In my experience, I find that mental health professionals emphasize catharsis or “getting the anger off one’s chest.” I now am wondering if this is an incomplete approach to good treatment. What do you think?
Catharsis as the exclusive end in and of itself is not advised when the anger is deep and long-lasting. This is because the venting of anger does not cure the anger in the vast majority of cases. Taking some time to be aware of the anger, and the expression of it within temperate (reasonable) bounds in the short-run, can help the client to be aware of the depth of that anger. The cure for the anger, in other words the deep reduction in that anger, is forgiveness, shown scientifically to be the case (see Enright & Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness Therapy, 2015).
Editor’s Note: Except for those literally living under a rock, few can deny that forgiveness has become not only an accepted but sought-after area of scientific psychological research during the past few decades. Forgiveness interventions have been tested, enhanced, and endorsed for both their psychological benefits as well as their physical health benefits. This year, in fact, marks a significant anniversary in what has become a remarkable evolution. Here are some of the significant dates in that chronology:
1989 – The first empirically-based published article in which there was an explicit focus on person-to-person forgiving appeared in the Journal of Adolescence. The article, “The Adolescent as Forgiver,” assessed two studies that focused on how children, adolescents, and young adults thought about forgiveness. The studies were conducted by Dr. Robert Enright, Dr. Radhi Al-Mabuk, and Dr. Maria Santos, MD.
“This year marks an important 30th anniversary of which the world is hardly aware and from which the world has greatly benefitted,” Dr. Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, wrote earlier this month in a Psychology Today blog article referring to those pioneering studies and the Journal of Adolescence article. “Prior to this study, there was research on apology, or people seeking forgiveness, but never with a deliberate focus on people forgiving one another.”
In the first 1989 study, 59 subjects in grades 4, 7, 10, college and in adulthood were interviewed and tested to assess their stages of forgiveness development. As predicted, the study provided strong evidence that people’s understanding of forgiveness develops with age. Study 2, with 60 subjects, replicated the findings of Study 1.
1993 – The next empirical study of forgiveness was published that introduced Dr. Enright’s Process Model of how people forgive. (Hebl & Enright, 1993). This study showed that as elderly females forgave family members for unjust treatment, then they (the forgivers themselves) became psychologically healthier. This was the first published intervention study and it showed a cause-and-effect relationship between learning to forgive and the subsequent positive changes in psychological health.
1995 – Other researchers began to publish the results of their studies as they, too, took up the empirical cause of forgiveness. Dr. Enright, on whom Time magazine bestowed the title “the forgiveness trailblazer,” shared the knowledge he gained from his groundbreaking forgiveness research with inquisitive researchers around the globe who significantly broadened the scope of forgiveness investigations.
2015 – The empirically-based treatment manual, Forgiveness Therapy, is published by the American Psychological Association. Its authors: Dr. Robert Enright and psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons. Its audience: thousands of mental health professions around the world who are helping to make forgiveness therapy a gold-standard therapeutic treatment like psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioral therapy.♥
Learn more about Dr. Enright’s pioneering role in forgiveness therapy by reading his complete April 16, 2019 Psychology Today blog article “Reflecting on 30 Years of Forgiveness Science.”
In your book with Dr. Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness Therapy (2015), you focus on the initial emotional reaction as unhealthy anger. I feel more sad than angry and so I am wondering why such a heavy emphasis on anger in particular.
In our experience, we do see that some people present with anger, some with confusion, some with mild anger, and some with a burning hatred. So, you are correct that anger is not the exclusive presenting emotion. Yet, it is excessive anger that most concerns us because of the scientifically-supported relationship between deep, abiding anger (unhealthy anger) and the development of other psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. See for example, Vidal-Ribas, P., Brotman, M.A., Valdivieso, I., Leibenluft, E., & Stringaris, A. (2016). The status of irritability in psychiatry: A conceptual and quantitative review. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 55, 556-570. When a client presents with a pattern of unhealthy anger because of unjust treatment by others, and if the person chooses to forgive, we do recommend Forgiveness Therapy as the treatment approach so that psychological symptoms can decrease.
I worry about introducing forgiveness into my school. I am a principal. Suppose we start introducing your forgiveness curricula in first grade (age 6). Might we inadvertently be putting pressure on the children to forgive, in essence forcing them to forgive before they are ready?
Part of good forgiveness education is to be sure that the students know this: Forgiveness is a choice and never should be forced upon anyone. We try very hard in our forgiveness curriculum guides for teachers to make it clear that children should be drawn to forgiveness because they see its beauty and importance, not pressured to do so. Good forgiveness education will not pressure students. Once they understand what forgiveness is by seeing story characters struggle with this, then they can better make their own decisions whether or not to forgive someone in their own lives who have hurt them.
Learn more about Forgiveness Education for Children at: Curriculum.
If I practice forgiveness a lot, will I become faster at reaching an endpoint of forgiving, or will this depend on the severity of the injustice against me?
In my own experience with others, I see that as people practice forgiveness, they actually do become what I call “expert forgivers” in that they forgive more quickly and more deeply than was the case in the past. At the same time, if the current injustice is severe, this will take longer to forgive the one who perpetrated this severe injustice. Even if it takes you longer now to forgive people for recent severe injustices against you, the length of your forgiving still likely will be shorter than it might have been years ago, when you were just starting to learn about forgiveness.
For additional information, see The Forgiving Life.