When I started working at a domestic violence shelter for women and children just over three years ago, forgiveness was the last thing on my mind. My formal education focused on teaching “coping skills” so that clients with mental illness could learn to survive in a cruel and dangerous world. If learning how to cope didn’t do enough to reduce their symptoms, I was taught to rationalize their lack of success as just being part of the mental illness and to refer them for a medication evaluation. Methods that promoted healing were simply left out.
I held a personal belief that forgiveness was the way to heal from trauma, but my employer didn’t offer it. Instead, we focused on domestic violence education and coping skills as a means to survival. But, this did nothing to promote healing from the very wounds that we told our clients put them at risk for abuse. So, the cycle of violence continued and we functioned more like a revolving door than a place of recovery.
When I realized that our programs were not providing what we promised, I wanted to do more. I wanted to do more than help my clients survive because even though they learned how to survive, they didn’t learn how to stop the abuse. After several months of trying to figure out what I could do with women who may or may not be in shelter for more than a few months, I recalled what I had learned from Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and proposed his forgiveness therapy method as a way to resolve feelings like anger, shame and guilt.
It was a risk to even suggest that victims of domestic violence could forgive their abusers. But, I was able to convince my supervisor that learning the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation had the potential to reduce violence against women. So, after receiving permission, I designed a 10-week group based on the Enright Forgiveness Process.
After only a few weeks, I noticed a major change in the women. Instead of being irritable and short-tempered, they were kind and compassionate to one another and we had fewer reported problems in shelter living. While I anticipated healing, I certainly didn’t expect my job to be easier or for it to happen so quickly. I thought I was teaching them how to forgive their abusers, which they did. But, something bigger was happening. They were learning how to love each other and to experience joy in their suffering. That’s when everything that I had learned from Dr. Enright made sense and I was given a new purpose.
I have been using forgiveness therapy now for more than three years. I continue to use it more than any other method because I have witnessed real healing from trauma and mental illness. I’ve found that there is more pain in forgiveness, but it doesn’t last as long and the forgiver is stronger because of it if they persevere. Forgiveness moves the person from a state of anger and victimization to a state of courage and grace. And when the person chooses to love instead of hate the person who hurt them, they discover that all that is left is love. The Enright Forgiveness Process teaches people how to love and healing is the result.
Personally, I can’t think of a better outcome. I hope that my experience with forgiveness therapy will inspire other mental health professionals to complete the continuing education course from the International Forgiveness Institute. While forgiveness only requires the person who was hurt to forgive, they shouldn’t have to do it alone.
Carly Elms is a family therapist at the Franciscan Forgiveness Center in Independence, Missouri where she offers forgiveness therapy to individuals, couples, families, and religious communities throughout the Kansas City metro area and Northwest Missouri. Along with her Masters in Clinical Social Work (MSW), she has a Masters of Education in Educational & Counseling Psychology (M.Ed.). She is a U.S. Air Force veteran. Carly successfully completed “Helping Clients Forgive,” the International Forgiveness Institute’s online Continuing Education Course, with one of the highest scores ever recorded.
Read more about Carly Elms at CatholicTherapists.com.