Tagged: “Dr. Suzanne Freedman”

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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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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The Value of Forgiveness

“2020 brought plenty to be angry about. There’s been a global pandemic, a national reckoning with racial injustice, an economic crisis and a presidential election – all of it debated each day on social media. But University of Northern Iowa (UNI) education professor Suzanne Freedman, who has specialized in forgiveness research over nearly three decades, says now may be a good time to remember the benefits of forgiveness, empathy and understanding.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Offsetting his dreary assessment of this unusual year with a final note of optimism, writer Steve Schmadeke used the paragraph above to set the stage for an informative article about the benefits of forgiveness that was printed last week in the online periodical INSIDE UNI. The article featured the forgiveness philosophy of Dr. Suzanne Freedman, a UNI professor of human development who is also a former graduate student and long-time research associate of Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Here are some of Dr. Freedman’s pronouncements as quoted in the UNI article:

What are the benefits of forgiveness?

I am often asked, “Why should I forgive?” and my response is always the same: “What’s the alternative?” Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury or damage, it allows us to move forward in our lives free from the negative effects of 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.

Freedman3Research has found that benefits of forgiveness for children, adolescents and adults include greater psychological and physical well-being, including decreases in anger, anxiety and depression. It also shows increases in hope, self-esteem, feelings of peace, improved relationships and academic achievement for students in school, as well as decreases in blood pressure, headaches and stress.

How does forgiveness deal with anger?

We have a right to feel resentment and anger. Many people criticize forgiveness because they mistakenly believe that anger is not part of the process. In fact, the opposite is true. We need to express our anger before we can forgive. Forgiveness involves admitting that one has been hurt, working through the feelings related to that hurt and then moving beyond them. The other important point is that the offender does not deserve our compassion because of their hurtful actions. However, we give it nevertheless.

Is self-forgiveness a real thing?

Self-forgiveness is a real thing. We have a model of self-forgiveness that is similar to our model of forgiving another. Self-forgiveness occurs when we have to forgive oneself for committing a deep, personal and unfair hurt. However, like in forgiving others, it occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt. 

This can be hurt you have suffered due to your own actions. People who find self-forgiveness may be less likely to engage in self-destructive behavior or even hurt others. 

Our society needs to do a better job of helping people realize that they can move on from their worst pains or actions. When individuals view themselves from the lens of only their hurtful behavior, they are not recognizing the fact that all human beings have inherent worth. Forgiving yourself will make it easier for individuals to become more forgiving of others, too.

Read the full UNI article: The Value of Forgiveness


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ABOUT DR. SUZANNE FREEDMAN:
A professor of human development at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal with Incest Survivors.

At the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman teaches a variety of development courses including Studies in Forgiveness–an online, continuing education course designed primarily for upper-class psychology, counseling, and clinical students preparing to work with clients as helping professionals.

Dr. Freedman can be reached at freedman@uni.edu


MORE FORGIVENESS COMMENTARY FROM DR. FREEDMAN:

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It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: The Importance of Admitting and Expressing One’s Painful Emotions in Everyday Life and When Forgiving

A Guest Blog by
Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D.

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the importance of helping teens become comfortable with “uncomfortable emotions,” specifically the importance of helping them accept these feelings as well as express them in this time of great uncertainty and sadness. Written by psychologist Lisa Damour, the article notes that our typical style of helping teens cope with negative emotions is to either downplay such emotions, be cheerleaders to help teens stay positive, and/or encourage them to focus on being as productive as possible. Unfortunately, these methods are not always helpful and can teach teens to bury, ignore, or numb their uncomfortable feelings.  

When I read Damour’s article, I couldn’t help but think of how similar the ideas of “admitting to and bearing the unpleasant feelings” are to the first phase in Dr. Robert Enright’s 20-unit Process Model of forgiveness, The Uncovering Phase. This phase focuses on uncovering negative feelings and thoughts related to one’s hurt and then dealing with the resulting feelings, such as anger, in a healthy way.  

As with psychological health, there are misconceptions of forgiveness and what is involved when forgiving. One of the greatest misconceptions has to do with the role of anger and other negative emotions in the forgiveness process.  Most people incorrectly assume that anger has no role when forgiving. (Freedman & Chang, 2010). This is not true, as recognizing, admitting to and expressing anger is one of the most important processes in the model (Enright, 2001). We cannot forgive until we admit to our anger and deal with it in a healthy way. Anger and sadness are normal and natural emotions when times are tough and after being deeply, personally and unfairly injured by another.

However, it is sometimes easier to deny, suppress, or ignore our pain and uncomfortable emotions, than actually deal with them.  Dealing with our anger and other uncomfortable emotions means recognizing and admitting to them. Doing this takes courage and strength, especially in a society that often encourages sweeping these feelings under the rug. Admitting to these feelings allows us to express and move beyond them, rather than get stuck in them or hold them in until we explode, which can happen if we don’t deal with our anger and other uncomfortable feelings (Enright, 2001).

Teaching and helping teens to pay attention to their feelings and express them in a healthy way means giving them permission to feel sad, anxious, and insecure, when appropriate. We are currently experiencing a very difficult and scary period and validating teens for all their emotions, both positive and negative, is an important step in the development of good psychological health, just as it is an important step in the forgiveness process.

When people experience interpersonal hurts, validating them for their anger and other painful feelings allows them to ultimately move beyond them to consider the decision to forgive. Damour discusses how one’s emotional strength and resilience becomes greater as a result of dealing with difficult experiences and feelings. Coping with emotional pain in a healthy way, after experiencing a deep hurt, also helps individuals face future interpersonal injuries with more strength, as they are building their forgiveness muscle each time they forgive (Enright 2001).

Normalizing, as well as validating painful and uncomfortable feelings by teens and especially by those who have experienced deep hurt, will help them admit to and express these emotions. Doing so will increase their psychological health and confidence in dealing with future painful emotions and experiences. It will also help individuals who are working on the process of forgiveness to make progress in their journey.

According to Damour, helping teenagers understand that psychological health includes both positive and negative feelings will give them a freedom that they may not have experienced before in their emotional development. Forgiveness also leads to a feeling of freedom, as one works through and moves beyond their anger and other negative emotions. 

Helping teens and those who have been hurt recognize and express their painful feelings, will not only show them that they can bear those uncomfortable feelings, but will give them a sense of hope for the future whether they are facing the darkest of times or the darkest of emotions.

References
Damour, L. (2020). Helping Teens Make Room for Uncomfortable Emotions, New York, Times, May 17. 

Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Freedman, S. & Chang, W. C. (2010). An analysis of a sample of the general population’s understanding of forgiveness: Implications for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 32 (1): 5–34.


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About Dr. Suzanne Freedman: A professor of human development at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal with Incest Survivors.

Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest and sexual abuse, eating disorders, and early adolescent development. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and forgiveness education. At the University of Northern Iowa, she teaches a variety of development courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness. Dr. Freedman can be reached at freedman@uni.edu


More Forgiveness Commentary from Dr. Freedman:


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How long does it take before I can expect some emotional relief in the forgiveness process?

This will depend on how recently you were hurt, how deeply you were hurt, who hurt you, and your experience with the forgiveness process. Our research shows that if you can work on forgiving for about 12 weeks for serious offenses against you, then relief from excessive anger and anxiety can begin to occur. As a perspective on time, Dr. Suzanne Freedman and I did a study of incest survivors and it took about 14 months for the women to experience emotional relief. Although this may seem like a long time, please keep in mind that some of the women were struggling with anxiety and depression for years before they started to forgive.

For additional information, see Intervention with Incest Survivors.

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