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.

Our Theory of Forgiveness

Our Theory of Forgiveness: Excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Forgiving Life            (APA Books, 2012)

Our theory starts with the premise that all people need to both give and receive love to be healthy and to have psychologically healthy families and communities.  I am not alone in this view when we study the ancient literature, going back to the formation of the Hebrew nation, thousands of years ago, with the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  I am not alone when we turn to modern-day heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, or Mother Teresa.  Unconditionally loving others, despite their blemishes and faults, was at the heart of their message.

I am not alone in this view when we consult modern philosophy, in which Gene Outka has shown the centrality of love for morally good human interaction.  I am not alone in this view of the primacy of love when we examine the earliest roots of psychology, going back over a century to the pioneering work of the psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, who made the famous statement that each person’s purpose is to work and to love if genuine mental health will result, a theme which continues to resonate with psychoanalysts in the 21st century.  Contemporary social scientists such as Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon make the compelling biological case that love is at the central core of who we are as humans.[1]  I continue not to be alone in this view when I ask people of good common sense about what is of the utmost importance to them.


All people require love, both the giving and the receiving of love; this is not an option.                                                                                                          Robert D. Enright


On this issue, people who use the method of religious faith to understand the world, some people who use the method of deductive logic and philosophical analysis, some people who use the method of psychoanalysis, and some people who use the method of modern biological and social science are in agreement—The essence of our humanity is to love and be loved.

Robert

Is Forgiving for the Forgiver or for the One Who Offended?

So frequently I hear this: “Forgiveness is for you, the one who was injured.”

I think this actually can be a distortion of what forgiveness is.  We need to make a distinction between:

  • the end point or goal of forgiveness, and
  • a consequence of forgiving.

These are different.  The goal is that to which forgiveness actually points.  Given that forgiveness is a moral virtue, it is concerned about goodness toward others.  Justice as a moral virtue is not primarily for the self but for all with whom you come into contact directly or indirectly.  Patience is directed toward those who are moving slower than you would like.  Yes, one can be fair or just to the self and patient toward the self, but these are not the primary goals of either virtue.  They are outwardly directed to others.  It is the same with forgiveness because, like justice and patience, it too is a moral virtue.  The end point of forgiving is to reach out in goodness directly toward the one or ones who have been unfair to you.

Yes, there is such a thing as self-forgiveness, but notice that the wording is intended to expressly direct the attention toward the self.  In the case of forgiving as it typically is used, the word “self” is not included.

A consequence of forgiving, shown frequently by our research, is that as a person extends goodness toward offending others, then the one who forgives experiences considerable emotional relief.  Excessive anger, anxiety, and depression all can go down in the one who genuinely forgives.

These emotional-health consequences, while very positive and desirable, are not the ultimate goal of engaging in the moral virtue of forgiving.  If it were, then this would be the goal for all of the moral virtues and such practice likely would degenerate into self-serving activities and therefore not be virtuous at all.

Is forgiving for the forgiver?  No, this is not its goal.  Is a consequence of forgiving emotional relief for the forgiver?  Yes.  And this distinction between goal and consequence makes all the difference in understanding what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish within the self.

Robert

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.

The “F Word” for Sexual Abuse Survivors: Is Forgiveness Possible?

Dr. Suzanne Freedman

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.

This is a summary of a blog by Dr. Suzanne Freedman that was posted earlier this month on the website “And He Restoreth My Soul.” To view the complete blog, click here.


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

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:


 

“Post-Truth” and Forgiveness: Is Forgiveness Objectively True or Relative to Us All?

…..And so, the award for best word goes to……..”post-truth.”

Thus speaketh The Oxford Dictionaries in assigning “post-truth” as the word of the year.word-of-the-year3

We start with a half truth here because, well, “post-truth” is two words, not one.

Even so, this award raises questions such as this:  If there is such a thing as post-truth (or placing the narrative or emotions above what is actually true) then does it follow that the term forgiveness itself is not objectively true?  Might forgiveness mean whatever people in certain communities or cultures say that it is?

We do not think so.  If you examine Chapter 15 of the book, Forgiveness Therapy (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015), you will see that the meaning of forgiveness does not differ in its essence across spiritual and philosophical traditions from West to East.  Yes, there are different religious and cultural rituals surrounding what it means to offer forgiveness, but the term itself still means the offering of goodness toward those who are not good to us.

If you examine Chapter 13 of the same book, you will see that when researchers try to measure the degree to which people forgive others, then you will find that regardless of the various cultures studied (again, factsacross West, Middle East, and East), research participants tend to mean the same thing when they use the word forgiving.

While there certainly are “post-truth” narratives that attempt to persuade and to convince, regardless of the truth, rhetoric will never win the day entirely.  Why? It is because there are essences to certain things……and forgiveness happens to be one of them.

Long live forgiveness…..may it outlive the fad of the “post-truth” attempt at power over truth-seeking.

Robert