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.

How can I introduce forgiveness into my own family. I am a mother of three children, ages 6, 8, and 11.

We have forgiveness education curriculum guides here at the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. for children age 4 all the way up to adolescents ages 17 to 18. We help children and adolescents first understand forgiveness through stories, which are part of these curricula. You might consider once a week having a “Forgiveness Hour” in which you use the lessons from our curriculum guides. You also might consider even a 15 minute Family Forgiveness Forum once a week in which you discuss your own themes of forgiveness that week: How you are working on forgiving, what you are doing concretely to forgive, and how this is going for you.

For additional information, see: Forgiveness Makes Kids Happier.

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.

How to Gradually Introduce Kids to the Idea of Forgiveness — and Why You Should

Greater Good Magazine, University of California, Berkeley – “Because conflict is inevitable, teaching children about forgiveness early on. . .may indeed be a path toward building communities of people who prize and cultivate peace.”

The advice outlined in the paragraph above is provided by Maryam Abdullah, Ph.D., Parenting Program Director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a developmental psychologist with expertise in parent-child relationships and children’s development of prosocial behaviors.

Image courtesy of Greater Good Science Center

Ironically, Dr. Abdullah’s advice (published March 26, 2019) is what Dr. Robert Enright, forgiveness researcher and educator who co-founded the International Forgiveness Institute, has been telling parents, educators, and peace activists for nearly 20 years. 

In 2002, Dr. Enright established his first forgiveness education program at Ligoniel Primary School in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Belfast provided an obvious location for forgiveness education because of the  widely-known “Troubles” in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century that resulted in more than 3,600 deaths with thousands more injured during 30-years of conflict. That was 17-years ago; the Belfast program has flourished, expanded, and continues to this day.


Young kids can learn the building blocks of forgiveness and develop them as they get older.
Maryam Abdullah, Ph.D.,
Greater Good Science Center


In her Greater Good article, Dr. Abdullah outlines some of the benefits that forgiveness programs offer kids “ranging from more empathy and hope to less anger, hostility, aggression, anxiety and depression. After learning forgiveness, some children even perform better at school, have fewer conduct problems and delinquency, and feel more positive about their parents and teachers.”

Dr. Abdullah also describes, based on Dr. Enright’s insights from three decades of researching  and implementing forgiveness programs, how parents can set the stage for forgiveness in their very young children and start building their forgiveness skills as they become young adults:

“Ages 4-5. Before introducing young children to the subtleties of forgiveness, you can first introduce them to the concept of love—caring for the other for the sake of the other. For example, you can do this by reading picture books to your children in which there are loving family interactions.

Ages 6-7. Starting at about age 6, children have the capacity for what Jean Piaget called concrete operational reasoning, meaning that they now can understand the causes and effects of people’s actions. Because of this advance in reasoning in young children, you now can begin to introduce forgiveness systematically.”

The article continues with five very specific and sequential steps parents can take over several years to help young children become rather sophisticated in their understanding and practice of forgiveness before moving on to other age-appropriate forgiveness skills.

The bottom line for parents, as Dr. Enright has been saying for the past 17 years,  is that you can help your kids grow up to be more peaceful and forgiving adults which will make our families, our communities and our societies more peaceful and forgiving.

Read the complete article: How to Gradually Introduce Kids to the Idea of Forgiveness.

Read more GGSC articles:
 Why Kids Need to Learn How to Forgive.
⋅  8 Keys to Forgiveness


Greater Good Magazine is published by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC). Since 2001, the GGSC has been at the fore of a new scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior–the science of a meaningful life. Dr. Abdullah’s role at the GGSC is to support organizations providing parenting education and to share the latest parenting science findings on the Greater Good website.

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.

Man Forgives New Zealand Mosque Shooter Who Killed His Wife

Metro.co.uk; London, England, UK – Fifty people were killed and another 50 wounded when three gunmen entered two different mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch and opened fire on March 15. Three days later, a disabled man who lost his wife in the horrific mass shooting, insisted that he holds no ill feelings towards the killers and that he has forgiven the man responsible for his wife’s death.

“I lost my wife, but I don’t hate the killer,”59-year-old Farid Ahmed declared, referring to the Australian man arrested and charged with murder after the rampage. “As a person, I love him. I cannot support what he did. But I think somewhere along in his life, maybe he was hurt. But he could not translate that hurt into a positive manner.”

Farid’s wife, Husna, 44, died a hero after helping worshippers escape from the mosque and then being shot in the back when she returned to help her husband who is wheelchair-bound. Farid is a leader at the Mosque where Husna taught childrens’ classes.

When asked by a news reporter how he felt about the person who killed his wife, Ahmed said. “I love that person because he is a human, a brother of mine. Maybe he was hurt, maybe something happened to him in his life … but the bottom line is, he is a brother of mine. I have forgiven him, and I am sure if my wife was alive she would have done the same thing.” 

“I don’t have any grudge against him,” Ahmed added. “I have forgiven him, and I am praying for him that God will guide him.”


Comments praising Farid Ahmed for his grace and courage have been pouring in on Facebook and other social media outlets:

“Wow, you are inspiring sir, we need more people in this world like you,
The power of forgiveness is more powerful than hatred.”


The Christchurch mosque shootings were actually two consecutive terrorist attacks at mosques in New Zealand’s largest city. The attacks began at the Masjid Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton at1:40 pm and continued at the Linwood Islamic Centre 15 minutes later. Nine of those shot are still hospitalized in critical condition, including a four-year-old girl.

Candles arranged in a heart shape, at Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens, burn for victims of the mosque shootings. Image: The Globe and Mail

The attacks, launched during Friday Prayers when both mosques were packed,  were livestreamed via a camera strapped to the perpetrator. Horrific images of bloodshed and people desperately trying to evade the gunman were copied and shared on social media sites including YouTube. Facebook  has said it removed 1.5m videos of the attack in the first 24 hours.

Thousands of people gathered in Christchurch last Sunday to listen to prayers, songs and speeches at a vigil to remember the 50 people killed in the terrorist attacks. City officials estimated that 40,000 people attended.

Read the entire story: Extraordinary forgiveness of man whose wife was killed in New Zealand mosque terror attack.

Additional News Coverage: ‘I am Praying for Him’: Muslim Man Who Lost His Wife in Christchurch Shooting Forgives Murderous Attacker.

Watch Time magazine’s video news coverage of the vigil, survivor interviews, and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s call for a ban on semi-automatic rifles in New Zealand.

You keep calling forgiveness a “moral virtue” and then automatically conclude that it is good. I don’t see it that way. To me, forgiveness is an evolved biological survival mechanism to keep people from killing each other. In other words, your calling forgiveness a “moral virtue” is a cognitive illusion to make it sound more special than it actually is. If you see it as a biological advance along the evolutionary continuum, it seems then to reduce the high value you place on it. What do you think?

Let us suppose for a moment that you are correct. Even if you are correct, this does not mean that people **automatically** forgive as if this is some kind of an instinct. People still have to:

  • cognitively understand that to forgive is to be good to those who are not good to them;
  • decide to appropriate forgiveness, making it a choice, not an automatic response;
  • struggle to forgive. It takes effort and even some pain to be good in this context;
  • understand that there are no guarantees from the other that reconciliation will occur and occur well.

Do you see that to forgive still is something that is slowly formed within a person as good, comes out as a heroic choice, moves forward as kindness toward others, and is done even if it will not lead to others stopping their destructive behavior? If you see this, then what words other than “moral virtue” would you use? If this only is an evolved biological mechanism, then why do so many people not understand what forgiveness is and refuse to forgive? It seems to me that if forgiving were an evolved biological action, then we would see more people engaging in it and without such a struggle to complete it well.

For additional information, see: What is Forgiveness?