Forgiveness is the Greatest Gift!

Suzanne Freedman

Brief Bio for Dr. Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D. 

Dr. Freedman is a Professor in the Educational Psychology department at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She 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 whom Time Magazine called “the forgiveness trailblazer.” Her dissertation was a landmark study that was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology on Forgiveness 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.

The “F Word” for Sexual Abuse Survivors: Is Forgiveness Possible?

Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D., University of Northern Iowa,

The idea of forgiveness for sexual abuse survivors is often met with surprise, skepticism, and even horror. However, past research with forgiveness illustrates that forgiveness education and/or forgiveness counseling can be healing for those who have experienced past sexual abuse. Freedman & Enright (1996) conducted an individual educational intervention using forgiveness as the goal with 12 incest survivors. Results illustrated that post intervention individuals were more forgiving toward their abusers, had decreased anxiety and depression and increased hope for the future as well as greater self-esteem compared to those who had not experienced the forgiveness education and themselves preintervention (see Freedman & Enright, 1996). Research with other populations who have experienced deep hurt also illustrates increased forgiveness as well as greater psychological well-being post intervention.

When discussing the topic of forgiveness for survivors of sexual abuse, it is important to be clear about what exactly is meant by forgiveness, specifically what forgiveness is and is not. Forgiveness is a complicated word that is oftentimes misunderstood by individuals in the general population as well as academics, helping professionals and religious leaders. This misunderstanding often leads to rejection of forgiveness as a way to heal. Religious leaders and professionals working with survivors who are struggling with forgiveness issues can help their clients by being familiar with the psychological perspective of forgiveness and what that means for survivors of sexual abuse. According to Enright (2001) and North (1987), forgiveness can be defined as “a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and sometimes even love toward him or her”.

Notice in the definition that one has a “right” to feel resentment because of the way she or he was injured and that the offender does not “deserve” our compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward an offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings and sometimes even behaviors toward an offender can occur.

Why Forgive? Many survivors of sexual abuse often ask, “Why do I need to forgive? Why do I need to do all the work? I didn’t do anything wrong.” Of course, this is true but when one forgives, they are personally benefiting by freeing themselves of anger, bitterness, and resentment. According to Phillip Moffitt ((2013), “resentment, whether cold fury or smoldering rage, hardens your emotions, narrows your options in responding to life, clouds your judgment, locks you out of experiencing the flow of life, shifts your attention from those who matter to you to those whom you disdain, and deadens your spirit”. Why would anyone choose this way of life? Dr. Robert Enright likes to say, “What’s the alternative?” when people ask, “Why forgive?” Forgiveness allows one to free themselves of negative feelings as well as find meaning in the worst of life’s event. It is also a selfless and compassionate act as one who forgives is helping to stop the cycle of revenge and hatred. Using a compassionate and generous heart to meet deep pain and hurt is one of the most difficult things to do. However, by doing so you are freeing yourself from the prison of anger and power the abuser has over you. You are also modeling a powerful way of responding to future generations. Forgiveness is very hard work but if you begin the journey you will realize that the benefits outweigh the costs. The points below illustrate how forgiveness is not the same as accepting or pardoning the sexual abuse, reconciliation, being weak, denying one’s anger or giving up, nor does it mean that justice cannot occur.

It is important to point out, especially to sexual abuse survivors that forgiveness does not mean that you deny or excuse the offender of the wrongdoing. As Smedes (1996) states, we forgive in contexts of deep, personal and unfair hurt. Sexual abuse and incest is one of the deepest hurts a person can experience and thus, may be one of the most difficult acts to forgive. When one forgives, she or he admits that the injury occurred; that one was hurt and recognizes that what was done to her or him was wrong and works through their feelings of anger, hurt and resentment. Admitting to the sexual abuse and working through one’s negative feelings is not easy. It is often easier to deny, ignore, or displace the pain and negative feelings resulting from one’s sexual abuse. Admitting to the abuse and dealing with one’s negative feelings is one of the first steps in the forgiveness journey.

what G-d can do

As stated above, forgiveness occurs in the context of deep, personal and unfair hurt. The injury might be psychological, emotional, physical or moral. We do not need to talk about forgiving minor hurts such as stepping on one’s toe accidentally or showing up a few minutes late. In the book, The Courage to Heal by Laura Davis and Ellen Bass (1990), the authors advise against forgiving one’s abuser. They state that the only person the survivor needs to forgive is herself. This doesn’t make sense to me. What deep, personal and unfair hurt did the survivor commit that she needs to forgive herself for? She may need to accept that her body responded in a certain way to a touch that is supposed to feel good or accept that she did not tell anyone about the abuse. Forgiveness of self might be appropriate if the survivor acted out his/her abuse on someone else but otherwise, it does not really make sense to talk about forgiveness of self in contexts of sexual abuse and incest. Doing so makes it seem like the survivor is guilty or to blame for the sexual abuse. The abuser is the one who committed a deep, personal and unfair hurt and forgiving one’s abuser can lead to healing for survivors of sexual abuse.

Anger about being sexually abused is a natural and normal feeling. Forgiveness is often criticized by those who do not recognize the role that anger has in the forgiveness process. Forgiveness does not involve “sweeping aside one’s rage” as stated by Arenofsky (2011). Individuals, who have been deeply hurt need to be validated for their anger, helped to express it in a safe way and then taught to move beyond it. One cannot forgive without expressing anger. Sexual abuse survivors may need help and encouragement in admitting and expressing their anger. The length and time one may remain angry varies. It is also the case that a bit of anger may remain even after one has forgiven. The anger is not as intense as before forgiving or as frequent but some may still be there when thinking about the injury. A decrease in anger is another one of the first steps in the forgiveness process. The important point is that anger is recognized, validated and worked through. Therapists and educators are in the position to help survivors recognize that anger is an important signal that something is wrong and teach them how to express their anger in a healthy way. One will not be able to forgive unless anger is recognized and expressed.

Forgiveness takes time. This is especially true in situations of deep hurt, such as sexual abuse and incest. Individuals who have experienced deep hurt are often encouraged to forgive right away and immediately by religious leaders. Robert Enright’s (2001) model of interpersonal forgiveness includes 20 units and four different phases and does not happen over night. One needs time to work through their negative feelings and anger. If forgiveness occurs too quickly, pseudo forgiveness may result. It took the twelve incest survivors in Freedman & Enright ‘s (1996) forgiveness intervention an average of 14.3 months to work through the complete forgiveness model. When forgiveness comes too early, the cycle of abuse stands to repeat itself and it is the forgiveness that is viewed as negative rather than the timing. We need to give sexual abuse survivors time to experience all their emotions and feelings related to the injury before expecting forgiveness to occur. One of the incest survivor’s in Freedman & Enright’s study (1996) remembers sitting in church and being told to forgive immediately. This was impossible for her and as a result she rejected the possibility of forgiveness.

8f032-hipster-839802_1280Forgiveness is a choice one makes for her or himself – It cannot and should not be forced upon anyone. An individual should only offer forgiveness as a deliberate, conscious, and meaningful choice. Even though there are religious teachings that say that we are obligated to forgive, the principal of free will remains. As Enright (2001) states, “No act, no matter how terrible, is unforgivable, but some people choose not to forgive. Respect for the rights of others requires that we respect that choice. We can educate others about what it means to forgive and the process of forgiveness but the choice to forgive is theirs alone”. Deciding to forgive is an individual decision that one makes after knowing what is involved in the process and being educated about what forgiveness is and is not. Thus, counselors, educators and religious leaders have the important positions of helping educate sexual abuse survivors about forgiveness and what it means to forgive.

Forgiveness does not mean Reconciliation. Some people criticize forgiveness because they think that advocating forgiveness leads to further abuse or hurt. Safety is the first and most important consideration. Thus, a survivor of sexual abuse would not be encouraged to forgive her/his abuser until she or he was safe and removed from the abusive environment. Forgiveness is one person’s response; reconciliation is a coming together by two people. For example, a woman can be abused by her spouse, leave him, forgive him but not reconcile with him. Forgiveness can include a willingness to reconcile or waiting in the hope that the abuser changes his or her behavior and/or apologizes. Reconciliation may result from forgiveness but forgiveness does not obligate one to continue the relationship. As Smedes (1996) states, reunion is sometimes impossible, reunion is sometimes harmful and reunion may be such a threat that it prevents a wounded person from forgiving. Thus, when we forgive, we are not inviting the person who hurt us to hurt us again. Forgiveness is something the injured can do on her or his own without any response from the abuser. Reconciliation is dependent on a change in the offender’s behavior and oftentimes an admittance of wrongdoing and/or an apology. As one survivor who was sexually abused by her brother states, “Forgiveness is something you do for yourself and does not necessarily mean that you condone what happened, nor does it mean that you have to talk to the person ever again. Becoming reunited is not one of the goals of forgiveness and I think those predisposed beliefs were part of what held me back for quite some time”.

Forgiveness can occur in the absence of an apology. If you don’t allow yourself to forgive until you receive an apology from your offender, you may be reinjuring yourself, in that you cannot let go of your anger and heal until you receive an apology or admittance of wrongdoing from your offender. Unfortunately, this does not often occur in situations of sexual abuse and incest. Of course, an apology or repentance from the offender does make forgiving easier, but it is not necessary.

Forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive. Forgiveness does not mean that we surrender our right to justice. An offender can be punished by the legal system and personally forgiven by the abuse survivor. With forgiveness we surrender our right to personal justice (revenge) but we don’t give up public justice. Revenge is personal satisfaction and justice is moral accounting.

Forgiveness does not mean Forgetting. It is not possible to forget a deep injury such as sexual abuse or incest. Forgiveness helps one remember in new ways. Although the injury most likely will never truly be forgotten, it may be thought of with less intensity and frequency. Forgiving does not mean that we want to forget what happened. With forgiving one makes a conscious decision to not let the horrible event and negative effects dominate one’s life. The Dali Lama states that to forgive, you need to remember what it is that you are forgiving.

As one survivor of interpersonal violence stated, “Even years later, there are days I have to consciously choose to live out forgiveness. There are opportunities for anger, malice and bitterness. Just recently when I was spending time with a group of women discussing the theme of forgiveness, one group member stated, “I think everyone deserves forgiveness.” I found myself thinking just the opposite. I don’t think that one deserves to be forgiven. But one deserves the opportunity to forgive.”

Research supports forgiveness education and therapy as an effective form of treatment for those who have endured deep hurts such as sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness leads to decreases in stress, anger, anxiety and depression (Enright, 2001). People who are able to forgive also are more hopeful, optimistic, and compassionate towards others. Forgiveness has physical heath benefits as well. Research illustrates decreased blood pressure, muscle tension and headaches in those who have forgiven. I wrote this blog to describe how forgiveness can be healing for individuals who have been deeply, personally and unfairly hurt by acts of sexual abuse and incest. Forgiveness is an individual choice, and as such, we need to offer that choice to survivors of sexual abuse by accurately informing them about what it means to forgive, including what forgiveness is and is not, as well as respecting and supporting them when they choose to forgive.

Article first published in 2014

For more information on how to go about forgiving and the benefits of forgiveness please check out the following resources:

Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, D.C. APA Life Tools.

Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington D.C., American Psychological Association.

Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, 64, 983-992.

Smedes, L. B. (1996). The art of forgiving. Nashville, TN: Moorings.

Malcom, W., DeCourville, N., & Belicki, K. (2007). Women’s reflections on the complexities of forgiveness. New York, New York: Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.


Arenofsky, J. (Summer, 2011). Swept up in forgiveness, Herizons.

Bass, E. & Davis, L. (1990). The Courage to Heal. New York: Harper and Row.

Enright, R.D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice. Washington, D.C. APA Life Tools.

Enright, R. D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive. An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington D.C., American Psychological Association.

Freedman, S. & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychology, 64, 983-992.

Moffitt, P. (2013). Forgiving the Unforgivable. Dharma Wisdom.

North, J. (1987). Wrongdoing and forgiveness. Philosophy, 62, 499-508.

Smedes, L. B. (1996). The art of forgiving. Nashville, TN: Moorings.

3 thoughts on “Forgiveness is the Greatest Gift! Leave a comment

  1. Hello Darlene,

    Hope you are well. very good article, you know Forgiveness is my specialty. This was definitely a good read, enjoyed it. Thank you and have a great day. 🤗

    On Thu, Jun 21, 2018 at 2:50 PM, And He Restoreth My Soul Project wrote:

    > queendjh posted: ” Brief Bio for Dr. Suzanne Freedman, Ph.D. Dr. > Freedman is a Professor in the Educational Psychology department at the > University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She earned her Bachelor > of Arts degree from the University of Delaware and ” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you liked the article, and I’m glad you sent a comment! about the article through the website. You have a wonderful day! Yes, I remember you telling me about your ministry of Forgiveness! Have a great day!


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