Apr 3, 2023

Dispelling Myths about Forgiveness & Exploring its Benefits with Suzanne Freedman & Loren Toussaint (podcast)

"Forgiveness is more than self help. When we forgive, we rediscover humanity, give up revenge, and revise feelings towards offenders." -Suzanne Freedman

By Templeton Staff

Forgiveness is a powerful act that can bring about healing and transformation in our lives. Even in small things, forgiveness has been found to positively impact mental and physical health. But what is forgiveness? How can it be measured and scientifically studied? How do we put it into practice? Is it possible to forgive the "unforgiveable"? 

Educational psychology professor Dr. Suzanne Freedman addresses these questions and clears up many societal misunderstandings surrounding forgiveness during this NPR podcast with Charity Nebbe. They're later joined by psychology professor Dr. Loren Toussaint. Freedman and Toussaint — both members of Templeton's Discover Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council — describe the benefits of interpersonal and self forgiveness, and share how each can be taught and practiced. They also touch briefly on what forgiveness can mean to society. 

Listen to the podcast in full here.

Key takeaways from the conversation:

What forgiveness is and isn't

Forgiveness involves letting go of resentment, anger, and bitterness towards ourselves and/or others for perceived wrongs or hurts.

Forgiveness is a process of releasing emotional burdens and freeing ourselves from the negative impact of past experiences. This paves the way for wellbeing. Not forgiving can lock us into an unhealthy state. It can get in the way of working towards goals and building relationships.

"Forgiveness is more than self help," says Freedman. When we forgive, "we rediscover humanity, give up revenge, and revise feelings towards offenders."

Acts that are usually categorized as unforgiveable, like murder, incest or hate crimes "have a lot to do with our misconceptions of forgiveness," says Freedman. "And I just want to go over those, especially that forgiveness is not forgetting. Once you forgive, you may not think about the hurt as often, but you don't ever truly forget what happened." Forgiveness is not for the benefit of the offender, she says. "Although it does benefit the offender, forgiveness is for the one who has been hurt. It also benefits people around the individual who was hurt and society in general."

Forgiveness includes feeling angry. Wanting to forgive is beginning of journey, but first, it's important to deal with immediate emotions, and express anger. Identifying and recognizing that you’ve been hurt, and that you didn’t deserve this to happen to you, are key steps. 

"When we forgive, we let go of anger. Anger is debilitating. Anger takes a toll on a person mentally, emotionally, physically. If you're carrying around anger for a long time, it's like you're wearing a weighted backpack. You may experience stress. You may not be able to sleep. You may have anxiety. You may have depression, and it's important to our health to find a way to release that anger. Forgiveness is one way to do that."

But it's not the only way. Freedman emphasizes that "forgiveness is a choice. I don't want anyone to feel that they are forced to forgive or they have to forgive when people feel expected to forgive." 

There's a distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. "Forgiveness not about condoning hurtful actions," says Freedman. "Forgiveness is often confused with reconciliation, but they are not the same. Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, but it doesn't have to."

Apologies don't have to be accepted, she says. It's alright to appreciate the apology but still take time to process emotions before reaching forgiveness.

It's possible to forgive without ever receiving an apology, or without the offender taking personal responsibility. The offender doesn’t always know the hurt they've inflicted, or can't or won’t admit it. Even in severe cases of abuse or incest, forgiveness can benefit the wronged party, and does not absolve or even need to involve the abuser.

Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive.

A brief summary of steps to forgive

The process of forgiveness typically involves several stages. It can take a long time to forgive. Freedman uses a 20 unit model she helped develop as a graduate student studying with Dr. Robert Enright. "When I worked with incest survivors for my dissertation, the average time it took an incest survivor to forgive was 14.3 months," she shares. The model has four different phases. Freedman breaks those down as follows:

1. First is "the uncovering phase, where we really examine the injury and what happened and help the person break down any psychological defenses that they're using to deal with their pain." Recognize that you've been hurt and express anger and other immediate emotions. Feel validated in your anger at this hurt. "Anger is not good or bad. It's what you do with it," says Freedman. Acceptance and absorption of the pain and dealing with the emotions that arise from a hurt is important. If the emotions are not addressed and processed, there's danger of taking out pain in harmful ways on others, or on yourself.

2. A decision phase comes next. Learn what forgiveness is and make a choice to commit to forgiving. This decision and commitment "don't mean [those who've been hurt] feel forgiving at that moment, but that they know they want to embark on the journey and process of forgiveness," explains Freedman.

3. The next step is a reframing. View the offender in context, and learn more about the offender if possible. "Do this not to make excuses, but to better understand how that hurt occurred. For example, with the incest survivors I worked with, some of them discovered that their abuser had also been abused as a child. Knowing that allowed them...not to make excuses for why this happened, but to better understand the complexities that that the perpetrator brings to this as well," says Freedman. Recognizing the offender's humanity and inherent value as a human being leads to empathy and compassion.

4. Next is a deepening phase. As a result of working through all the previous units, forgivers can experience a decrease in negative affect and thoughts towards the offender and their behavior. "We begin to realize we all have times where we needed to be forgiven too," Freedman says. "We don’t have to get into a relationship with the offender, or reconcile," Freedman reminds us. "But when we let go of anger, we let go of pain too. Maybe we gain a new perspective or purpose in life that you unblock by letting go. And perhaps over time, we may begin to feel more positively towards the offender and think more positive thoughts about them. Maybe we engage in a relationship with the offender. Maybe we don't. Maybe we wish them well. Maybe we hope that they can change their hurtful behavior. That can be considered forgiveness," says Freedman.

Health benefits of forgiving

Toussaint shares some of findings about forgiveness and health:

About self-forgiveness, he also notes research suggests "the effects of forgiving yourself are sometimes almost twice as much as the effects of forgiving others in terms of your health and wellbeing, and especially in terms of your mental health."

Forgiveness, growth, and society

One of the hopes that both Freedman and Toussaint have about how forgiveness can benefit society is growth.

Our society is often focused on punishment and consequences, rather than helping individuals says Toussaint. He says: "We need to learn and develop and recognize that we can have a role in helping individuals move beyond hurtful behavior. If it's just about canceling and and punishment, we see the person in one way, and and we don't recognize that they can move beyond that. But if we see that we can help individuals change, and acknowledge that people go through phases, and there is a reason sometimes, for people's hurtful behavior."

He and Freedman agree that looking at hurtful behavior in context could help both the individual who was hurt and the offender grow.

"When other people have hurt us, we have to trust that they're trying to grow and and improve themselves, to become the fullest version of themselves, thinking things through to move beyond mistakes," says Freedman.

Dr. Suzanne Freedman is a professor in the educational psychology department and Co-chair of the COE Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee at the University of Northern Iowa; and a member of the Templeton Discover Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council.

Dr. Loren Toussaint is a psychology professor at Luther College and Vice Chair of the Templeton Discover Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council.

Charity Nebbe is the host of Iowa Public Radio's Talk of Iowa Podcast.