Unpacking Forgiveness


NT: Professional and lay counsellors who advocate forgiveness as a part of the therapeutic healing process encourage their clients to use it to put behind them the hurt and injury and move beyond the role of the injured victim. But that seems to suggest that forgiveness is an act of will, a cognitive choice that the aggrieved party makes. Do you think that forgiveness is principally a matter of simply choosing to forgive or are there other essential parts to it, such as an affective process or some level of insight that is required to make the forgiveness complete?


REThumbnail1aRobert Enright: There is one fundamental issue that must be clear if therapists will do forgiveness therapy in an accurate way: The client is deliberately practicing the moral virtue of forgiveness. The virtue-ethics tradition in philosophy has its roots in classical Aristotelian ethics and in the more modern approach of Kant, who saw virtue as goodness cultivated internally for the good of people and society.

Forgiveness is not a technique, but a way of seeing, feeling, thinking, acting, and being in relationship to others in this world. This is little understood and therefore forgiveness therapy may be little understood. To forgive from the framework of virtue-ethics is to: be motivated to do good, understand what goodness in its moral sense is, cultivate the affective quality of compassion, be willing to develop the capacity of goodness through hard work and practice, and offer that goodness to others, especially someone who was hurtfully unjust to the client. As you can see, to simply “put behind them the hurt and injury and move beyond” is a distortion of what forgiveness is.

Our Process Model of forgiveness is described in detail in my book for clients and the general public, Forgiveness Is a Choice. The model includes helping the client gain insight into what forgiveness is, make a decision to forgive, and engage in perspective-taking exercises to understand the one who acted unjustly. All of these are cognitive processes. In addition, the client is asked to work on feelings of both empathy and compassion toward the offender and to accept the pain of what happened (because the client cannot literally go back in time and reverse the unjust act).

Acceptance of pain is a temporary issue because, as a person bears the pain of unjust treatment from others and forgives, the pain begins to lessen. The client also works on new meaning to what is suffered and on new purposes in his or her life, a behavioral challenge. There is more to the model than this brief sketch, but I mention these issues to show that forgiveness cannot be reduced to cognitive processes alone or to an act of the will alone.


EWThumbnail1aEverett Worthington: We have found that there are actually TWO types of forgiveness. They are often but not always related. Importantly, they are not two halves of complete forgiveness, but they are two different types. One is decisional forgiveness. This is a decision to behave differently toward the person. It is a behavioral intention, not actual behavior. The actual behavior might never be carried out because the offender dies before we see him or her or moves away or hurts us again. However, there is a second type of forgiveness-a (usually) slower to develop type. It is called emotional forgiveness. Emotional forgiveness is the emotional replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive, other-oriented emotions. What “full” emotional forgiveness is differs with situation. For strangers or people with whom we do not want to continue to interact, full emotional forgiveness is the elimination of negative emotion. For valued ongoing relationships, it involves eliminating the negative and moving on to a net positive emotion.


SLThumbnail1aSharon Lamb: Many of the models that include forgiveness ask the client to experience their anger and not try to do away with it immediately. I think this is an important step and I’ve always wondered if the effectiveness research on forgiveness therapy is ever going to look to see if that step is the component that actually predicts success. That is, does forgiveness therapy work simply because it helps people with anger. And then, would any comparable therapy that dealt directly with the anger be as effective? I don’t think that clients can forgive meaningfully unless they have worked with and understand their anger. Far too often, in my experience, people want to forgive because their anger is too painful to live with. And yet that anger needs to be explored. With regard to the victim role, I have written about how our culture wants to see victims as victims-for-life and that the victim role is a demeaned position that victims seek to avoid because it involves self-blame, pity, and a passive position. If we could find a way to see victims differently in our cultures, they might not need mechanisms by which they can throw off their “victim status.”


CRThumbnail1aCynthia Ransley: The notion of making a decision to forgive is fraught with difficulties—the potential for premature forgiveness, the person feeling they “ought” to forgive typically for religious or cultural reasons. Can we simply decide to forgive and that’s that? I appreciated the comment from one respondent in my research, ‘I may have forgiven him but I’ve marked his card. He won’t do that to me again!’ Fundamental to the cognitive model is developing empathy for the aggressor. I believe that after a traumatic wrong or injustice, it is the individual who has the need for empathy if they are to face the grief and injustice. Behind bitterness and anger is frequently sadness and despair and there is a potential to miss this. My model reflects the individual’s oscillation between the injustice and the rest of life, the focus on justice or revenge and experiencing loss and emptiness. The process of letting go, which may involve forgiveness, is more akin to weaving a tapestry back and forth where the loss or wrong doing begins to lessen in significance or becomes part rather than all of life.



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