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:
- Self-Forgiveness: Three Controversies
- Are You Interested in Ridding Yourself of All Resentment?
- How to Like Yourself After a Series of Failed Relationships
- How to Forgive Yourself for a Big Mistake–Even If No One Else Will
I started the forgiveness process, but I am stuck on the idea that I might be able to have some compassion for the one who injured me. This is not possible. So, am I flunking the forgiveness test?
You definitely are not “flunking the forgiveness test” if you are unable to feel compassion toward the other. Please keep in mind the following points: First, forgiveness takes time and so please be gentle with yourself. Second, we are not necessarily in control of our emotions, especially one as delicate as compassion, or a tender suffering along with the other. Third, please resist trying to force compassion. It likely will come only with time and the continual practice of forgiving. This could be many months. Fourth and finally, you do not have to forgive in its complete sense to have forgiven the person. Even if you can see his or her mistakes, pain, and confusion, this may be sufficient for your forgiving, at least for now.
For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.
A close friend asked one of us yesterday, “What is a good heart?” We never had been asked this before. Our response is below. What is your response?
A good heart first has suffered. In the suffering, the person knows that all on this planet are subjected to suffering and so his heart is compassionate, patient, supportive, and loving as best he can in this fallen world. The good heart is forgiving, ever forgiving, vigilant in forgiving. The good heart tries to be in service to others. The good heart is no longer afraid of suffering and has joy because of the suffering, not in spite of it. Having suffered and having passed through suffering, the good heart dances. Others do not understand the good, joyous heart. Yet, the one with the good heart does not compromise the goodness and the joy. It is like a valuable gift received and she knows it.
Does the forgiveness process require that one feels empathy toward the other person, or is sympathy sufficient?
Empathy is the process by which one “steps inside the shoes of the other” and feels the feelings of that person. Sympathy is more of a reaction to the other. For example, suppose a teenager comes to you and he is very angry about failing a test. You show empathy if you try to feel the student’s anger. In contrast, you show sympathy by reacting to the student’s anger, for example, by feeling sad for the person.
When you forgive, we need to realize that this is both a process in which we start slowly and it is an imperfect process in that we do not always reach the deepest parts of that process. Thus, one can feel sympathy toward the offending person by feeling sorry for that person. Yet, a deeper response is “stepping inside the person’s shoes” with empathy and seeing, for example, the person’s woundedness, the person’s fears and confusions. I say this is “deeper” because you are developing more insights into whom the other actually is. As you see people, in all of their humanity, this more likely will lead to compassion for that person. The compassion can lead to forgiveness, or loving those who have not loved you.
Learn more at Forgiving is not. . .
You say that part of forgiveness is to offer compassion toward the one who offended you. The one who hurt me has passed away. How can I begin to have compassion on this person?
Compassion includes at least four elements:
1) Sympathy toward the one who hurt you. Sympathy is an emotional reaction to another’s pain. For example, if someone comes to you angry that he just lost his job and now is struggling financially, you have sympathy when you feel sorry for the person. His anger and unfortunate situation leads to a different emotion in you: sadness.
2) Empathy toward the one who hurt you. Empathy is stepping inside the other’s shoes (so to speak) and feeling the same feeling as the other. Thus, when the other is angry, you empathize with that person when you also feel anger.
3) Behaving toward the other by supporting him or her in the time of distress. This could include a kind word or talking about the strategy of solving the job problem, as examples.
4) Suffering along with the person. This latter point is the deepest aspect of compassion. It could involve helping the person financially before a new job is secured; it could involve driving the person to a job interview.
In the case of having compassion for a deceased person, you can have sympathy and empathy (the first two elements of compassion), but you cannot engage in the other two elements because behavior with and toward the other is not possible. Compassion need not have all four elements to count as compassion. You can think of the hard times endured by the deceased person and react with sympathy and empathy. Such compassion may aid your forgiveness.
Learn more by reading any of these books by Dr. Forgiveness -Dr. Robert Enright: