Not Everyone Quickly Embraces Forgiveness

As we all know, a new idea can sometimes be difficult to introduce and advance. Here, for example, is the story behind Dr. Robert Enright’s very first attempt to help people in prison learn to forgive:

The year is 1985 and Dr. Enright has advanced to become a “full professor of educational psychology” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Fresh off a sabbatical leave during  which he crystalized his ongoing forgiveness research strategy, the young professor learned about an organization that funded forward-looking scientific research projects so he submitted a proposal–one that would help imprisoned people learn to forgive.

Dr. Robert Enright, as a young University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Educational Psychology and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute (inset) along with a more-recent photo.

That proposal was, literally, his very first grant attempt in the science of forgiveness.  Up to that point in the social sciences, there had been no journal articles ever published with an empirical emphasis on person-to-person forgiving. Dr. Enright was obviously a pioneer in that field.

The intake worker from the granting agency not only called Dr. Enright in for an interview but ended that interview by saying, “This is a great idea. I am going to rate your proposal as #1.” Thinking the grant business was going to be easier than he had thought, the applicant went back to his university office to await the inevitable check in the mail.

About a month later, Dr. Enright received a very nondescript rejection letter from the  organization. Confused by the contradiction between high praise and quick rejection, he phoned the person who rated his project #1 and asked why the grant was rejected.

“Professor Enright,” the interviewer answered with disdain, “you embarrassed me! I went into the funding meeting with enthusiasm for your work but the rest of the group was incredulous and said, ‘Give Enright money to help prisoners forgive??  Why, they should be asking forgiveness from us!! Proposal rejected!!'”

While rejections obviously hurt, Dr. Enright did not give up. He fine-tuned his proposals and spent more time analyzing potential funding organizations. Since that first refusal, he has successfully generated significant dollars for his scientific research projects on forgiveness and forgiveness therapy that he has conducted in venues around the world.

Five years ago—30 years after this initial rejection—-he was approached by counselors at a men’s maximum security prison.  They asked him if it might be a good idea to start a forgiveness therapy program to assist the imprisoned men to forgive those who had hurt them when they were children or adolescents. 

“That sounds like a pretty good idea to me,” Dr. Enright replied, as he smiled to himself………. It only took three decades for people to catch up with the idea that learning to forgive may be an important next-step in correctional rehabilitation.  That conversation now has started forgiveness therapy research programs in correctional institutions within the United States with plans to expand into Brazil, Pakistan, and possibly Israel.

Moral of the story: Sometimes good ideas are worth a 30-year wait. 


Another Powerful Use for Forgiveness Therapy: Rehabilitating People in Prison

When International Forgiveness Institute founder Dr. Robert Enright first proposed Forgiveness Therapy for incarcerated people in a correctional facility, his approach was met with an equal amount of derision and skepticism. After all, it had never been tried with a prison population anywhere else in the world.

That was 35 years ago. Today, Dr. Enright’s methodology is being lauded–and more importantly, implemented–because of its positive, demonstrated results with people in prison.

As just one example of the current popularity and credibility of Forgiveness Therapy for prisoners, a podcast featuring Dr. Enright’s work entitled “Rehabilitating those who are “Forgotten”: People in Prison was downloaded by individuals in 225 US cities and 22 foreign countries in just the first three weeks after it was recorded on Aug. 9th.

The podcast was hosted and broadcast by Dr. Alexandra Miller, a popular psychologist, family relations specialist, and author who has also featured Dr. Enright on a previous podcast entitled “How to Forgive.”  The most recent 67-minute podcast discusses two rehabilitation research projects recently completed by Dr. Enright  and research colleague Dr. Maria Gambaro, Ph.D., with 103 men in a maximum-security prison in the United States.  Access the podcast.

Dr. Enright began exploring the possibility of sharing his forgiveness interventions with incarcerated individuals in early 2015 and he initiated his first in-prison research project later that year. Project team members included Dr. Gambaro and associates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and the University of the Philippines-Diliman, Philippines.

Why Forgiveness Therapy Works for People in Prison. . .

"Unjust treatment from others can lead to inner pain, which can lead to anger. Unresolved anger can deepen and linger, turning to what we call excessive anger, compromising one's psychological health and behavior. Excessive anger can turn to rage (very intense, potentially violent anger) which can fuel crime, a lack of cooperation within the prison system, and increased recidivism rates. When the excessive anger is caused by unjust behavior from others, prior to a person's crime, conviction, and imprisonment, then we can reduce and even eliminate the excessive anger through the empirically-verified treatment of Forgiveness Therapy.

Forgiveness Therapy may be one of the few existing mental health approaches which offer the opportunity to be free of excessive anger, perhaps for the first time in the person's life."

From the Abstract of Dr. Enright's first research project (2016) in a maximum-security prison - Proposing Forgiveness Therapy for those in Prison: An Intervention Strategy for Reducing Anger and Promoting Psychological Health.

Both the anecdotal and actual results of that initial project were extremely positive. In one group of 12 inmates receiving Forgiveness Therapy, their anger, anxiety, and depression went down significantly. The men themselves credited the forgiveness group experience for those positive outcomes and the facility’s warden asked that the program continue and expand.

Dr. Enright’s research has shown that Forgiveness Therapy can substantially improve the emotional well-being of incest survivors, people in court-ordered drug rehabilitation, terminally-ill cancer patients, emotionally-abused women, primary and secondary school children, and–now–both female and male prison inmates.

In a similar study in South Korea, Forgiveness Therapy was tested against both an alternative skill streaming program and a no-treatment control group. The 48 female participants were adolescent aggressive victims ranging in age from 12 to 21 years old. After 12 weeks, findings showed that the participants receiving Forgiveness Therapy reported statistically significant decreases in anger, hostile attribution, aggression, and delinquency at posttest and follow-up assessments. Additional results included improved grades at the posttest.

“The reality of Forgiveness Therapy is that as those who are imprisoned learn how to give the gift of forgiveness to those who abused them, their inner world becomes healthier,” Dr. Enright says. “Anger has a way of landing some people in medical facilities and eventually contributes to their serious crimes and long prison terms. Forgiveness Therapy can put an end to that poisonous anger.”

One success story Dr. Enright cites is an imprisoned person he calls Jonah (not his real name). Jonah personally told Dr. Enright, during one of his follow-up visits to the facility, that “forgiveness saved my life.” Jonah also wrote an article for the prison newsletter outlining how confronting his anger enabled him to change his life.

“Jonah has been set free inside even though his body is imprisoned and will be for many years to come,” Dr. Enright explained. “The past pain will not continue to crush him because he has an antidote to the build-up of toxic anger–forgiveness.”

Testimonials from other imprisoned Forgiveness Therapy participants include these:

  •  “I have been imprisoned now 6 different times.  I am convinced that on my first arrest, had I read your book, 8 Keys to Forgiveness, I never would have experienced the other 5.”
  • “My first imprisonment occurred when I was 12 years old.  If you can find a way to give 12-year-olds Forgiveness Therapy, they will not end up as I have in maximum security prison.”

Dr. Gambaro, one of those who helped spearhead the initial Forgiveness Therapy work, has as one of her goals to help imprisoned people prepare for re-entry back into society and reduce the chances that they will return to the facility.

More than 10.3 million people are in prison around the world, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (2018 data) including more than 2.2 million in the U.S. and more than 1.65 million in China.

“When you look at a population of imprisoned people, 95 percent of them are released back in the community,” Gambaro adds. “No matter what you think of those who are imprisoned, they could be your neighbor, someone on the road, or someone at the gas station. Our goal is to help them reintegrate into society so they don’t reincarcerate.”

Given the positive results demonstrated by his own prison projects, as well as similar results expected  from research starting soon in other areas of the world, Dr. Enright says, “Our aspiration is that Forgiveness Therapy will become a well-accepted protocol for people in prison and eventually become available to all in the prison system who need it.”

Learn more about Dr. Enright’s work with imprisoned people:

Is it possible to forgive too much? If so, what would that look like?

Can you be too fair with people? In other words, is there a situation in which the practice of justice can be too much? I do not think so because all of the moral virtues are good and so the practice of the virtues also is good. What you might have in mind is what we call false-forgiveness. In such a case, people, for example, are continually trying to put on a show of their own high virtue and so they are insincere. Also, if someone distorts forgiving by isolating it so that no justice occurs along with forgiveness, then an unhealthy and hasty reconciliation might occur. So, if the forgiving is genuine and is balanced with justice, then there is no such thing as too much forgiving.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

I have started to forgive, but sometimes my anger gets the better of me. I get so angry that I lose focus. What would you recommend?

I would recommend first being aware of the increase in your anger and the degree to which this is happening. Then I would reflect on how the anger itself is compromising you and your health in particular. This can be a motivation to exercise your strong will to continue forgiving. As you continue to persevere in forgiving, then the anger will not be controlling you, but you will be in control of your anger.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness. 

I have begun conversations with someone with whom I have been estranged for about a year. She claims that she wants to forgive and reconcile, but I so often see non-verbal cues such as frowns and even rolled-eyes coming at me. What part of the forgiveness process should I engage when this happens?

I would recommend starting at the beginning and seeing your frustration or anger and then move through the entire process again. This may occur more quickly and with deeper results when you begin again. Only after you have worked through the forgiveness process to some degree might you consider gently talking with her about the discrepancy between her words of forgiving and her non-verbal cues that she is not forgiving.

Have You Been Betrayed? 5 Suggestions for You.

I am thinking of bringing a friend on my forgiveness journey. Please keep in mind that the friend and I actually are forgiving the same person, our employer. Is it a good idea that my forgiveness partner be forgiving the same person as I am forgiving, or should I seek someone else as the forgiveness partner?

I think it would be better in this circumstance to have a forgiveness partner who has not experienced the same injustice as you from the same person. I say this because your mutually-shared resentment might hold one or both of you back from advancing in forgiving or perhaps in giving each other accurate feedback in how well you are progressing in forgiveness. A person who is not angry with the same offender may be more objective in giving you feedback.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness.

I am feeling somewhat “wishy-washy” about forgiving a friend for something she did to me. My question to you is how deeply committed do I have to be in order to actually go ahead and forgive?

Your commitment to forgive, as you see, can vary from very low to very high. This can fluctuate across time, too. A key is this: Are you ready to commit, no matter how small that is, to doing no harm to the one who hurt you? Also, do you see clearly what forgiveness is and is not (it is not excusing or automatically reconciling, for example)? If you have some motivation to do no harm and understand what forgiveness is, then you are ready to move forward in the forgiveness process.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Is a Choice.

I think I have forgiven my friend for betraying my trust. I no longer am angry. Yet, I do not trust the person now. Does this mean I have not forgiven?

I think your issue now is one of reconciliation, not forgiveness. To forgive is to offer goodness, as best you can, to those who have not been good to you. Reconciliation is a negotiation strategy of two or more people coming together again in mutual trust. If your friend is showing behaviors that are untrustworthy, then your forgiving and not yet reconciling is reasonable. This does not mean that you are unforgiving.

For additional information, see Do I Have to Reconcile with the Other When I Forgive?

My friend has a very negative mindset about forgiving. She is skeptical that it has any worth. What do you suggest I do in this case?

She certainly is entitled to her own opinion. At the same time, if that opinion, about what forgiveness is, contains substantial errors, then you might consider talking with her about the basics of forgiveness. To forgive is not to find excuses or to abandon the quest for justice. To forgive is not to necessarily or automatically reconcile. Forgiveness is a choice and should not be forced on her by others. Does she understand all of this? In my experience, those who are highly skeptical of forgiving often misunderstand what it is.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.

My friend Samantha betrayed a secret I told her. It took us awhile to get back together. Believe it or not, she did it again! Do I have to forgive her for this second one?

You use the words “have to forgive.” Your decision to forgive is yours and so please do not feel grimly obligated to forgive immediately. It could take time because you obviously are angry. This second betrayal seems to be even more painful than the first one because your friend knew how much the first one hurt. When you are ready to begin the process of forgiveness, you will know. You might want to start the process of forgiving before you approach Samantha about this second injustice and how it has affected you. I say that so that you can approach her with patience and civility.

To learn more, see Forgiveness Is a Choice.