A Guest Blog by Dr. Suzanne Freedman
Editor’s Note: Forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is a sensitive and controversial subject that is being addressed by Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Dr. Freedman has studied and conducted forgiveness research with Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology on Forgiveness with Incest Survivors. This is a summary of a blog Dr. Freedman wrote that was posted earlier this month on the website “And He Restoreth My Soul.”
To view the complete blog, click here.
The idea of forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is often met with surprise, skepticism, and even horror. However, past research with forgiveness illustrates that forgiveness education and/or forgiveness counseling can be healing for those who have experienced past sexual abuse.
Freedman & Enright (1996) conducted an individual educational intervention using forgiveness as the goal with 12 incest survivors. Results illustrated that post intervention individuals were more forgiving toward their abusers, had decreased anxiety and depression and increased hope for the future as well as greater self-esteem compared to those who had not experienced the forgiveness education and themselves preintervention (see Freedman & Enright, 1996). Research with other populations who have experienced deep hurt also illustrates increased forgiveness as well as greater psychological well-being post intervention.
When discussing the topic of forgiveness for survivors of sexual abuse, it is important to be clear about what exactly is meant by forgiveness, specifically what forgiveness is and is not. . . According to Enright (2001) and North (1987), forgiveness can be defined as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and sometimes even love toward him or her”.
Notice in the definition that one has a “right” to feel resentment because of the way she or he was injured and that the offender does not “deserve” our compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward an offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings and sometimes even behaviors toward an offender can occur.
Why Forgive? Many survivors of sexual abuse often ask, “Why do I need to forgive? Why do I need to do all the work? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Of course, this is true but when one forgives, they are personally benefiting by freeing themselves of anger, bitterness, and resentment. . . . Forgiveness allows one to free themselves of negative feelings as well as find meaning in the worst of life’s event. It is also a selfless and compassionate act as one who forgives is helping to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred. Using a compassionate and generous heart to meet deep pain and hurt is one of the most difficult things to do. However, by doing so you are freeing yourself from the prison of anger and power the abuser has over you.
The points below illustrate how forgiveness is not the same as accepting or pardoning the sexual abuse, reconciliation, being weak, denying one’s anger or giving up, nor does it mean that justice cannot occur:
- Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing. . . .
- Forgiveness takes time. . . .
- Forgiveness is a choice one makes for her or himself. . . .
- Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation. . . .
- Forgiveness can occur in the absence of an apology. . . .
- Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. . . .
- Forgiveness does not mean Forgetting. . . .
Research supports forgiveness education and therapy as an effective form of treatment for those who have endured deep hurts such as sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness leads to decreases in stress, anger, anxiety and depression (Enright, 2001). People who are able to forgive also are more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate towards others. Forgiveness has physical heath benefits as well. Research illustrates decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches in those who have forgiven.
I wrote this blog to describe how forgiveness can be healing for individuals who have been deeply, personally and unfairly hurt by acts of sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness is an individual choice, and as such, we need to offer that choice to survivors of sexual abuse by accurately informing them about what it means to forgive, including what forgiveness is and is not, as well as respecting and supporting them when they choose to forgive.
For more information on how to go about forgiving and the benefits of forgiveness please check out the following resources:
Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness Is a Choice. Washington, D.C. APA Life Tools.
Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington D.C., American Psychological Association.
Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal With Incest Survivors. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, 64, 983-992.
Smedes, L. B. (1996). The Art of Forgiving. Nashville, TN: Moorings.
Malcom, W., DeCourville, N., & Belicki, K. (2007). Women’s reflections on the complexities of forgiveness. New York, New York: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.
“Become My Son”: A South African Mother’s Response to the Man Who Murdered Both Her Son and Her Husband
After Apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Boek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.
Unfathomable Cruelty and Indignity
I can’t fathom the source or the energy needed to fuel such cruelty. But more unfathomable is the surviving woman’s response (the mother of the son and wife to the husband murdered and burned). What must she have thought and felt as she sat in the court room being burdened and re-traumatized by evidence?
A member of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, “So, what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?”
How is Justice to be done?
That’s the right question, isn’t it? What is justice; how can it be achieved; how does it look different from mere retribution and punishment? But the judge asked “how should justice be done for this man?” – not – “for this surviving woman.”
What would this wife & mother say in the face of such murderous cruelty that further caused indignity to her husband’s and son’s remains?
“I want three things,” the woman said confidently:
“I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial. My husband and son were my only family.”
Become My Son!?
“I want, secondly, for Mr. Van der Boek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.”
This is truly a breathtaking request. We can finish her sentence starting with “I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I . . .” – fill in the blank!
- So I can get him to feel the crushing poverty I live with.
- So I can have him feel the full void of my loss with no husband or son.
- So I can have him feel every distrusting eye scrutinize him as the minority in our community.
But no; she finishes her request with “so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.” How much love does she still have?
And I could not find if Mr. Van der Boek could possibly receive such love. Did he come out, as she asked, twice a month to spend the day with her for the sole purpose of receiving what ever love she may still possess?
“And finally, I would like Mr. Van der Boek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Boek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
From Michael Wakely, Can It Be True? A Personal Pilgrimage through Faith and Doubt.
Forgiveness cannot be demanded
I am not naive enough to think that it’s all good in South Africa, or that forgiveness should be given because it is expected, or that forgiveness should be given because it does as much to release the forgiver as it does the forgiven (for a contrasting view, read “You may free apartheid killers but you can’t force victims to forgive“). But as the woman in the above noted story alluded, forgiveness is possible when we recognize our own status as forgiven people.
This blog is reposted with permission from R.H. (Rusty) Foerger.
Visit his website: More Enigma Than Dogma
Related blogs by Rusty Foerger:
“Forgiveness therapy targets and reduces unhealthy anger.”
Psychological depression occurs in at least 25% of all primary care patients in the United States and yet only about one-third of these are diagnosed as depressed. Mental illness is not an isolated issue but is associated with such physical compromise as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer (American Psychological Association, 2017). It is estimated that over 14 million people in the United States suffer from major depressive disorder (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, 2017).
The good news is that depression is a highly treatable disorder with medication and with such psychological approaches as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (recognizing and stopping maladaptive thinking and replacing this with more adaptive thoughts and behaviors), Mindfulness Therapy (being present to the symptoms and not letting troublesome thoughts drift to the past or future), and Behavioral Therapy (engaging in rewarding behaviors).
A new approach, Forgiveness Therapy, focuses on a sequence that is not a common practice in contemporary psychotherapies:
- Examine whether or not you have been treated unfairly, even cruelly, in the past. Recognize this as unjust.
- Realize that emotional pain is a natural next step when reacting to such unfair treatment by others. After all, you have a right to be treated with respect, even if this does not occur.
- If you do not find a solution to this emotional pain, eventually you may become angry at the situation and at the persisting pain.
- If you do not find a solution to the growing anger or the emotional pain, then you might develop what we call unhealthy anger, the kind that is so deep that it starts to affect sleep, energy levels, thoughts, and behaviors (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015).
- If the unhealthy anger persists, this can develop more deeply into symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The takeaway message from the above sequence is this: For some people, depression is not the only issue to be treated. Instead there are three other, central issues too often missed with traditional therapies: injustice(s) that happen but are not confronted; the emotional pain that ensues; and most importantly for Forgiveness Therapy, the unhealthy anger that fuels the depression in some people.
If you only focus on current medication or current thoughts or current symptoms, you may miss the actual cause of the depression, which could be a build-up of the unhealthy anger caused by emotional pain caused by injustice.
Forgiveness Therapy starts by examining the injustices in your life that may be compromising that life now. Some people are surprised to learn that they still carry the emotional wounds, for example, from being bullied on the school playground, or being belittled by a parent years ago, or not being given a chance in the workplace when just starting out. It is this kind of injustice that has to be uncovered and identified as hurtful in the present.
Next comes the challenge of admitting the depth of one’s anger. The norms of contemporary society, that good people do not get deeply angry, can get in the way of this identification, but it is vital to go more deeply than these norms to see if, in fact, the anger is deep, lingering, and harmful. When unresolved anger from the past mixes with contemporary challenges, then the anger can intensify, compromising one’s well-being and thus leading to depressive symptoms.
At this point, a person may be ready to try to forgive because of this insight: My unhealthy anger is destructive for me. To forgive is to start the process of being good to those who are not good to you. It starts with the insight that the other is more than what he or she did to me. We share a common humanity. We even might share a common woundedness in that the person wounded me out of his or her own woundedness. Such insights can lead to a softer heart toward the other, which reduces anger to manageable levels, which can lead to a reduction in depressive symptoms. The more that the unhealthy anger lessens, the more the depression can be reduced (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Lin, Mack, Enright, Krahn, & Baskin, 2004).
Forgiveness Therapy is not a substitute for medication or for the implementation of other psychotherapies such as CBT. Forgiveness Therapy can come alongside these well-tested approaches and give you added strength to deal with the depression and to reduce it to manageable levels. Forgiveness Therapy is not for everyone. Some just do not want to consider the paradox of offering kindness toward the unkind. This form of therapy needs to be willingly chosen by the client. It is new but tested both scientifically and clinically, and it works.
Do you have injustices, even from your distant past, that are getting in the way of your happiness? If you start the process of forgiving those who have been cruel to you, perhaps the depression not only will be managed but reduced to a degree that may surprise you.
Posted in Psychology Today April 6, 2017
- American Psychological Association (2017, retrieved). Data on behavioral health in the United States http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/data-behavioral-health.aspx
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (2017, retrieved). Depression statistics.
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.
Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.
“Healing the emotional and relational wounds for couples.”
Life is hard enough without the added layer of conflict with those who are supposed to be good to us, which can lead to resentment which can lead to misery. One’s own inner conflict can spread to others and when a person is in a close relationship, it is all too easy for that inner conflict to become the other’s conflict as well.
The first ground-rule for these exercises is this: You are not doing this to change your partner. Your task is to change yourself and to do your part to improve the relationship. The second ground-rule is this: Your task is not to pressure your partner into these exercises. It is better if both of you are drawn to them, not cajoled into them.
With these ground-rules in place, let us go to the first exercise. Together, talk out what it means to forgive another person. You might be surprised to learn that you are not in agreement as to what forgiveness actually is because such a discussion of its meaning is rare. Common misconceptions are these: To forgive is just to move on from difficult situations; to forgive is to forget what happened; to forgive is to excuse what happened; to forgive is to stop asking something of the other by no longer seeking fairness. Yet, to forgive is none of these. To forgive is to offer goodness to those who have not been good to you. To forgive is to be strong enough to offer such goodness through your emotional pain for the other’s good. Take some time to discuss each other’s views and please do so with respect. Learning what forgiveness actually is takes time and effort primarily because we have not been schooled enough in this important concept.
The second exercise is to talk out the hurts that you received in your family of origin, where you grew up. Let the other know of your emotional wounds. This exercise is not meant to cast blame on anyone in your family of origin. Instead, the exercise is meant for each of you to deepen your insight into who your partner is. Knowing the other’s wounds is one more dimension of knowing your partner as a person. As you each identify the wounds from your past, try to see what you, personally, are bringing from that past into the relationship. Try to see what your partner is bringing from the past to your relationship. Who, now, is your partner as you see those wounds, perhaps for the first time?
For the third exercise, together, and only if you choose this, work on forgiving those from your family of origin who have wounded you. Support one another in the striving to grow in the process of forgiveness. The goal is to wipe the resentment-slate clean so that you are not bringing those particular wounds to the breakfast table (and lunch table and dinner table) every day. You can find direction in the forgiving process in my book, The Forgiving Life (American Psychological Association, 2012). Walking this path of forgiveness takes time and should not be rushed. Assist one another in this path. Be the support person for the other. Each one’s personal forgiveness journey is made easier when it is a team effort.
For the fourth exercise, when you are finished forgiving those family members from the past, work on forgiving your partner for those wounds brought into your relationship, and at the same time, seek forgiveness from your partner for the woundedness you bring to your relationship. Then, see if the relationship improves.
Finally, the fifth exercise: persevere in your forgiveness discussions. As an analogy, you do not become physically fit by four weeks or even four months of effort that then is abandoned. You have to keep at it. To become forgivingly fit, you need to set aside even a little time, perhaps 15 minutes a week, to discuss the injustices impinging on either or both of you, from inside the relationship, inside the family, or outside of it……..and then forgive and help the other to do so. You do not have to let the injustices of the past and the current inner miseries dominate you or your relationship. Forgiveness offers a cure for the misery and, at the same time, hope for a renewed and strengthened relationship.
Posted in Psychology Today March 11, 2017
When I began 30 years ago to apply social scientific methods to the ancient moral virtue of forgiveness, my students and I ran into a rather large problem. People were afraid to forgive. When we probed this fear, we began to realize a common theme across the fearful. They equated forgiving with automatically and dutifully going back into abusive situations. “My spouse denigrates me. If I forgive, then I go back for more……but I do not want to go back for more. Thus, I will not forgive.”
It took us a while, but eventually we saw that to forgive is not the same as to reconcile. Forgiveness, as with justice and patience and kindness, is a virtue, originating inside people as an insight (I can be good to those who are not good to me) and as a feeling of empathy and compassion for the offending other, not because of the offense but in spite of it. Forgiving behaviors flow from the insight and compassion.
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a behavioral negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust. You can forgive and not trust a person in their weak areas (you do not lend money to the compulsive gambler even though you can try to be good to the person in other ways as a sign of forgiving). You can forgive and not reconcile at all if the other remains abusive.
Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. This insight opened the door for social scientific work on forgiveness for us because to forgive is not to create unsafe situations for the forgiver.
We now turn to two, what I call, Modern Misconceptions, the latest critiques of forgiveness, particularly Forgiveness Therapy, a new form of psychotherapy which emerged from the research journey begun three decades ago (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). These Modern Misconceptions are quite different from the early misconception because they target forgiveness itself—not fear—and are highly critical of this potentially life-changing virtue, even if practiced well and with patience.
Modern Misconception 1 goes something like this: You who advocate for Forgiveness Therapy or Forgiveness Education with students (Enright, Rhody, Litts, & Klatt, 2014) ask way too much of forgivers. You ask them to bear the burden of their own healing and that is not fair. They already have been hurt so why ask them now to struggle after forgiveness?
Two burdens are theirs: the original offense and now Forgiveness Therapy. Yet, as with the equating of forgiveness with reconciliation, this Modern Misconception has an error embedded within it. It is not at all an added and unnecessary burden to help a person, whose heart is broken, to forgive.
Take a physical analogy to make the point clear. Suppose James pushes Jeremy to the ground, dislocating his shoulder. Is it unwise now to ask Jeremy to enter into a rehabilitation process to repair the shoulder? Is it an added burden we should never ask because he is hurting? It would seem that the unfairness lies, not in the encouraging of medical treatment, but the reverse—discouraging it because it will be rigorous and painful.
Is it not the same with Forgiveness Therapy for those who choose it? The heart is broken, yes, because of the original unfairness. If the person chooses rehab of the heart—Forgiveness Therapy—isn’t this repair good even though rigorous and painful? The Modern Misconception might keep people from rehab of the heart and so it needs to be challenged.
Modern Misconception 2 has emerged from my giving 13 invited forgiveness talks in an area of the world plagued by a land dispute that is disrupting individual, family, community, and political peace. The misconception unfolds this way: You say that forgiveness is good, but how will it get my land back? It will not get my land back. Therefore, forgiveness is weak and ineffective. I will have nothing to do with it.
My response is to give a multiple choice question to the skeptic. Which of these two would you rather have:
- You live for the rest of your life without getting your land back and you also live with a deep anger that disrupts your inner life and the life of those around you; or,
- You live for the rest of your life without getting your land back and you are free of the deep anger that disrupts you, your loved ones, and your community?
Which do you choose? In every case across the 13 lectures, the skeptic ends up choosing answer (B), living without the debilitating resentment. It is at that point that the person is willing to explore the subtleties of forgiveness without dismissing it. Such exploration could, in the long run, save lives from psychological devastation. The error in Modern Misconception 2 occurs when the person focuses exclusively on the original problem (land dispute) without even realizing that a second, just as serious, problem has emerged because of the land dispute—resentment entrenched in the heart. Forgiveness can cure this second problem while not being able to solve the original problem. Without seeing this, the person rejects forgiveness as weak.
Misconceptions…..they can drive a person away from forgiveness or become a stimulus for more thoroughly exploring what forgiveness has to offer. Left unexplored, the Modern Misconceptions could leave some people without a path of healing that could have been theirs……if only they had explored more deeply.
Posted in Psychology Today February 18, 2017
- Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
- Enright, R.D. , Rhody, M., Litts, B., & Klatt. J.S. (2014). Piloting forgiveness education in a divided community: Comparing electronic pen-pal and journaling activities across two groups of youth. Journal of Moral Education, 43, 1-17.