Illuminating Forgiveness: Opportunities to Learn and Reflect - Part 2
Discover Forgiveness is a joint initiative of the Templeton World Charity Foundation (TWCF) and the John Templeton Foundation (JTF), supported by a Forgiveness Scientific Advisory Council. This council includes representatives from around the world with interdisciplinary expertise in the science of forgiveness and related fields. With the goal of sharing how forgiveness science is interwoven across cultures, contexts, geographies, and traditions, the council has carefully curated the Discover Forgiveness library to make forgiveness research accessible and actionable for people and institutions around the world. In this series of articles, council members offer insight into select pieces of research from the Discover Forgiveness collection.
Part 1 of this piece explores the idea of defining forgiveness and why it’s important to spread awareness about what forgiveness means and contexts appropriate for forgiveness. One of the most popular models of forgiveness was developed by Enright & the Human Development Study Group (1991). They developed a four-phase process model of forgiveness that initially included 17 guideposts, and was later expanded to 20 (Enright, 2001). This model of forgiveness was developed from an exhaustive review of literature at the time and has since been used in multiple research studies examining the effectiveness of forgiveness with different populations and cultures.
Uncovering One’s Anger - First Phase
Forgiveness includes the courage to face and acknowledge one’s hurt, as well as feel the emotions related to the hurt. Forgiveness does not mean that we deny or excuse the offender of wrongdoing or deny or ignore one’s feelings of pain. As Joanna North explains in her article, Wrongdoing and Forgiveness, forgiveness requires a recognition of the wrongdoer’s responsibility for his action. According to Robert C. Roberts (1995), “Forgiveness is virtuous because one’s anger is given up without abandoning correct judgment about the severity of the offense and the culpability of the offender” (p. 289). In fact, the first phase of Enright et.al’s (1991) four-phase and 20-unit process model involves Uncovering One’s Anger. This phase includes recognizing and naming one’s anger and other feelings, identifying the cause of one’s anger and hurt, and expressing these emotions 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. Anger and resentment are absolutely justified if someone experiences a deep, personal, and unfair hurt, meaning they were wronged, and not just hurt (Smedes, 1996). Examples include one’s partner having an affair, an employer being passed up for a well-deserved promotion, a good friend spreading rumors about another, or a child being abused by a parent. Thus, despite frequent 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, 2015).
Forgiveness takes strength and courage because it requires the injured individual to acknowledge and sit with one’s anger, pain, and uncomfortable feelings, as well as explore and release these emotions (Freedman & Chang, 2010). As Maria Shriver states in her Sunday Paper, “I’ve learned in my lifetime that trying to outrun pain is fruitless. It always, always catches up to you. Trying to numb it also doesn’t work” (February 27, 2022). Although we work through our anger, some may remain even after one forgives. It is normal and natural to feel some anger when remembering one’s hurt. However, the anger experienced will most likely be short-lived and not as intense after forgiving. As an incest survivor in Freedman & Enright’s (1996) study reported post-intervention, “And, so now I choose to be angry at times, whereas before it was almost as if the anger was holding me. And now I can choose to get rid of the anger if I want to. Learning to forgive my father has told me that I can control my emotions, that I can hold onto a feeling and make it my own.” (interview transcript, 1996).
Deciding to Forgive
Deciding to forgive is the second phase in Enright’s (2001) model. Worthington discusses how decisional forgiveness comes before emotional forgiveness (Worthington, 2020). Although one can be educated and encouraged to forgive, it is always the injured’s choice whether they choose to forgive and to begin when they are ready. Knowing that the decision to forgive can be made, even if one does not feel forgiveness at the time is important. One makes the decision to forgive with an accurate understanding of what forgiveness means and the process involved in forgiveness. The emotional components of forgiveness will develop as one works through the process of forgiveness (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015; Worthington, 2020). A commitment to forgiving communicates to the individual that they’re in the process of change and offers hope that healing is possible. As North (1987) emphasizes, victims must be willing to put in the work and effort that forgiveness requires. Messages from society paint forgiveness to be a quick and easy process, like thinking, if I say the words, “I forgive you” out loud, I have forgiven and am healed.
Although it can be too early to forgive, it is never too late to forgive.
In the context of a deep hurt, such as child abuse, forgiveness requires more than just saying the words. Incest survivors who participated in a forgiveness education research project, met individually with the forgiveness educator, for an average of 14.3 months (Freedman & Enright, 1996). 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 (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015).
The Work Phase
The third phase in the process model is the Work Phase and involves coming to a place where one realizes the offender’s humanity and worth as a human being and begins to reframe and explore the context of the offense and offender’s history. This act of reframing leads to feelings of empathy and compassion for the offender as discussed by Witvliet, DeYoung, Hofelich & DeYoung (2011). 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 (Freedman & Chang, 2010). Forgiveness is not excusing, condoning, saying that what happened was okay, or mutually exclusive with justice (Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015). Forgiveness is saying, I see my offender’s humanity, and believe they are more than their hurtful act.
As reported by a participant in Freedman & Enright’s (1996) forgiveness intervention study with incest survivors, “Reframing allowed me to see my father as not just an individual who committed an act against me, but someone who most likely grew up in an incestuous family himself, and I saw him as part of a bigger picture and realized that not all the blame lay with him, that in many ways, he was a victim, too. Which is not to absolve him, and forgiveness is not saying it’s okay what he did, and I wasn’t really hurt by it. It’s not that at all. I'm angry at what he did and still have very horrifying images. But I am angry at what he did and not at him anymore, and that’s a big difference” (Interview transcript, 1996).
The Deepening Phase
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 often lead to an increase in positive feelings and thoughts toward the offender, as well as feelings of increased peace and freedom (Enright, 2001). If one forgives in the context of an ongoing relationship, forgiveness may be communicated or illustrated in some way. However, in situations where the injured is not in relationship with the offender any longer or never was in relationship with the offender, it may not be possible, or one may choose not to communicate their forgiveness to the offender (Smedes, 1996). This is especially true in situations where the offender may deny the injury, blame the injured for what happened, or confuse forgiveness with condoning. It is also the case that if one is in an ongoing relationship with a family member who is continuously hurtful and does not acknowledge their hurtful behavior, the offended may have to forgive each time they experience an injury from this person.
Benefits of Forgiveness
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 leading to increased physical and mental well-being (Waltman, Russell, Coyle, Enright, Holter, & Swoboda, 2009). Research shows that forgiveness is an effective way of restoring both psychological and physical health following deep, personal, and unfair hurt (Crowley & Allred, 2020; Freedman & Zarifkar, 2015). Specifically, forgiveness is associated with decreases in depression, anxiety, and anger and increases in hope and self-esteem, and improved relationships (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000; Freedman & Enright, 1996; Cao, van der Wal, & Taris, 2021). Physical health benefits of forgiving include decreased stress response and improved heart functioning (Waltman et al., 2009; Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander Laan, 2001). According to one abuse survivor in Freedman & Enright’s (1996) study, “Forgiveness is the only path to freedom”.
As stated by another incest survivor from Freedman & Enright’s (1996) study 10 years post intervention, “There is not a day that goes by where I don’t think about how much my participation in your group changed my life and my attitude. Forgiveness is not just an act – it’s a way of life. My strongest beliefs are not necessarily religious ones, but ones rooted in Mother Theresa’s idea that 'we cannot hate someone whose story we know.' Part of what I learned was that opening myself more about what may have happened to my father in his own childhood made it possible for me to understand that he, too, may have been a victim of abuse” (Personal Communication, 1996).
A student in my interpersonal forgiveness class shared the following about forgiveness, “Another insight that I took away from these readings was the power you give to yourself when you choose to forgive. This concept is counterintuitive since I grew up believing that the power was held by the one who showed the anger. Those who hold resentment are typically only hurting themselves. Forgiving does not mean you are giving up power. By forgiving, you can emPOWER yourself to move forward from the anger and resentment to be a better version of yourself” (Personal Communication, March 2022).
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 all-consuming 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.
In Part 1 of this piece, we look at common misconceptions surrounding forgiveness, discovering what forgiveness means, and the contexts in which forgiveness is appropriate.
Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D is a Professor of Human Development in the Educational Psychology, Foundations, and Leadership Studies department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She was the recipient of the APA Dissertation Award in 1993 for her groundbreaking research on forgiveness and incest survivors, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. She has been studying the topic of forgiveness for over 30 years and her publications focus on the psychology of interpersonal forgiveness and forgiveness education with children, adolescents, and adults. Suzanne Freedman also teaches a class on The Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness at UNI and is the recent author of the curriculum, The Courage to Forgive: Educating Elementary School Children About Forgiveness.
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