Tagged: “forgiveness therapy”
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.
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.
Both can be effective, as seen in the research section of the book, Forgiveness Therapy, APA Books, 2015. Yet, statistics show that one-on-one therapy (of at least 12 or more sessions once a week for 12 weeks) is more effective than brief therapy (which is about 4 to 8 sessions).
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.
Calling forgiveness one of mankind’s “most important innovations,” TIME magazine is doubling down on its 22-year infatuation with the moral virtue by declaring, “Beset by a global plague, political turmoil, and social reckonings, it’s time for forgiveness to go viral.”
The internationally acclaimed news publication first introduced the science of forgiveness to its readers on March 28, 1999, in an essay titled “Should All Be Forgiven?” That widely-cited introductory overview of forgiveness—one of the first ever in a publication designed for the general public—helped usher in a plethora of forgiveness-related articles since then that reported on the superabundance of new research projects focused on forgiveness.
“In the past two years, scientists and sociologists have begun to extract forgiveness and the act of forgiving from the confines of the confessional, transforming it into the subject of quantifiable research,” the TIME article in 1999 sermonized. “In one case, they have even systemized it as a 20-part ‘intervention’ that they claim can be used to treat a number of anger-related ills in a totally secular context. In short, to forgive is no longer just divine.”
The “20-part intervention” in the TIME quote (above) is a reference to the Enright Process Model of Forgiveness that was just being developed at that time by Dr. Robert Enright, a University of Wisconsin-Madison clinical psychology professor and forgiveness researcher. Dr. Enright had founded the International Forgiveness Institute four years earlier.
For his leadership work with that early model and for his development of innovative forgiveness interventions, TIME magazine crowned Dr. Enright “the forgiveness trailblazer.” Shortly after receiving that recognition, The Los Angeles Times editorialized that Dr. Enright is “the guru of what many are calling a new science of forgiveness.” The Christian Science Monitor called him “the father of forgiveness research.”
Fast forward 22-years and you will discover an updated and enthusiastic TIME magazine essay with this headline: “After a Year That Pushed Us to the Brink, It’s Time for Forgiveness to Go Viral.” The dictionary definition of “going viral,” of course, is when an idea is of such significance that it spreads quickly and widely on the Internet. In this case, it also refers to the actual implementation of that idea which is described in the article much like a miracle cure:
“It is a powerful solution backed up by both cutting edge neuroscience and age-old wisdom. It leads to greater cooperation, eases conflict, increases personal happiness, lowers anxiety and is completely free. It’s called forgiveness.”
One of the studies cited in this latest article is a comparison of various forgiveness interventions. Among those available for testing, the study concludes, Dr. Enright’s interventions are the most effective. “Using theoretically grounded forgiveness interventions is a sound choice for helping clients to deal with past offenses and helping them achieve resolution in the form of forgiveness,” according to the study. “. . . the advantage for individual interventions was most clearly demonstrated for Enright-model interventions.” (Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: a meta-analysis)
That recent TIME article also makes a direct comparison between the success of the forgiveness coalition and the “mindfulness and meditation” movement:
“Like forgiveness, mindfulness and meditation have been shown in many circumstances to reduce stress levels, mitigate heart disease, and lower blood pressure. Can we create the same level of cultural penetration for forgiveness? Our future may well depend on it. Beset by a global plague, political turmoil, and social reckonings, it’s time for forgiveness to go viral.”
The latest TIME article was authored by Andrew Serazin, President of the Templeton World Charity Foundation and Chair of the Forgiveness Forum, a series of global conversations on the mental and physical health benefits of forgiveness.
Editor’s Note: To illustrate the dramatic upward trajectory of the forgiveness movement, when Dr. Enright began exploring the social scientific study of forgiveness in 1985, there were no published empirical studies on person-to-person forgiveness. Today there are more than 3,000 published articles on that subject according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), many of them authored by Dr. Enright during his 35+ years of forgiveness research and intervention ingenuity.
- Read the full TIME article: “After a Year That Pushed Us to the Brink, It’s Time for Forgiveness to Go Viral.”
- Read the full March 28, 1999 TIME article: “Should All Be Forgiven?”
Do you think people get less out of forgiving if the motive is self-preservation rather than a concern for the other as a person?
We have yet to do a research study in which we examine different outcomes for those who have different initial motives for forgiving. One problem in doing such a research study is this: Often people start Forgiveness Therapy because of their own emotional compromise caused by an injustice from others. Yet, as people go through the forgiveness process, their motive often changes from a focus on the self to a genuine concern for the other. Thus, this issue of motive is a moving target and so is difficult to study. Yet, it is worth more careful thought.