The Therapeutic Power of Forgiveness

This article first appeared on July 6, 2017, in The Delta Discovery, a Native-owned and operated weekly publication of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska . It was written by Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel, Alaska.


Question: I was sexually abused as a child. I don’t think I can ever forgive the man who abused me. My husband berates me because he says I don’t give him enough affection. He says I am angry. I think he’s angry. My world is falling apart. Is there any hope for me?

There is hope, and the hope is in something called forgiveness. That may sound more theological than psychological, but it is a topic of research in psychology that has been studied for more than thirty-five years by Dr. Robert Enright and the Human Development Study Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Results from many peer-reviewed studies indicate that Forgiveness Therapy is more efficacious than alternative therapies in addressing issues related to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Also, injuries and injustices that have occurred in marital relationships can be addressed through the same process, using the same model.

Before you stop reading this article and write forgiveness off as quackery, let me explain; Forgiveness Therapy is significantly more than simply saying, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness Therapy entails four phases: UncoveringDecisionWork, and Deepening. I will attempt to provide an overview of each phase, but I must caution, it is not a matter of step 1, 2, 3, 4, and then you are well. Therapy takes time, it is hard work and often painful, but worthwhile.

Instead of using the word “Abuse” as the precipitating event, I am choosing to use words like “Injury,” or “Injustice,” which may broaden the usefulness of the model. Also, for ease in reading, I am using the term client as the one in therapy who experienced an injury or injustice.

During the Uncovering Phase, the client gains insight into whether and how the injustice experienced has compromised his or her life. As a result of the trauma, the injured person may have begun to rely on unhealthy defense mechanisms to cope. During the Uncovering Phase, it is necessary to discover and examine those psychological defenses and the issues involved in the client’s current cognitive and emotional state. The goal will be to confront and release the anger, rather than harboring it.

When appropriate, the client may need to admit shame that was experienced as a result of the injustice. At some point, the client will likely become aware of his or her depleted state of emotional energy and the time spent mentally rehearsing the injustice. It is possible that because of the trauma, the client may feel the world is unsafe, and therefore, be unable to trust anyone. During this phase the client may discover that even though he or she was hurt, it doesn’t mean that everyone is untrustworthy.

Moving on to the Decision phase, the client recognizes that old strategies have not worked. During this phase, the client considers forgiveness as an option, and makes a decision to commit to forgiving on the basis of this newly acquired understanding. Again, I emphasize that this is not a matter of casually saying, “I forgive you,” and sweeping the injustice under the rug. Forgiveness becomes a conscious choice from a position of empowerment.

During the Work phase the client gains a mental understanding of the offender. In other words, the wrongdoer is viewed in context. For example, maybe the perpetrator was also a victim. This can result in a positive change in affect toward the offender, toward self, and about the relationship. Because of being able to view the event in context, it may be possible to experience empathy and compassion toward the offender. The client eventually reaches a point of accepting and bearing the pain of the offense. At that point the moral gift of forgiveness can be given to the offender. That does not mean that contact has to be made with the offender. In some instances, the offender may no longer be living, or it may not be in the best interest of anyone to make the contact. But forgiveness can be offered as a gift.

Finally, during the Deepening phase, the client discovers meaning in the suffering, feels more connected with others, experiences decreased negative affect, and may experience a renewed purpose in life. During this phase, the client comes to accept that he or she also has needed forgiveness from others in the past. The person gains insight that he or she is not the only one who has experienced similar pain or suffering. Also, there may come a realization that a new purpose in life may develop as a result of the injury. During this phase, a reduction in negative affect and an increase in positive affect toward the offender may occur. If this happens the client is likely to experience an awareness of an internal emotional release.

Unfortunately, there is not an organized Forgiveness Therapy group in Bethel. But, I would encourage anyone who has an interest in this topic to purchase one of Dr. Enright’s books on the topic. I would suggest beginning with Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, published by the American Psychological Association, and can be purchased at most bookstores or at Amazon.com.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel, Alaska. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to realnews@deltadiscovery.com. You can also access the Ask Dr. Forgiveness feature on this website with your forgiveness-related questions.

Why Kids Need to Learn How to Forgive

GreatSchools, Oakland, California, USA–Learning how to forgive helps children feel better about themselves and those around them, improves academic performance, and enhances their physical well-being.

That’s a summary of the scientific review presented in March by GreatSchools, an organization that “helps parents to unlock educational opportunities for their child.” The review, called “Why teach kids to forgive?” is subtitled: “Peacemakers, poets, and researchers agree: forgiveness heals hurts and is good for the forgiver.”

“Research has associated not-forgiving with depression, anxiety, and hostility,” according to GreatSchools. “Multiple studies find a higher rate of compromised immune systems and heart problems in adults who hold grudges. Conversely, children and adults who are able to let go of angry feelings when they’ve been wronged experience greater psychological well-being.


“When a child feels lingering anger and hurt, forgiving is what will help them recover—from that hurt, and maybe others as well.” – Great Schools


In part, the GreatSchools review was based on the work of Dr. Robert Enright, the University of Wisconsin psychology professor and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. During Dr. Enright’s 30+ years of forgiveness research, he has developed a system of Curriculum Guides for children in grades K-4 through 12th grade that teaches them forgiveness and how to integrate it into their lives.

GreatSchools, for example, cites an Enright study of 6- to 9-year olds in Belfast which found that students who learned to forgive reduced their anger in general toward everyone, not just toward the person who harmed them.

“Children who learn how to forgive also gain an edge academically, and the reason may be as simple as having more energy available to focus on constructive pursuits,” according to GreatSchools. “Their brains aren’t fuming, recounting the hurt, and plotting revenge; instead, they’ve got a clean slate where they can organize information and think creatively.”

In another Enright study, this one at the middle school level, students showed measured improvement in written English, math, and social studies; in their attitude toward school and their teachers; and in their relationships with their parents and other kids.

Editor’s Note: The GreatSchools review was conducted by Hank Pellissier, the founder/director of the Brighter Brains Institute.

Read more:
Why teach kids to forgive? – GreatSchools
♥ Why Kids Need to Learn How to Forgive – Greater Good
♥ Dr. Enright’s Research on the Benefits of Forgiveness – International Forgiveness Institute

How to Live a Peaceful and Purposeful Life

Jamaica Observer, Kingston, Jamaica, W.I. – An unforgiving attitude can cause anxiety, depression, anger, insomnia, and physical pain. 

Those are the conclusions of a major research project entitled “Effects of lifetime stress exposure on mental and physical health in young adulthood: How stress degrades and forgiveness protects health. A summary of the study was published in 2014 in the Journal of Health Psychology.

The researchers discovered that in those persons who exhibited the character trait of being highly forgiving, of both themselves and others, the connection between stress and mental illness was almost eliminated.

“When you forgive someone who has hurt you, you are literally taking back control of your life, and that simple yet difficult act delivers some positive pay-offs such as improved self-esteem, less anger, anxiety, and depression,” according to Dr. Jacqueline Campbell, a family physician who wrote the article for the Jamaica Observer. “Anger is a valuable emotion in that it can aid us in defining our personal boundaries; however, long-term and/or unresolved anger can literally burn out the body and soul.”

The undeniable conclusion, Dr. Campbell says, is that forgiveness is one of the cornerstones of living a peaceful and purposeful life.

The study researchers, all psychology professors from three different US universities, relied in part for their findings on Dr. Robert Enright’s book Exploring Forgiveness that he compiled together with Joanna North.

Read more: “Forgive them” in the Jamaica Observer.

Why Resentment Lasts—and How to Defeat It

robert-enright 3Editor’s Note: As a regular blog contributor to the online version of Psychology Today, Dr. Robert Enright (founder of the International Forgiveness Institute) has repeatedly received special recognition for his posts. Yesterday, his latest blog was given “Essential Topic” status meaning that it receives prominent placement on their website along with being featured on the first page of blog topics like“Education” and “Therapy.” Here is that blog:
Posted March 25, 2017 – Psychology Today

“I resent that!”  Philosophers have made the case that such statements are good (MacLachlan, 2010).  It shows that you respect yourself and will not let others take advantage of you.  Resentment shows that you are a person of moral character who knows right from wrong and therefore knows when wrong is done against you.  In contrast, psychologists can get worried about resentment because they mean something different.
Kmiragaya/Dreamstime.com and Jacqueline Song
Source: Kmiragaya/Dreamstime.com and Jacqueline Song
 To psychologists, resentment over a long period of time can be an unhealthy response to injustice, sometimes an injustice that won’t quit such as continual demeaning comments from a partner or the unreasonable demands of a boss who just doesn’t “get it.”  Resentment in cases like these represents a development in one’s anger from mild to deeper…….and it lingers. This kind of resentment can lead to unhappiness, continual irritability, and psychological compromise including excessive anxiety and depression (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015).

Let us keep the philosopher’s resentment and let us banish the other.

Yet, the psychologist’s kind of resentment all too often is not a polite guest.  It seems to never know when to leave.  In fact, if left unchecked it can take over the psychological house within you.  Why is this?  Consider three reasons.

First, we have all felt the initial euphoria created by a response of courage after another’s offense.  We will stand up for ourselves.  We will resist.  Resentment can give you a feeling not only of euphoria but also of strength.  Nurturing such a rewarding feeling can become a habit.  I know of one person who, upon having his morning cup of coffee, would replay the injustice and feel the inner strength as a way of getting ready for the day.  He did this until he realized that over the long-term, such a routine was leaving him drained before he even left for work.  His temporary adrenaline rush was turning on him.  This is a case of positive reinforcement for something that shows itself in the long run not to be so positive.

Second, once we realize that our short-term euphoria is turning against us, we just don’t know how to get the resentment to leave.  How do I turn off the resentment?  What path do I take to have some inner quiet?  Taking up jogging might do it……but once you have recovered your energy from the run, the anger returns.  How about relaxation training?  Same issue: once the muscle relaxation is over, there is the resentment with its perverse smile looking back at you.  “I just don’t know how to rid myself of the resentment!” is a cry I hear too often.


“Resentment could linger for the rest of your life unless you confront it.”


Third, and this is the most sinister of all, resentment can become a part of your identity, a part of who you are as a person.  You move from showing resentful behavior to being a resentful person and there is a large difference between the two. Once you start saying that you are a particular kind of person, it sometimes is threatening to change the identity.  So often people will live with an identity—a sense of self, a sense of who one is—that is compromising for them because they are afraid of change.  The familiar is better than the alternative even if the familiar includes pain and unnecessary suffering.

Source: Mimagephotography/Dreamstime.com

So then, what to do about the unwanted guest?  Try these 5 approaches:

  • Try to see the inner world of the one causing the disturbance.  Might he be carrying an extra burden of resentment, perhaps from times past?  Might she be living with bitterness that is spreading to others, including you?  Can you see the woundedness within the person who is wounding you?
  • Commit to doing no harm to the one who is harming you.  This allows for a new kind of inner strength to develop.
  • Stand in the pain so that you do not pass that pain to innocent others.  This, too, can strengthen you.
  • Science has shown on many occasions that there is a resentment-buster in the name of forgiveness (Enright, 2012).  To forgive is a way of offering goodness to the one who gave you the unwanted present of resentment.  Rather than the strength of the clinched fist and jaw, the strength from forgiveness shows that you can soften your heart toward the one who infected your heart. This can bring you inner relief.
  • Finally, be open to your new identity:  I am someone who can stand in the pain.  I am someone who can forgive. I am even someone who can ask resentment to leave……and it leaves.

Which is the better identity: a life lived with an unwanted inner guest or a life free to be a conduit of good toward others and yourself?


Posted March 25, 2017 – Psychology Today
References:
Enright, R.D. (2012).  The Forgiving Life.  Washington, D.C.: APA Books.
Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015). Forgiveness Therapy. Washington, DC: APA Books.
MacLachlan, A. (2010).  Unreasonable resentments.  Journal of Social Philosophy, 41. 422-441.

Dr. Enright’s Blog Post on Psychology Today Raised to “Essential Topic” Status

Editor’s Note: Just a few weeks ago (Dec. 21, 2016), we announced on this website that Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the IFI, had been selected by two of the nation’s premier blog sites (Psychology Today and Thrive Global) to add his forgiveness expertise as a regular robert-enright 3contributor.
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In January, Psychology Today’s editorial staff promoted Dr. Enright’s blog “Why We Need Forgiveness Education” to “Essential Topic” status meaning that it receives prominent placement on their website along with being featured on the first page of blog topics like“Education” and “Therapy.”
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This week, another of Dr. Enright’s essays was selected as essential reading by Psychology Today. Here is the link to that blog: “Forgiveness: 3 Misconceptions.”

Want to Live Longer? Learn to Forgive.

Monitor on Psychology, January 2017 – Forgiveness can improve mental and physical health. Period.

There is no longer any question, at least in the scientific community, that forgiveness can be and is good for you. Whether you’ve suffered a minor Broken Heart Rehab3slight or a major grievance, researchers say, learning to forgive those who hurt you can significantly improve both psychological well-being and physical health.

“Forgiveness is a topic that’s psychological, social and biological,” according to Loren Toussaint, PhD, a professor of psychology at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa. “It’s the true mind-body connection.”

An article in the January issue of Monitor on Psychology, a grudgepublication of the American Psychological Association, summarizes the current state of forgiveness research like this:

Research has shown that forgiveness is linked to mental health outcomes such as reduced anxiety, depression and major psychiatric disorders, as well as with fewer physical health symptoms and lower mortality rates.

Despite the proven benefits it provides, forgiveness can still be a difficult concept for some people to embrace. It can feel unfair to have to put in the effort to forgive when the other person was the one in the wrong.

Dr. Robert Enright, whom Time magazine called “the forgiveness trailblazer“ because of his 30+ years of forgiveness research, agrees that life can be unfair.

“Without our deserving it, we can experience thunderous injustices. The today-i-will-forgiveinjury was unfair, the person who created it was unfair,” Enright says. “But now we have a place for healing in forgiveness.”

Read the full article and learn more about the science of forgiveness, including Dr. Enright’s Process Model of Interpersonal Forgiving which is now being used around the world, at these links:

Forgiveness can improve mental and physical health. Research shows how to get there. Monitor on Psychology, January 2017, Vol 48, No. 1

Dr. Enright’s research on forgiveness and forgiveness education; International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) website.

How to Forgive; Dr. Enright’s Process Model of Interpersonal Forgiveness, IFI website.

Why Forgive; The mental and physical benefits of forgiveness, IFI website.

Why We Need Forgiveness Education

Editor’s Note: Just a few weeks ago (Dec. 21, 2016), we announced on this website that Dr. Robert Enright, founder of the IFI, had been selected by two of the nation’s premier blog sites (Psychology Today and Thrive Global) to add his forgiveness expertise as a regular contributor. This week, Psychology Today’s editorial staff promoted Dr. Enright’s most recent blog to “Essential Topic” status meaning that it receives prominent placement on their website along with being featured on the first page of blog topics like “Education” and “Therapy.” Here is that blog:


Why We Need Forgiveness Education

“I was too busy trying to survive. I did not have room to bring forgiveness into my world.”

These two sentences together, spoken by someone who lived with an abusive partner for decades, is one of the strongest rationales I have ever read for forgiveness education, starting with 4-year-olds or 5-year-olds.

Star Media website
Source: Star Media website

Do you see that the person, as an adult, did not have the energy and focus to add something new to her arsenal of survival?

What if forgiveness was a natural part of her survival arsenal starting at an early age?

We do this all the time in education as we help students learn how to speak and write coherent sentences.

We do this all the time in education as we help students learn how to add so that a budget can be maintained.

We do this all the time in education as we help students learn how to be just or fair. Teacher corrections and punishments are swift to come once students enter the school door and then misbehave in the school setting.

I think it is unfortunate that educational institutions and societies fail to make forgiveness a natural part of life through early education. Isn’t a central point about education to help people make their way in society?  And isn’t a central point of making one’s way in society having the capacity to confront grave injustices and not be defeated by them? And isn’t a central point of confronting grave injustices the knowledge of how to forgive? And isn’t a central point of knowing how to forgive the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc.thinking about forgiveness and the practice of it in safety, before the storms of insensitivity and abuse hit? And isn’t a central point of knowing forgiveness and practicing forgiveness to aid in the survival of people who could be crushed by others’ cruelty?

Why do we spend time helping children learn to speak and write, learn essential mathematics skills, and be just, but completely neglect teaching them how to overcome grave injustices?

Education in its essence will be fundamentally incomplete until educators fold into it the basic strategies for overcoming grave injustice and cruelty so that students, once they are adults, never have to say, “I was too busy trying to survive. I did not have room to bring forgiveness into my world.”

And the educational challenge of this incompleteness is this: We now know scientifically-supported pathways to forgive (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015; Wade, Hoyt, Kidwell, & Worthington, 2014). We have scientifically-tested forgiveness curricula for children and adolescents download(Enright, Knutson, Holter, Baskin, & Knutson, 2007; Enright, Rhody, Litts, & Klatt, 2014). Without forgiveness education, a person who wants to forgive may not be able to do so. Without forgiveness education, another person may too easily equate forgiving and reconciling, thus staying in an abusive relationship. With forgiveness education, a person can forgive, not necessarily reconcile, and heal emotionally.

It is time to make “room to bring forgiveness into my world.”

Robert

Posted Jan 15, 2017 – Psychology Today.com