Why Forgiveness Is Not Only a Psychological Construct

The entrance of the idea of forgiveness into the social sciences is quite recent. The first publication within psychology that centered specifically on people forgiving other people was published in the late 20th century (Enright, Santos, and Al-Mabuk, 1989).  That article examined children’s, adolescents’, and adults’ thoughts about what forgiving is.  In other words, the study took one slice of forgiveness, in this case people’s thoughts, and examined those thoughts from a scientific perspective.  Such an investigation, of course, does not then imply that forgiving is all about thoughts and thoughts alone just because that was the focus of the scientific investigation.

People forgiving other people is an ancient idea, first explicated thousands of years ago in the story within the Jewish tradition of Joseph forgiving his 10 half-brothers who sold him into slavery.  The portrait of forgiveness in that ancient report includes Joseph’s entire being, not just his thinking, as he shows anger, a sense at first of revenge, which slowly transforms into tenderness toward his half-brothers in the form of weeping, hugs, generosity, and an outpouring of love.  His entire being was involved in the forgiving.

Philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, have developed what is known as the virtue-ethics tradition to explain morality.  To be virtuous is, like Joseph, to produce a moral response with one’s entire being: thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations toward goodness, and relationships that reflect that goodness.

Psychologists, in contrast, and especially if they do not rely on this wisdom-of-the-ages, tend to compartmentalize forgiveness.  For example, they may borrow from personality psychology and conclude that there is a trait of forgiving and a state of forgiving and these are somehow different.  A trait forgiver, it is assumed, already has a personality geared to forgiving.  In other words, expertise in forgiving is not forged by practice, practice, and more practice as we all have this opportunity toward developing expertise in forgiving.

Other psychologists, when they do not take the virtue-ethics position, tend to think of forgiving as mostly emotional as the forgiver substitutes more pleasant feelings for the existing resentment toward an offending person.  Substitution of feelings, as seen in the Joseph story, is only one part, and not even the most important part of forgiveness.  Offering love in a broad sense is the most important part.

The bottom line is this: Taking only a psychological perspective on the concept of forgiving tends toward reductionism, breaking up of forgiveness into smaller and more exclusive parts than should be the case.  This tends to distort the concept of forgiveness.  If a distorted view of forgiveness is presented to clients in therapy, are we helping those clients reach their highest potential as forgivers?

Robert

Reference:

Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989).  The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.

A New Approach to Reducing Depression

“Forgiveness therapy targets and reduces unhealthy anger.”

Jose Antonio Sánchez Reyes | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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.

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


References:

8 Reasons to Forgive

Forgiveness within psychology is relatively new, having emerged as a research focus in the later 1980’s (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989). Over the next three decades, a host of studies have emerged within the mental health professions showing that Forgiveness  Therapy is beneficial for the client, for the one who forgives (Baskin & Enright, 2004; Wade et al., 2014). We have to be careful with these findings primarily because a false conclusion could emerge: Forgiveness is only for, or primarily for, the one who forgives; it has little to do with the one forgiven. This, actually, does not seem to be the case. A reflection on what forgiveness accomplishes, its purpose or goal, suggests at least 8 purposes to forgiving.

What does it mean to forgive? Although there may be different behaviors across the  wide variety of cultures to express forgiveness, in its universal essence, forgiveness can be defined as a moral virtue, centered on goodness, that occurs in the context of being treated unfairly by others. The one who then chooses to forgive deliberately tries to eliminate resentment and to offer goodness of some kind toward the offending person, whether this is kindness, respect, generosity, or even love.

The one who forgives does not automatically go back into a dangerous relationship. The forgiver can forgive and then not reconcile. The forgiver does not excuse the unfair behavior but offers goodness in the face of the unfairness. The forgiver should not think in “either/or” terms, either forgiving and abandoning a quest for justice, or seeking justice alone without forgiving. The two moral virtues of forgiveness and justice can and should be applied together.

With this understanding in place, here are at least 8 reasons to forgive. Which of these are in your conscious awareness when you offer this virtue to those who have wronged you?
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When I forgive, I do so:

1. to become emotionally healthier. Forgiving can reduce unhealthy anger.

2. to repair relationships as it helps me to see the other’s worth.

3. to grow in character because it can help me to become a better person.

4. to be of assistance, within reason, toward the one who acted unjustly. Forgiveness extends the hand of friendship even though the other may reject this.
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5. to help me to assist other family members to see that forgiveness is a path to peace.  Forgiveness for peace, in other words, can be passed through the generations.


6. to motivate me to contribute to a better world as anger does not dominate.

7. to help me to more consistently live out my own philosophy of life or faith tradition if that worldview honors forgiveness.

8. to exercise goodness as an end in and of itself regardless of how others react to my offer of forgiving. 

To forgive is to exercise goodness even toward those who are not good to you. Forgiveness is perhaps the most heroic of all of the moral virtues (such as justice, patience, and kindness, for example). I say it is heroic because which other moral virtue concerns the offer of goodness, through one’s own pain, toward the one who caused that pain? Do you see this—the heroic nature of forgiving—as you extend it to others?

Robert


References:

  • Baskin, T.W., & Enright, R. D. (2004).  Intervention studies on forgiveness: A meta-analysis.  Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 79-90.
  • Enright, R. D., Santos, M., & Al-Mabuk, R. (1989).  The adolescent as forgiver. Journal of Adolescence, 12, 95-110.
  • Wade, N.G., Hoyt, W.T., Kidwell, J.E.M., & Worthington, Jr., E.L. (2014).  Efficacy of psychotherapeutic interventions to promote forgiveness: A meta-analysis.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 82, 154-170.

Posted in Psychology Today Apr 16, 2018

What Is The “Ask Dr. Forgiveness” Section of Our Blog?

Some people have begun to ask about the section of our blog entitled, “Ask Dr. Forgiveness.”  This was started because of questions we would get from people who are curious about a particular aspect of forgiveness.

We get these questions from all over the world and try to answer them in a timely fashion.  We never identify the name of the person asking.

The questions, as you will see if you visit this section, are very wide-ranging and can be a way for you, the reader, to deepen your views of forgiveness.

You also should feel free to disagree and to offer commentary if you wish.

Please feel free to ask a question for Ask Dr. Forgiveness.  It could prove to be of considerable worth to others.

Robert 

Spring Cleaning for Your Wounded Heart

…….if when you look inside, you are tired;

…….if when you look inside you do not like yourself anymore;

…….if when you look inside you find rust where you used to see sparkle;

…….if when you look inside you no longer find hope…….

Please know this…….

Forgiveness is your energizer;.

Forgiveness is your self-esteem bolster;.

Forgiveness is your emotional rust-inhibitor;.

Forgiveness gives you hope.

Come, together, let us do some spring cleaning of your heart.

The first step is this: Commit to forgiving, to reducing resentment and offering goodness toward those who have cluttered the rooms of your heart.

The second step is this: Commit to doing no harm to those who have soiled your inner world and did not stay around long enough to clean up after themselves.

Forgiveness will be your servant. Forgiveness will make tidy the rooms of your heart.

Robert

On the Importance of Perseverance when Forgiving

Many people get quite excited about forgiveness at first and just dive into practicing it, only to lose interest after a few months.  They literally just let it fade from their minds and hearts as they go on to the next popular diversion in life.  In other words, they do not have a strong will to keep forgiveness before them as a practice and as a way of seeing the world.

This could happen to you.  A commitment to forgive does not just mean a short-term commitment toward one person who has hurt you in one particular way.  Commitment has a much longer reach than this.  Would you become physically fit if you worked out several times a week for three months and then hung it all up?  Of course not.  It is the same with forgiveness.  You have to fight against the tendency to just let it fade in you.  You will have to fight against all of the distractions of life that call you away from it.

Robert

Forgiveness can change the world — and YOU

From Dr. Robert Enright –

“I come to you today with an idea.  Ideas can lift up or tear down.  They can be conduits for good or for great evil.  Having studied the idea of forgiveness for the past 33 years, I am convinced that to date, the world has missed one of its greatest opportunities: to understand, nurture, and bring forth the idea of forgiveness within the human heart, within families, schools, workplaces, houses of worship, communities, nations, and between nations.

“Given the scientifically-supported findings across a wide array of hurting people across the globe, it is now obvious to me that forgiveness is an answer to the darkness, the injustice, the evil that can suddenly cascade down upon a person, overwhelming, devastating the inner world of that person who is caught off guard by the unfair treatment. When this happens, resentment can burst forth in the human heart, grow there, and become the unwanted guest that sours outlooks and relationships.
Resentments destroy; forgiveness builds up.

“Forgiveness is the strongest response against the ravages of resentment that I have ever seen. Forgiveness as an insight that all people have worth can stop the march of the madness, the cruelty, the acrimony dead in their tracks.  Forgiveness as a free choice to offer goodness when others refuse to offer it back can shine a light in the darkness and destroy evil. Yes, forgiveness can destroy evil because the light of forgiveness is stronger than any darkness and while some scoff and laugh at that, those who have the courage to try tell me that forgiveness is the over-comer, the defeater of a life being lived with bitterness and revenge-seeking.

“Forgiveness is an answer to injustice.  Forgiveness is a cure for the potentially devastating effects of injustice.  Forgiveness holds out the hope of living with joy.” 

Forgiveness can change the world–and YOU. How will you now contribute to this new idea? Read the rest of Dr. Enright’s “big picture” blog essay in the current issue of Psychology Today then send us your comments.