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.

I hang out with friends and a constant norm in our group is to express, and keep expressing, lots of anger. I see this as so much unnecessary anger. Please, what should I do? I ask because this constant expression of anger is wearing me down.

You might want to gently share one of your own stories of forgiveness when the group is in a quieter state. Showing forgiveness through your own story could be the beginning of teaching your friends about what forgiveness is and what it can accomplish. With this approach, you are not demanding forgiveness from them, but instead are giving them a chance to see it in action as you describe what you did and the effects of forgiveness on you. With this approach, you might be establishing a new norm, one of forgiveness, into the group.

For additional information, see: Choose Love, Not Hate.

In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you make a distinction between approaching the forgiveness process with “willingness” versus “willfulness.” You seem to favor “willingness.” Yet, to me “willfulness” shows me that I am in control of how I feel now, rather than my offender controlling me. Why do you discourage willfulness.”

I emphasize willingness over willfulness because we are not always in complete control of our emotions. For example, you cannot at this precise moment will yourself not to feel anger. You can distract yourself or engage in “self-talk” to reduce the anger, but you still are not in complete control of your emotions at a given time. Thus, I advocate being open to change, but not to grow discouraged if you still need to work on those emotions that need your attention, such as unhealthy anger or even hatred. Being willing to change is not the same as “willfulness.” The latter suggests that you can will a deliberate alteration now in your emotions. Willingness, on the other hand, while still focused on your free will to be rid of unhealthy emotions, does not expect instant change in these emotions.

For additional information, see:  Learning to Forgive Others.

I have challenged the importance of forgiveness in my previous questions. Thank you for your thoughtful replies. I have one final question for you regarding my skepticism about forgiveness. It seems to me that as I try to forgive, the other receives all of the “getting” and I, stupidly, do all of the “giving.” Am I correct in saying that there is no balance here?

Because forgiving is centered in the moral virtue of mercy, you, as a forgiver, do have an interest in alleviating the other’s pain or even misery, caused in part by the unfair behavior. Thus, you are right that in forgiving you are “giving.” Yet, here is where I think your reasoning has a fallacy. You are thinking in “either/or” terms. By this I mean that you seem to be reasoning this way: Either I forgive or I seek fairness, but I do not do both. Under this circumstance, yes, you are right, to forgive is to be a giver who may not get anything back. Yet, I would urge you to think in “both/and” ways. As you forgive, then seek justice. In this way, you are both giving and seeking to right a wrong, or get something back that is important to you and possibly to your relationship with the other person. This balances forgiving and justice and thus you are not “stupid” when you forgive.

For additional information, see: Forgiveness: An Offshoot of Love.

What Is the Difference: Our Forgiveness Proposals vs Social Justice Proposals for the Imprisoned?

Plato reminds us in The Republic that justice is giving people what is deserved.  This can include both rewards and punishments.  If Person A offers $100 to Person B for building a table, the receipt of the $100 by Person B upon the successful completion of the table is fair or just.  If Person C is guilty of a traffic violation and the rules of the city require any violator of this kind to be fined $100, then it is fair or just if Person C gives up $100.

Plato’s The Republic is a “Socratic dialogue” concerning justice, the just city-state, and the just man. Written in 380 BC, The Republic essentially consists of its main character—Socrates—discussing the meaning and nature of justice with his upper-class Athenian (Greek) friends. The central takeaway from The Republic, and the one that still resonates to this day, is that justice is desirable because of its consequences.
• Click the illustration to read The Republic.

Social justice, while not always defined in the same way by all advocates of this approach, basically centers on equality of outcome.  For example, suppose a pizza establishment will not deliver in a neighborhood in which there is high crime and two of their delivery people were killed trying to make deliveries there in the past year.

Because innocent people in that neighborhood are not treated the same as people in safer neighborhoods, this may be considered unjust by social justice standards.  Why?  It is because the innocent need an equal outcome, successful delivery of pizzas, compared to those in safer neighborhoods.  That the risk for the deliverers is not deserved is not an issue here.  For the classical sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve?  They deserve to be safe in terms of laws of probability for being safe.  For the new social sense of justice, what do the deliverers deserve?  Actually, the deliverers are not the focus now.  The focus is on those who have no equality of ordering pizzas.  There is a decided shift to one particular group and the emphasis on equality of outcome for them.

Now we are ready to show the difference between social justice for the imprisoned and forgiveness interventions for them.  In social justice and in forgiveness, we both might focus, for example, on the childhood of Person D, who was abused by his father and now Person D has abused three children, for which he is arrested.  Social justice, in focusing on his childhood, might have people see that Person D is not fully to blame for his actions, but instead his unfortunate background must mitigate the length of his sentence so that he is not unequally behind bars compared to others who were not abused and are not behind bars.  The quest in this particular case is to alter the sentence and thus the time served.

For our forgiveness program, as we, too, focus on Person D’s horrendously unjust childhood, we try to help Person D, if he chooses, to forgive his father for his deep injustices.  This process of forgiveness might reduce Person D’s rage and thus reduce his motivation to hurt others in the future.  We do not suggest that justice now be altered.  We focus on inner healing and not on altering the time he is to serve in prison.  Justice in its classical sense is served in the forgiveness programs, while that classical sense of justice is not served when social justice is considered, at least in the example given here.

There is a substantial difference between forgiveness as a rehabilitation strategy for those in prison and the call to alter the sentence in social justice.  If there is a call to reduce sentences without the concomitant attempt to eliminate rage, one has to wonder how just this solution is.  Perhaps it is time to fold forgiveness interventions into the quest for social justice so that these work together.  When a reduced sentence is going to occur, then it seems wise that the rage within first is reduced.

Robert

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.

Dr. Enright Shares Forgiveness News with Audiences Around the World

The man Time magazine called “the forgiveness trailblazer” because of his groundbreaking forgiveness research, has just returned from a five-week international speaking tour during which he provided specialized  forgiveness workshops and presentations to such diverse audiences as prison administrators and correctional facility innovators, cancer doctors and oncology specialists, and educational pioneers. 

Dr. Robert Enright

Dr. Robert Enright, forgiveness researcher and educator who co-founded the International Forgiveness Institute, travels globally twice per year to respond to at least a handful of the innumerable requests that flow into his office on an almost daily basis.

In addition to private meetings in some of the more than 30 countries where he has helped establish elementary and high school Forgiveness Education Programs in the past few years, his formal presentation schedule on this most-recent tour included stops at Ramat Gan, Israel; Bratislava, Slovakia; and Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Those presentations included:

  • “Forgiveness Therapy for The Imprisoned: From Practice to Research Outcomes” on January 9 during the Restorative Justice, Forgiveness, and Prisoners Conference at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel–a short distance from Tel Aviv.

  • “Forgiveness Therapy for Patients with Multiple Myeloma and Other Blood Cancers,” on Jan. 16 (World Cancer Day 2019) during the Sympozium Integrativna Onkologia at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava–the capital of the Slovak Republic.
  • “Forgiveness Education for Our Students” on Feb. 1 during the 12-day forgiveness-focused extravaganza in Belfast, Northern Ireland called the 4Corners Festival that ran from Jan. 30 through Feb. 10. The theme for the 2019 Festival was  “Scandalous Forgiveness.” Dr. Enright selected Belfast as the first city in which he would test his forgiveness education curriculum methodology. That was 17-years ago and the Program continues to this day.

Read More: