Forgiveness: The Path to Restoring Your Emotional and Physical Health After Sexual Abuse

Editor’s Note: This Guest Blog was written by Dr. Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., a professor in the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. It first appeared as Your Passport to Forgiveness” on And He Restoreth My Soul Project, a website for sexual assault victims. The site was developed by author, professional speaker, and forgiveness-advocate Darlene Harris.


“Just forgive her already.”
“Forgiveness is the right thing to do.
Forgive and forget.”

These are frequently heard statements after someone experiences a deep, personal, and unfair hurt. Although society encourages forgiveness, it does not often share with us what forgiveness looks like, the path to achieve forgiveness and/or the benefits of forgiving. These aspects of interpersonal forgiveness are critical and must be included in conservations about forgiving. Child sexual abuse and incest are some of the deepest hurts an individual can experience, and as a result, most abuse survivors are advised against forgiving these deep hurts. However, if accurately understood and practiced, forgiveness can be very healing for sexual abuse survivors. This blog will discuss some of the most important points regarding what forgiveness means, the process of forgiveness, and the benefits of forgiving.

For sexual abuse survivors to choose to forgive, they first need to know what it means to forgive. Forgiveness is accomplished when one experiences a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors toward an offender, and maybe over time, a gradual increase in positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors may occur toward the offender (Freedman & Enright, 2017).

Unfortunately, this process does not magically happen overnight. Enright & the Human Development Study Group (1991) developed a four-phase process model of forgiveness that initially included 17 guideposts and later expanded to 20 (Enright, 2001). Forgiveness is more than just letting go of anger, hatred, and revenge; it also includes accepting the offender’s humanity and value as a person, despite their hurtful actions (Freedman & Enright, 2017). Forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing or deny or ignore your feelings of pain. Forgiveness includes the courage to face and acknowledge one’s hurt, as well as feel the emotions related to the hurt.


Although it can be too early to forgive, it is never too late to forgive.

Dr. Suzanne Freedman


In fact, the first phase of the process model developed by Enright (2001) involves Uncovering One’s Anger, which includes recognizing and naming one’s anger, identifying its cause, and expressing it in a healthy way. If we try to avoid or repress our feelings of anger and hurt, we are not able to move beyond them. If someone did something to us, which was totally unfair and deeply painful, such as sexual abuse, our anger is absolutely justified. Thus, despite society’s misconceptions about anger’s role in the forgiveness process, feeling and expressing anger in a healthy way is encouraged and necessary prior to forgiving (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2016).

Deciding to Forgive is the second phase in Enright’s (2001) model. Forgiveness is an individual decision that only the injured can make for themselves. Thus, although one can be educated and encouraged to forgive, it is always up to the individual whether they choose to forgive and when they are ready to forgive. Forgiveness requires great effort and hard work, even though we receive messages and expectations from society about quick forgiveness. As a result, people often perceive forgiveness as a shortcut to healing. This can be similar to thinking, if I say the words, “I forgive you” out loud, I have forgiven and am healed.

In the context of a deep hurt, such as child sexual abuse, forgiveness requires more than just saying the words. Incest survivors who participated in a forgiveness education research project took an average of 14.3 months to forgive (Freedman & Enright, 1996). Thus, asking individuals to forgive too early, or before they are ready, will lead to false forgiveness and negative consequences. Although it can be too early to forgive, it is never too late to forgive.

Identifying and naming the specific injury one personally experienced is also very important when working on forgiving. You can only choose to forgive for the way you were deeply hurt and affected by the offense. We cannot forgive for, or on behalf of, our father, daughter, brother or friend. For example, hurt my child, hurt me. However, I can only forgive the offender for the way I was hurt when my child was hurt. I cannot forgive the offender for the hurt my child experienced; only my child can do that (Smedes, 1996).

The third phase of forgiveness is the Work Phase and involves coming to a place where you are able to recognize the offender’s humanity and worth as a human being and begin to feel empathy and compassion for them. Learning more about the offender and their background is helpful in understanding the context of the injury, and expanding one’s view of the offender. This is not done to excuse the offender and their actions, but to better understand the offender as a complex human being, i.e. not just the monster who hurt you.

Forgiveness is not forgetting, condoning, saying that what happened was okay, or that justice cannot occur. Forgiveness is saying, I see your humanity, and that you are made up of more than your most terrible act. Sarah Montana, in her fabulous Ted Talk, The Real Risk of Forgiveness – And Why It’s Worth It, shares her experience forgiving the murderer of both her mother and brother. She passionately states, “I know what you did, it’s not okay, and I recognize you are more than that.  I don’t want to hold us captive to this thing anymore.  I can heal myself and I don’t need anything from you”.

Another common misconception about forgiveness is that you cannot forgive unless you receive an apology from the offender. This may be true for reconciliation but not forgiveness. Forgiveness is something a survivor can do all on their own, for their own well-being, without any response from the offender. Forgiveness can sometimes lead to reconciliation between the injured party and the offender, but it does not have to.

The Deepening Phase is the final phase in Enright’s process model and is characterized by finding meaning in the pain and suffering, the emergence of a newfound purpose in life, and the realization that one is not alone in their pain. These guideposts lead to an increase in positive feelings, as well as feelings of increased peace and freedom (Freedman & Enright, 2017).

With an accurate understanding of what it means to forgive, respect for one’s own timeline in forgiving, and support from others in one’s forgiveness journey, the forgiveness process allows one to heal. Research shows that forgiveness is an effective way of restoring both psychological and physical health following abuse and other deep hurts. Specifically, forgiveness is associated with decreases in depression, anxiety, and anger and increases in hope and self-esteem (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Freedman & Enright, 2017). Physical health benefits of forgiving include decreased blood pressure and improved heart functioning (Enright, 2001).


“Forgiveness is the only path to freedom,” according to one domestic abuse survivor. “When willfully abandoning resentment and related responses, there is air that extends through the depth and width of my soul, leaving little room for the dark places that once consumed me.”
– Freedman & Zarifkar, 2016


I am often asked “why forgive”, and my response is always the same, “What’s the alternative?” Although forgiveness cannot undo the injury or damage caused by the injury, it allows us to move forward in our lives free from the negative effects of anger, hatred, and resentment. It offers us a way to heal while still acknowledging that what happened to us was wrong, unfair, and extremely hurtful. For more information regarding what forgiveness is and how to go about forgiving, check out the references below.

References:

  • Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, DC: APA Books.
  • Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC: APA Books.
  • Enright, R. D., and the Human Development Study Group. (1991). The moral development of forgiveness. In W. Kurtines & J. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development, (Vol. 1, pp. 123-152). Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum.
  • 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.
  • Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (2017). The use of forgiveness therapy with female survivors of abuse. Journal of Women’s Health, 6:3 DOI: 10.4172/2167-0420.1000369
  • Freedman, S. & Zarifkar, T. (2016). The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and guidelines for forgiveness therapy: What therapists need to know to help their clients forgive. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 3(1), 45-58.
  • Montana, S. (May, 2018). Ted Talk: The real risk of forgiveness – And why it’s worth it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEK2pIiZ2I0
  • Smedes, L. B. (1996), The art of forgiving: When you need to forgive and don’t know how. Nashville, TN: Moorings.

About Dr. Suzanne Freedman: A psychology professor at the University of Northern Iowa, Dr. Freedman earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and both her Masters Degree and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied under and conducted research with Dr. Robert Enright. Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology: Forgiveness as an Intervention Goal with Incest Survivors.

Dr. Freedman’s areas of expertise include the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, forgiveness education and intervention, moral development, incest and sexual abuse, eating disorders, early adolescent development, and at-risk adolescents. She has presented at numerous national and international conferences on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness. At the University of Northern Iowa, she has taught a variety of psychology courses including the Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness. Dr. Freedman can be reached at suzanne.freedman@uni.edu

Permission to repost this blog was provided by both Dr. Freedman and Darlene Harris.

“Become My Son”: A South African Mother’s Response to the Man Who Murdered Both Her Son and Her Husband

What we can still learn from the South African experience

A guest blog by R. H. (Rusty) Foerger
Originally posted on his website
 More Enigma Than Dogma on June 20, 2018

Truth and Reconciliation is a profound process that takes longer, costs more, and is messier than one can imagine.  Here is one story from the South African experience:

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?

Finally, Forgiveness

“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, readYou 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:


 

Your Forgiveness Landscape

First, what is a “forgiveness landscape”? This is an expression first used in my book, The Forgiving Life, to refer to all of the people who ever have been seriously unjust to you. When people first construct their forgiveness landscape, they often are surprised at: a) how many people are on the list and b) the depth of the anger left over, even from decades ago.

When we are treated deeply unfairly by others, the anger is slow to leave. If we push that anger aside, simply thinking we have “moved on” or “forgotten all about it,” sometimes this is not the case. The anger can be in hiding, deep within the heart, and the only way to get rid of it is surgery of the heart—forgiveness.

Would you like to examine your own forgiveness landscape to see how many people in your life are still in need of your forgiveness? You might want to write down your answers to the following questions.

First set of questions: Think back to your childhood. Is there anyone who was very unfair to you and if so, what is your anger level now on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 signifying no anger left over and a 5 signifying lots of anger when you reflect on this person and the actions toward you.

More specifically from your childhood, are there any incidents from your father that still make you angry? From your mother? A sibling?

What about from peers or teachers; is your anger still high when you recall the incidents?

Second set of questions: Let us now focus on your adolescence. Follow the pattern from the first set of questions. Then let us add any coaches, employers or fellow employees, and romantic partners to the list. Are there people who still make you angry in the 4 or 5 range of our scale?

Third set of questions: Who in your adult life has made you significantly angry, in the 4 to 5 range of anger? We can add partner, any children, relatives, friends, and neighbors to the list.

Now please rank order all of the people from those who least offended you to those who most offended you. Now look at that list to see your forgiveness landscape. There is your work, right there in the list.

I recommend starting with people lower on the list. Forgive them first because they in all likelihood are the easiest to forgive because the anger is less. As you work up the list, you will gain in your expertise to forgive, which is good preparation for forgiving those on the top of the list—those who are the most challenging for you.

You can find more on this way of forgiving in the book,
The Forgiving Life, which walks you systematically through this exercise.

Enjoy the challenge. Enjoy the journey of forgiveness, which can set you free in so many ways.

Robert

Generalizing from the Particular to the Universal

You know how it goes.  You go into a department store and have an unpleasant encounter with the person at checkout…..and you never go back there again.  The particular incident has given you a bad feeling for the entire organization.

You break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend and, at least for a while, you think that no one really can be trusted.  This one relationship makes you mistrustful of such relationships in general.

Generalization.  It can help us when the generalization is true and can distort reality for us when false.  For example, when we touch poison ivy in one woods, it is wise to avoid it in the next….and the next.  The effects of poison ivy generalize regardless of which plant we touch.  On the other hand, one boyfriend’s bad behavior does not predict another person’s behavior.  In this case, generalization closes down our mind and heart when there is no need for this.

When you are hurt by someone, you have to be careful not to generalize this to many, most, or all others.  Not everyone is out to hurt you.  Such generalization can form the unhealthy foundation for a world view that is pessimistic and inaccurate.  Has this happened to you?

If so, it is time to fight back against this.  Try saying the following to yourself as a way to break the habit of a false view of others:

I have been wounded by another person. For today, I will not let his/her wounds make me a bitter person who thinks negatively about people in general. I will overcome any tendency toward this by seeing others as having special worth, not because of what they have done, but in spite of this.  We are all on this planet together; we are all wounded.  Not all are out to wound me.

Robert

Why Our Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program Matters

“Bullying will not be tolerated in this school.”

“You are entering a no bullying zone.”

Consciousness raising is good precisely because it challenges each of us to be our best self, to do good for others.

Yet, sometimes some students are so emotionally wounded that their anger overwhelms the attempt at consciousness raising.  The students   are so very wounded that they cannot listen well.  Some are so wounded that they refuse to listen.  Even others are so mortally wounded that they find a certain pleasure in inflicting pain on others.  It is when it gets to that point—others’ pain equals pleasure for the one inflicting it—that we have a stubborn problem on our hands.  No signs, no consciousness raising, no rally in the gym, no pressure to be good is going to work…..because the gravely wounded student is now beyond listening.

Yet, we have found a hidden way to reverse the trend in those who are so hurting that they derive pain from hurting others.  It is this:  Ask the hurting students, those labeled so often as bullies, to tell their story of pain, their story of how others have abused them.

You will see this as the rule rather than the exception:

Those who inflict pain over and over have stories of abuse toward them that would make you weep.  In fact, we have seen the weeping come from the one who has bullied others, the one who has inflicted serious pain onto others. He wept because, as he put it, “No one ever asked me for my story before.”  His story was one of cruel child abuse from an alcoholic father who bruised him until he bled.  And no one ever asked him about this.  And so he struck out at others.  Once he told his story, he began to forgive his father and his pain lessened and thus his need to inflict pain on others slowly melted away.

This is what our Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program does.  It aids counselors and teachers in bringing out the stories in the pain-inflictors so that their own pain dramatically decreases.  As this happens, through forgiveness, bullying behavior is rendered powerless……because in examining their own hurt they finally realize how much hurt they have inflicted…..and with their own emotional pain gone, they have no desire to live life like this any more.

Come, take our anti-bullying curriculum and save the life of at least one child and help prevent inflicted pain on countless others.

Robert

 

The Light of Forgiveness

This might help you understand what it is you are doing when you forgive. We are in a dark room, which represents the disorder of unjust treatment toward you. As you stumble around for a match to light a candle, this effort of groping in the dark for a positive solution represents part of the struggle to forgive. As you now light the candle, the room is illumined by both the light and warmth of the candle. When you forgive, you offer warmth and light to the one who created the darkness.

You destroy the darkness in your forgiving.

Now here is what I am guessing you did not know about the light of forgiveness: That light does not just stay in that little room. It goes out from there to others and it even continues to give light across time. For example, if you shed light and warmth on people who have bad habits, they might be changed by your forgiveness and pass it along to others in the future.

Now consider this: If you give this warm candle of forgiveness to your children who give it to their children, then this one little candle’s light can continue across many generations, long after you are no longer here on earth.

I am guessing that you had not thought about forgiveness in quite this way before.

Robert

 

 

Seeing Beyond the Tears

Sometimes when we are caught up in grief and anger, it seems like this is all there will ever be now in our life. Permanent tears. Permanent anger.

Yet, please take a look at two different times in your life in which you were steeped in heartache or rage. The tears came…..and they left.

Today it may seem like these will never end…..but they will.

Take a lesson from your own past. The pains were temporary.

They are temporary even now.

Forgiveness helps them to be temporary.

Robert