I am considering going to a therapist so that I can work on forgiving someone. How can I be sure that it is time to switch psychotherapeutic approaches and focus now on forgiveness?

I think you have to look within and ask this: Have the psychotherapeutic approaches in which you have engaged worked for you? One way to discern this is to ask yourself: On a 1-to-10 scale, how angry am I at a particular person who has been very unjust to me? Let a “1” stand for no anger at all and a “10” stand for so much anger that you can hardly take it. If your answer is in the 8, 9, or 10 range, and if your previous and current psychotherapies have not reduced that resentment, then it may be time to try Forgiveness Therapy.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness.

I want to start working on the theme of forgiving toward one of my parents. I have a therapist with whom I have been working for many years. She says that she has not studied Forgiveness Therapy, but is open to exploring forgiveness with me. What do you suggest under this circumstance?

I recommend that you, personally, first examine one of my self-help books (Forgiveness Is a Choice, The Forgiving Life, or 8 Keys to Forgiveness). See which you prefer. Then bring a copy of the chosen book to your therapist as you also retain a copy. Both of you can work systematically through the book that you choose. Given the therapist’s years of experience in the mental health profession, she should have no problem assisting you on your forgiveness journey.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you are critical of relaxation techniques relative to forgiveness. Would you please elaborate on that for me?

Relaxation is important and so I am not criticizing it as a way of reducing tension. My critique comes when mental health professionals use relaxation as the primary way of reducing resentment. Relaxation can reduce tension but it cannot cure resentment, or a persistent ill will toward another person or persons who acted unfairly. Why? It is because once the person is finished with the relaxation exercise, the resentment likely will return. Forgiveness, on the other hand, can directly target the resentment so that empathy and compassion toward the other person grow in the heart, literally reducing or eliminating the resentment.

Learn more at Forgiving is not. . .

In my experience, I find that mental health professionals emphasize catharsis or “getting the anger off one’s chest.” I now am wondering if this is an incomplete approach to good treatment. What do you think?

Catharsis as the exclusive end in and of itself is not advised when the anger is deep and long-lasting. This is because the venting of anger does not cure the anger in the vast majority of cases. Taking some time to be aware of the anger, and the expression of it within temperate (reasonable) bounds in the short-run, can help the client to be aware of the depth of that anger. The cure for the anger, in other words the deep reduction in that anger, is forgiveness, shown scientifically to be the case (see Enright & Fitzgibbons, Forgiveness Therapy, 2015).

I can understand how forgiveness is part of philosophy and theology, but I am having a hard time seeing how forgiveness can be placed into the scientific arena. After all, this is a highly abstract concept. How can it be studied scientifically?

Forgiveness is not the only abstract concept studied scientifically. The theme of justice also is abstract and has been part of the scientific landscape since at least 1932 when Jean Piaget began his work on children’s and adolescents’ understanding of justice. Gratitude is another abstract construct that is studied in the social sciences. We can study forgiveness because it is possible to define forgiveness in such a way as to make it concretely measurable. For example, we have the Enright Forgiveness Inventory which assesses the degree to which participants forgive one other person who was unfair to them. We categorize forgiving in this scale into 6 dimensions: the degree to which the participant 1) harbors negative thoughts and 2) negative feelings, and 3) exhibits negative behaviors toward the unjustly acting person; the degree to which the participant shows 4) positive thoughts and 5) positive feelings, and 6) exhibits positive behaviors toward the unjustly acting person. We are able to get a score for each participant. Science shows that when people go through forgiveness intervention programs, then their forgiveness scores on this scale tend to increase. People with high scores on this scale tend to show better mental and physical health than people who have very low scores on this forgiveness scale.

For additional information, see: Forgiveness Research.

Have you ever examined the effectiveness for group forgiveness therapy?  In other words, an intervener convenes a group of people all of whom share a common kind of injustice against them?  If so, does forgiveness within a group intervention work?

Yes, we have done research on forgiveness as a group intervention and we do get good statistical results.  The very first journal article ever written on a forgiveness intervention was in a group setting with elderly women who had been hurt in family situations (Hebl & Enright, 1993).  They became emotionally healthier as a result of this group effort.  Here is the reference to that work:

Hebl, J. H., & Enright, R. D. (1993).  Forgiveness as a psychotherapeutic goal with elderly females. Psychotherapy, 30, 658-667.

Other group efforts, as examples but not an exhaustive list, have included parentally love-deprived college students, people in residential drug rehabilitation, and men who have cardiac compromise:

Al-Mabuk, R., Enright, R. D., & Cardis, P. (1995).  Forgiveness education with parentally love-deprived college students.  Journal of Moral Education, 24, 427-444.

Lin, W.F., Mack, D., Enright, R.D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. (2004).  Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114-1121.

Waltman, M.A., Russell, D.C., Coyle, C.T., Enright, R.D., Holter, A.C., & Swoboda, C. (2009).  The effects of a forgiveness intervention on patients with coronary artery disease.  Psychology and Health, 24, 11-27.

We do tend to find that individual interventions (one intervener and one participant) produce stronger statistical results than group interventions on forgiveness.

“CE Course Bridges Gap Between Forgiveness Theory and Theology”

Editor’s Note: We asked a recent graduate of our Online Forgiveness Education Course to tell us about his experience with the Forgiveness Therapy” course. Here is the response from Randy Miota, Manager of Chaplaincy Services, Spectrum Health Lakeland, St. Joseph, MI, USA:

“This Forgiveness Therapy CE course has been one of the most challenging educational efforts I have been able to finish. ‘Finish’ in the sense that I completed the assignments. However, I refer back to the book and the chapter summaries when I run into situations that involve anger, and therefore (potentially) forgiveness.

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Lakeland Health integrated into Spectrum Health to become Spectrum Health Lakeland effective October 1, 2018.

“At first, I thought that I was most challenged by having to recall and remember the  counseling and psychological concepts and practices that we learn and integrate into healthcare chaplaincy. Then, I realized that this non-theological approach to understanding and practicing forgiveness necessarily has to address some basic theological concepts  – such as right and wrong, moral thought and action, and moral character that some will say points to the character of a transcendent God, etc.

“This course has also challenged me to face and to encourage others to face the painful interactional/social nature of how we live. Most of our hurts come from others, and facing that and trying to make that better takes work and courage. In other words, I hear so many people talk of having to forgive themselves for how they have failed themselves. I wonder if this is be a way of avoiding having to face the hurt, anger, and deep sadness that can be dealt with through courageous self-examination, confrontation with others, the willingness to risk disappointment and “non-closure,” and to keep growing and maturing.

Overall, as a healthcare chaplain and a clergy person, the Forgiveness Therapy course equips me to think about and to work with forgiveness in a practical way that bridges the gap between the theology and theory and the everyday need for many to start to do something more constructive with their anger.”

Forgiveness Therapy, the online CE Course,  is based on the book by the same title written by psychologist Dr. Robert Enright and  psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia, PA. The 15-lesson course was developed by Dr. Enright and DrElizabeth Gassin, Professor of Educational Psychology at Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais, IL. Although primarily designed for licensed psychologists, the course has also proven beneficial for ministers, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, and other professional counselors who have completed it.

The International Forgiveness Institute is approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists. The International Forgiveness Institute maintains responsibility for this program and its content.

Learn more at Forgiveness Therapy.