response with one’s entire being: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations toward goodness, and relationships that reflect that goodness.
Psychologists, in contrast, and especially if they do not rely on this wisdom-of-the-ages, tend to compartmentalize forgiveness. For example, they may borrow from personality psychology and conclude that there is a trait of forgiving and a state of forgiving and these are somehow different. A trait forgiver, it is assumed, already has a personality geared to forgiving. In other words, expertise in forgiving is not forged by practice, practice, and more practice as we all have this opportunity toward developing expertise in forgiving.
Other psychologists, when they do not take the virtue-ethics position, tend to think of forgiving as mostly emotional as the forgiver substitutes more pleasant feelings for the existing resentment toward an offending person. Substitution of feelings, as seen in the Joseph story, is only one part, and not even the most important part of forgiveness. Offering love in a broad sense is the most important part.
The bottom line is this: Taking only a psychological perspective on the concept of forgiving tends toward reductionism, breaking up of forgiveness into smaller and more exclusive parts than should be the case. This tends to distort the concept of forgiveness. If a distorted view of forgiveness is presented to clients in therapy, are we helping those clients reach their highest potential as forgivers?
Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989). The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.
Has the struggle with the injustice made you tired? Let us say that you have 10 points of energy to get through each day. How many of those points of energy do you use fighting (even subconsciously) the injustice as an internal struggle? Even if you are giving 1 or 2 points of your energy each day to this, it is too much and could be considered another wound for you.
When you consider the person and the situation now under consideration, do you see any changes in your life that were either a direct or indirect consequence of the person’s injustice? In what way did your life change that led to greater struggle for you? On our 0-to-10 scale, how great a change was there in your life as a result of the injustice? Let a 0 stand for no change whatsoever, a 5 stand for moderate change in your life, and a 10 stand for dramatic change in your life. Your answer will help you determine whether this is another wound for you. As you can see, the wounds from the original injustice have a way of accumulating and adding to your suffering.
When I started working at a domestic violence shelter for women and children just over three years ago, forgiveness was the last thing on my mind. My formal education focused on teaching “coping skills” so that clients with mental illness could learn to survive in a cruel and dangerous world. If learning how to cope didn’t do enough to reduce their symptoms, I was taught to rationalize their lack of success as just being part of the mental illness and to refer them for a medication evaluation. Methods that promoted healing were simply left out.
I held a personal belief that forgiveness was the way to heal from trauma, but my employer didn’t offer it. Instead, we focused on domestic violence education and coping skills as a means to survival. But, this did nothing to promote healing from the very wounds that we told our clients put them at risk for abuse. So, the cycle of violence continued and we functioned more like a revolving door than a place of recovery.
When I realized that our programs were not providing what we promised, I wanted to do more. I wanted to do more than help my clients survive because even though they learned how to survive, they didn’t learn how to stop the abuse. After several months of trying to figure out what I could do with women who may or may not be in shelter for more than a few months, I recalled what I had learned from Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and proposed his forgiveness therapy method as a way to resolve feelings like anger, shame and guilt.
It was a risk to even suggest that victims of domestic violence could forgive their abusers. But, I was able to convince my supervisor that learning the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation had the potential to reduce violence against women. So, after receiving permission, I designed a 10-week group based on the Enright Forgiveness Process.
After only a few weeks, I noticed a major change in the women. Instead of being irritable and short-tempered, they were kind and compassionate to one another and we had fewer reported problems in shelter living. While I anticipated healing, I certainly didn’t expect my job to be easier or for it to happen so quickly. I thought I was teaching them how to forgive their abusers, which they did. But, something bigger was happening. They were learning how to love each other and to experience joy in their suffering. That’s when everything that I had learned from Dr. Enright made sense and I was given a new purpose.
I have been using forgiveness therapy now for more than three years. I continue to use it more than any other method because I have witnessed real healing from trauma and mental illness. I’ve found that there is more pain in forgiveness, but it doesn’t last as long and the forgiver is stronger because of it if they persevere. Forgiveness moves the person from a state of anger and victimization to a state of courage and grace. And when the person chooses to love instead of hate the person who hurt them, they discover that all that is left is love. The Enright Forgiveness Process teaches people how to love and healing is the result.
Personally, I can’t think of a better outcome. I hope that my experience with forgiveness therapy will inspire other mental health professionals to complete the continuing education course from the International Forgiveness Institute. While forgiveness only requires the person who was hurt to forgive, they shouldn’t have to do it alone.
Carly Elms is a family therapist at the Franciscan Forgiveness Center in Independence, Missouri where she offers forgiveness therapy to individuals, couples, families, and religious communities throughout the Kansas City metro area and Northwest Missouri. Along with her Masters in Clinical Social Work (MSW), she has a Masters of Education in Educational & Counseling Psychology (M.Ed.). She is a U.S. Air Force veteran. Carly successfully completed “Helping Clients Forgive,” the International Forgiveness Institute’s online Continuing Education Course, with one of the highest scores ever recorded.
Read more about Carly Elms at CatholicTherapists.com.
Forgiveness therapy is a way for both client and therapist to examine those situations in which the client was or is treated unfairly for the express purpose of helping the person to understand the offender; to learn to slowly let go of anger with this person; and, over time, to make a moral response of goodness toward the offender or offenders. This process may require many months or even years.
Forgiveness therapy does not ignore the client and his or her needs. On the contrary, the paradox is that as the client or patient takes the light of scrutiny off of self and places it in a moral way on the offenders in his or her life, it is the client who is healed. As readers will see, our emphasis on a “moral” response is vital for understanding forgiveness therapy. There is nothing novel about forgiveness therapy if it reduces simply to “moving on” or “adjusting.” There is much that is novel about it when the therapist challenges the client to “have compassion” and “do no harm” regarding a person with whom he or she is angry and frustrated.
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 164-171). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.
Both Downie (1965), a philosopher, and Droll (1985), a psychologist, raised the challenging possibility that someone who practices forgiveness may become overly sensitive to slights and minor hurts. As a forgiver begins to scrutinize injustices, he or she may begin to falsely see these at every turn. Yet, those who genuinely forgive try to see exactly what happened in the original offense. If anything, true forgiving would seem to correct hypersensitivity as the forgiver strives for an accurate understanding of offender and offense.
Enright, Robert D.; Fitzgibbons, Richard P. (2014-11-17). Forgiveness Therapy (Kindle Locations 5107-5110). American Psychological Association (APA). Kindle Edition.